The mis-steps behind Erdoğan’s electoral defeat

Striding across the stage with shirtsleeves rolled up, Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu was received like a rock star at his re-election rally on Sunday. Revellers lit the sky with flares, dancing and singing as car horns pierced the city’s air late into the night.

Meanwhile in Ankara, a sombre Recep Tayyip Erdoğan delivered a speech that was considered almost unthinkable from Turkey’s strongman leader: conceding defeat in an election.

Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) failed not just to topple İmamoğlu, the opposition’s most important politician, but also faltered in races up and down the country, including losing contests in Turkey’s five biggest cities.

It marked the first-ever defeat in nationwide vote share for the AKP, an Islamist-rooted political movement that swept to power in 2002 and has dominated Turkish politics ever since. For İmamoğlu’s secular-leaning Republican People’s party (CHP), the result represents its biggest electoral victory in almost half a century.

The drubbing for the AKP came as Turkey’s long-running economic crisis finally became too much for many voters to bear. Erdoğan also made a series of tactical mis-steps that led to many of his candidates being outflanked by parties across the political spectrum.

“The outcome will reverberate across Turkish politics in the years to come, resurrecting opposition hopes of beating Erdoğan in the 2028 presidential and parliamentary elections,” said Emre Peker, Europe director at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group. 

The AKP notched up 36 per cent of the popular vote, while the CHP picked up 38 per cent, according to state news agency Anadolu, in contrast with the 2019 local election, where the AKP won 44 per cent of the vote and left the CHP well behind at about 30 per cent.

Burak Bilgehan Özpek, a professor at TOBB University in Ankara, said subdued turnout, at 78 per cent of voters, probably largely reflected traditional AKP supporters sitting out of the polls.

Erdogan’s deeply divisive rhetoric, control of most of the media and use of public resources to bolster his electoral prospects has divided Turkey sharply into just two camps, Özpek said.

“The CHP has learned how to play the polarisation game [in which] only two parties, the AKP and CHP, are viable,” he said, adding that an anti-Erdoğan message helped the CHP draw both disaffected nationalist and Kurdish voters. 

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Even within the AKP, there is broad agreement that the troubled economy was the critical factor in its poor performance on Sunday. Turks have endured a years-long inflation crisis that has squeezed their purchasing power.

Erdoğan, whose unorthodox economic policies have been blamed for setting off runaway price growth, has deployed giveaways before previous elections, including a month of free natural gas before the May election, which he won despite an attempt by a six-party opposition alliance to defeat him.

Since the May election, however, Erdoğan has been hamstrung by an attempt to finally extinguish the inflation crisis with a return to a more orthodox economic approach. 

While the programme is eventually expected to cool inflation, it has made everyday Turks’ life harder in the short term with interest rates soaring, the lira tumbling to record lows and inflation running at almost 70 per cent.

“The economy has been razed to the ground,” said Erol, a 55-year-old Istanbul resident who had been a life-long AKP supporter before switching to İmamoğlu’s camp in Sunday’s election.

Worshippers break their fast with food served for iftar by local authorities in Istanbul
Istanbul authorities have been providing meals during Ramadan to people struggling to afford to prepare them at home © Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty Images

While the result has revitalised the opposition, Erdoğan’s day-to-day power is largely unchecked, and he remains one of Turkey’s most popular politicians.

There is also ample time for the AKP to regroup and for Erdogan’s new economic programme to bear fruit ahead of the 2028 general election.

But analysts say Erdoğan, typically known as a shrewd politician and unforgiving campaigner, also made a series of mis-steps that amplified the scale of his AKP’s loss on Sunday. 

Yeniden Refah party and Dem Party banners in Şanlıurfa city center
Campaign adverts in the Şanlıurfa city centre © Murat Yazar/FT

One of Erdoğan’s gravest errors was underestimating the New Welfare party’s (YRP) sway over conservatively religious voters who typically back the AKP, according to Özer Sencar, a pollster and political analyst at the Ankara-based Metropoll research group. 

Islamist New Welfare positioned itself as a credible channel for “disgruntled AKP voters” to express their frustration in Erdoğan’s policies without backing the secular-leaning opposition, said Can Selçuki at Istanbul Economics Research.

The party is run at the national level by Fatih Erbakan — son of former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, who is fondly remembered by many religiously conservative Turks even 13 years after his death. Erdoğan had even campaigned under the banner of a predecessor party, known just as Welfare, when he successfully ran for Istanbul mayor in 1994.

During the election campaign, voters in Şanlıurfa, a conservative city near Turkey’s border with Syria, told the Financial Times that concerns about the economy and Erdoğan’s slide towards autocracy had prompted them to switch from the AKP to YRP. 

The frustration against Erdoğan’s party ultimately sent Mehmet Kasım Gülpınar, a former AKP MP who ran for mayor under the YRP party, to victory in Sunday’s mayoral race.

Alaattin Istegün, 76, said he had abandoned the AKP to become a volunteer for the YRP since it gave him a credible alternative to Erdogan’s party. “In the last 10 years Erdoğan has been doing everything for himself, he does not recognise the law,” Istegün said, adding that he believed Erbakan could restore a more “democratic system”.

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