"Tsunami" in Turkish politics. Is this the end of AKP rule?

Photo. E. Imamoglu/ X

The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power in Türkiye since 2002 under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for the first time in over two decades is facing the risk of slow collapse. Local elections held on March 31 this year are called „tsunami” by observers of the local political arena because no one expected such a large victory of the opposition Republican People’s Party. Although the loss of Istanbul, the cradle of President Erdoğan’s political career, was highly anticipated, it was not expected to lose other regions, especially those that were previously considered its ruling party’s strongholds.

Although Erdoğan himself will continue in office for another four years, unless he is forced to resign earlier for reasons beyond his control, this year’s elections were largely seen as a test of whether the AK Party would be able to regain public support, especially in the cities lost in the local elections in 2019.

Photo. N.A. Potera/Defence24

What determined the opposition's victory?

After the presidential elections last May, it seemed that the opposition, reluctant to accept its failures, became embroiled in internal political conflicts and disputes over leadership, which led to the eventual collapse of the „Table of Six” coalition. Nevertheless, the defeat did not weaken the will for change among the main actors of the Republican People’s Party. First, they began to look for the reasons for their failure. For this purpose, a website was launched through which citizens could express their opinion on the proposed changes in the Republican People’s Party.


”Invitation to change: We are waiting for your participation in the process of change in CHP, change in Türkiye, change for the government, and your opinions and suggestions” –  İmamoğlu wrote on his social media account.

Since the website was launched, it has been visited by over 600,000 people, leaving over 90,000 comments full of suggestions and comments. Taking into account the reach of the message and the public’s response, it was necessary to cooperate with 30 academicians who analyzed the responses and further systematized them. Their task was primarily to identify the most common suggestions addressed to CHP politicians. In this way, several main „problems” that local political decision-makers had to deal with were identified. First of all, they demanded:

-         Removal of Kılıçdaroğlu as chairman of the CHP party

-         Keeping Istanbul in the hands of the opposition (in the context of the 2024 local elections)

-         Bringing more young people and women into politics

-         Finding a solution to the „Istanbul Canal” issue…


The issue of party leadership was addressed in the first place. According to Necati Özkan, political consultant and campaign manager of Ekrem Imamoğlu in the 2019 and 2024 Istanbul mayoral elections, this change is significant and noteworthy because never before in the history of the Republic of Türkiye has there been a situation in which a chairman voluntarily stepped down as party leader. Conventionally, these people held their positions until their death, or until the party was dissolved. It is worth noting here that Erdoğan took such a step in 2014, but it was only as a result of the constitutional requirement that prohibited holding the functions of president and party chairman at the same time (in 2017, thanks to the changes introduced, he returned to his previous position). Given the above, Kılıçdaroğlu’s removal was a significant change to the previously held pattern.

Many people expected that İmamoğlu would take over as chairman, but the mayor of Istanbul, who undoubtedly wants to move away from the presidential system, seems to be in favor of restoring the previously applicable rules. Thus, an agreement was reached with Özgür Özel, who, thanks to the support of, among others, İmamoğlu took over as party leader. However, the change did not only concern the management staff. As expected, more young people and women were introduced to the party, which was noticed, for example, by the nominations for mayoral positions in the last local elections. Preference was also given to candidates aged 42–50 who had adequate political experience and education enabling them to perform their duties with dignity. CHP, previously rather closer to the political center, under the leadership of the new staff slightly changed its program, thus becoming a more left-wing party, which was supposed to be a response to social changes in Türkiye itself.

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The last request to be granted was to hold Istanbul. What seems interesting is that the voices calling for victory in Istanbul were heard not only in the metropolis itself, but also in other regions of Türkiye. Istanbul, which is the true cultural heart of the country, is a symbol of the ongoing changes and trends in the entire Turkish society. President Erdoğan himself has repeatedly said that „whoever conquers Istanbul will conquer all of Türkiye”, which was later also conveyed by other politicians. It is possible that this will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Although İmamoğlu has so far avoided commenting on his readiness to run in the presidential elections scheduled for 2028, it does not seem that the position of the opposition candidate could be taken by anyone else. It is very possible that this issue was deliberately avoided before the local elections in order not to discourage voters who, knowing about their candidate’s future aspirations, could accuse him of plans to „abandon” the city he promised to defend. An even greater loss would be losing to the AKP candidate – no matter who he is. Türkiye has this feature that those who lose any of the clashes are effectively erased from the political arena. Although the exception is Kılıçdaroğlu, who lost every possible election to Erdoğan, it does not seem that he is the best example of departing from the prevailing practice there. Although the elections in Istanbul took place only two weeks ago, the lack of interest in Murat Kurum, the main rival of the current mayor, is already visible. Turks do not like losers and would rather forget about them than pity them.

Legality of elections

Even though the opposition questioned the legality of the elections before citizens went to the polls, it seems that there were no major violations during the casting of votes. Eventual discrepancies may have occurred during the process of counting „uncertain” votes, i.e. those whose correctness could be questioned due to the stamp extending beyond the marked area or a blank ballot card. However, it is impossible to assume in advance whether such a situation occurred, especially in the absence of evidence. Moreover, volunteers supporting different parties were involved in the vote counting process and the overall conduct of the election, and therefore the risk of intentional irregularities may have occurred on both sides.


However, it is worth paying more attention to the post-election situation, especially in areas where the results were questioned. The Chairman of the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) Ahmet Yener informed that throughout the country AKP submitted 2 objections, CHP - 1, MHP - 1, DEM - 2. The applications were accepted, therefore on June 2 this year. elections will be held again in the constituencies of Pinarbasi in Kayseri, Hilvan in Sanliurfa, as well as in the city of Edirne and the constituency of Sivas. However, the most emotional issue was the case of the metropolitan municipality of Van, where the AKP demanded the removal of the winning candidate of the DEM party, Abdullah Zeydan, citing non-compliance with legal regulations. However, the case ended in favor of the candidate of the pro-Kurdish party.

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In the context of Istanbul, immediately after the announcement of the election results on March 31 this year, both the AKP and the CHP argued for victory in districts where the vote difference was small. For example, in Gaziosmanpaşa, CHP candidate Hakan Bahçetepe won first place with 40.45% of the votes. Hasan Tahsin Usta, the outgoing mayor and AKP candidate, received 40.12 percent of the votes. Ultimately, the CHP won the election by 848 votes. In another case, the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) rejected the request of the district electoral commission in the Beykoz district to recount the votes. CHP candidate Alaattin Köseler thus obtained his registration certificate without further delay. The same decision was made in the city of Ardahan, which shows that despite various speculations, YSK still maintains control over the proper conduct of the elections. There was no violence or protests on Sunday evening as opposition supporters celebrated their victory across the country. Erdoğan, as well as the candidates who lost this year’s elections, humbly admitted defeat, congratulating the opposition on their victory.

What determined the election result?

1.     The functioning of the AKP is based on the strength of its leader, not on individual candidates

It may seem that since the last local elections in 2019, Erdoğan has not introduced any significant changes to attract voters to other AKP politicians. The functioning of the party can certainly be described as centralized, focused on the power and influence of one leader who - at least for today - does not seem to be ready to introduce real changes within the party.

While in Ankara Mansur Yavas (mainly through outreach efforts) managed to dramatically increase support for his candidacy in the poorer districts surrounding Ankara, Ekrem Imamoglu attracted voters in the suburbs of Istanbul with his social programs. On the other hand, the strategy of AKP candidates is always based on citizens« sympathy towards the party leader, on whom the entire electoral campaign is focused. This was noticed especially in Istanbul, which Erdoğan visited many times in the pre-election period.

It is worth asking whether there are any strong, ambitious politicians in the AKP’s ranks ready to take over from Erdoğan. It is possible that some AKP voters simply cannot imagine the party functioning without its current leader. With the politician’s declaration of his plans to leave the Turkish political arena (at least in the context of his position as president), some of his supporters may have lost their motivating factor.

2.     Galloping inflation

Erdoğan’s current strategy, unlike the policy pursued before winning the 2023 presidential elections, is based on orthodox monetary policy with high interest rates. The politician also imposed a number of new assumptions of the austerity policy, which have not brought much success so far.

It may therefore seem that the main factor determining the defeat was the progressive inflation and the general decline in the standard of living of the Turks themselves, including, above all, retirees who constituted the core of the AK electorate. The problems they face are real, but the government’s aid measures have proven to be insufficient. About 16 million pensioners earn incomes 40% lower than the current minimum wage. Additionally, despite the introduction of another economic program that aims to stabilize the economy by 2026, small enterprises are suffering and losing money due to the lack of credit facilities, lack of liquidity and intensifying tax audits, while large companies, often cooperating with the government, benefit from numerous tax exemptions and incentives.

Considering the above, it can be said that the previous sympathies and belief in the legend of world power gave way to the realities of everyday life, which pushed people to express dissatisfaction and disappointment with the current governments.

At this point, it is also worth pointing out the reasons for the constantly deteriorating economic situation in Türkiye, the sources of which should not be seen only in the decisions of the government itself or destabilization activities from abroad. Turks currently seem to distrust the current economic strategy and therefore prefer to keep their money abroad. This leads to the phenomenon of currency exports outside Türkiye, which further fuels inflation. As N. Özkan emphasizes, this situation will most likely change after the opposition takes power, which, in his opinion, currently enjoys greater public trust than the AKP government.

3.     Ignoring the electorate of other parties

The lack of a larger alliance in this year’s elections could also have resulted in the stratification of the conservative electorate. In this context, it is worth mentioning the New Prosperity Party (YRP), which unexpectedly became the third party in the country in terms of support, gaining 6 percent of the votes. It achieved such a good result thanks to, among others, its election manifesto, in which it blamed the government for the economic problems and the failure to adopt a firmer stance towards Israel over its actions in the Gaza Strip.

The party also expressed disappointment with pensions, criticized the LGBTQ rights movement and the unresolved issue of stray dogs, which gained some sympathy from AKP voters.


4.     The Kurds abandoned their party in favor of the CHP candidate

Just before the elections, attempts were made to predict how Kurdish voters would vote. It is worth mentioning that they were the ones who largely contributed to İmamoğlu’s victory in 2019. Given the lack of a coalition during this year’s elections and the fact that the pro-Kurdish Peoples« Equality and Democracy Party (DEM) nominated its candidate, there were fears that a certain part of the electorate who voted for the CHP in 2019 would now side with another politician. The threat of losing their support would be a big challenge, especially considering that the party won over 8 percent of the votes in Istanbul in the May 2023 parliamentary elections. To the surprise of many observers, DEM won only 2 percent of the votes in the metropolitan local elections. İmamoğlu managed to convince pro-Kurdish voters that his success in Istanbul would be more important than increasing the percentage result of the pro-Kurdish party, which had no chance of winning anyway. Taking into account the election results, it seems that the Kurds turned out to be pragmatic in their choice, following the principle of „choosing the lesser evil”.

5.     It is easier to hold a position than to take it away

With Ekrem İmamoğlu taking over as mayor of Istanbul in 2019, the media coverage of opposition groups and the financial resources allocated to their election campaigns also increased. Moreover, the current mayor’s candidacy was supported by a number of projects that he managed to implement in recent years. Opposition candidates, however, could only rely on projects that they would like to implement once they take up office. In this context, the „Istanbul Canal” project was important, the construction of which is strongly opposed by the current mayor, citing environmental protection and the quality of life of the city’s inhabitants.

6.     Lowest turnout since 2004

Türkiye can boast above-average voter turnout, regardless of the nature and level of the elections, and each of them arouses great emotions in the country. Nevertheless, compared to previous elections, including the 2023 presidential election, when the turnout was 87%, this time Turkish voters often decided to stay at home. To a large extent, these were AKP voters who wanted to punish their party for the current economic situation, but nevertheless decided not to support other candidates. This, in turn, resulted in the lowest turnout since 2004, amounting to only 76%.

What changes should be expected in Türkiye?

Although the wind of change that has reached Türkiye this year cannot be ignored, general conclusions on a nationwide scale will have to wait for several more years. Although there are 4 years left until the presidential elections, both the ruling party and the opposition must now create an appropriate and, above all, heart-winning strategy of action. However, the issue that raises the most questions is the possible succession of Erdoğan as leader of the state and its main political party. Despite the fact that there are still more and more new speculations regarding plans to extend his term of office, it does not seem that this ambitious politician has enough strength to continue leading the country as president. However, it is possible that he will remain in the position of party chairman, thus maintaining direct influence over his successor.