An astonishing volte-face in Turkish politics, and a cold shower for president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the astonishing winner in last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. Never a dull moment in Turkish politics, so say seasoned analysts of big, mighty and unruly Turkey. Are we now, after the recent municipal elections, observing the beginning of the end of the decades of Erdogan rule in Turkey?

While the land-slide victory for the main opposition party CHP – for decades the biggest opposition party but somehow always restrained by a notorious 25%-ish level in the chain of elections – is highly indicative of how the current political winds in Turkish politics are now blowing, a reminder needs to be made that as regards national (and international) politics the prevailing power conditions were set and defined by last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, and the astonishing results of these.


In the months preceding these crucial elections, it seemed near-impossible for the incumbent Erdogan regime and the ruling AKP party, in its years-long coalition with the ultra-rightist MHP, to again finish victorious. After all, the country and its citizens had suffered severe economic crisis for years, and how could suffering citizens avoid blaming the incumbent regime for their hardships? Especially since “absolute power means absolute responsibility and accountability”, as the saying goes. And in this case, there was also President Erdogan’s responsibility to have – controversially at the time (2017-18) – imposed a “presidential system” with drastically reduced checks and balances. So there was reason to blame both the person and his system, and his party. And his failing and ailing economic policies that produced, inter alia, galloping inflation, and poor prospects for improvements to pin hopes on.

And, as if this was not enough, then came the terrible earthquake, some months before the scheduled elections, killing some 50 000 people in the affected areas and devastating enormous numbers of residential buildings. Here many, many people could blame the incumbent, almighty regime both for scandalous omissions over the years in hardening buildings against the ubiquitous earthquake threat, and for the late arrivals of rescue teams.

How could a government, any government, possibly win elections under such combined conditions, one could legitimately ask?

And then, also, there was the unusual fact that the opposition this time was able to unite – unifying in a joint political platform of six parties (“Table six”), settling after much back-and-forth even for a joint presidential candidate to face incumbent Erdogan, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the CHP leader since way back, supported also by the pro-Kurdish party.

So in view of these preconditions, how could Kilicdaroglu possibly not beat Erdogan “the near-invincible” – “near” since after all he did lose in the June 2015 parliamentary election and he did lose Istanbul in the 2019 municipal election – in the presidential election? And how could the combined “Table six” force possibly not gain the majority in the simultaneous parliamentary election? These questions were at the time perfectly legitimate, so there was widespread talk, also internationally, about winds of change in Turkey and implications of such winds, domestically and internationally. But also some concerns concerning risks to political stability: with the unusual simultaneousness of presidential and parliamentary elections, what if the results were to be a “hang parliament”, with the winning presidential candidate (Erdogan or Kilicdaroglu) representing a political combination different from that of the parliament majority?

But in spite of these calculations and prospects the outcome of the May 2023 combined elections turned out to be a cold shower for the opposition and a big triumph for Erdogan and his regime. On election day, it was clear how – contrary to opinion poll estimates and guesses by analysts – the political winds, skillfully whipped up by the Leader, were astonishingly blowing: a clear win for the ruling coalition as regards Parliament and a clear lead for the incumbent in the presidential race, not sufficient to avoid a statutory second round but still a clear lead, sufficient to pave the way for a certain victory in the ensuing second round. Erdogan had done it again, albeit at and despite very difficult odds. His nationalistic electoral campaign messaging had secured him five more years in office and the backing of a parliamentary majority stronger and more nationalistic than in a very long time, perhaps ever.

The period since has seen a now secure Erdogan regime energetically struggling with its policy priorities, including a change of economic course with a view, inter alia, to combatting inflation and attracting foreign investors, and the deeply demoralized opposition blame gaming and seeking new identities, avenues and leaderships. Both sides, regime and opposition, looking forward to the upcoming municipal elections of March 31, 2024, as a final key event before a long period of zero elections in Turkey, until 2028, the regime expecting final power consolidation (and re-capture of Istanbul) and the opposition politicians hoping for some success and some new motivation, with a view to compensating at local level for the long-term loss at the national level.


Fast forward to the recent municipal elections and the new volte-face in Turkish politics, this time a cold shower for President Erdogan and his team, now it is his time to ask, in bewilderment: how was this possible, how could this happen, less than a year after the triumph of May 2024? How could this happen when the opposition proved manifestly unable or unwilling to cooperate the way it was done both in the 2019 municipals (notably in Istanbul) and during the 2023 electoral campaign?

Clearly, this time, the old rule of the factor of ideology playing a much greater potential role in national politics/elections relative to local level politics with much greater emphasis on bread-and-butter issues has appeared in radical version, with the combined effect of complaints that were subdued by nationalistic (and fear-mongering)  bombasm during last year’s campaign and those reinforced by the lasting and added economic hardships suffered since then.

Nonetheless, it is astonishing and remarkable that this obvious popular protest (that could well have toppled the regime already last year, but didn’t) has so dramatically favored one opposition party, the classical CHP, rather than the opposition as a whole more broadly. The CHP, since last autumn with a new leader after  Kilicdaroglu’s ouster, Özgur Özel, now stands out as the great winner of these elections, the CHP astonishingly no longer stuck behind the “maximum 25% wall” but with aggregate figures for the first time ever higher than those of the ruling AKP, 37,77% versus 35,49%, and the CHP not only keeping the big cities from before, including Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Antalya, but also adding 14 more provinces to its fold. A remarkable achievement. And the CHP gains have been the loss of several others, in addition to the greatest loser, the AKP and its leader: Meral Aksener’s IY Party, Devlet Bahceli’s MHP and also the pro-Kurdish DEM leadership, all registering significant losses, each with significant but as yet uncertain implications for the political landscape in Turkey moving forward. A weakened MHP gives rise to questions regarding how Erdogan/AKP will interpret conditions of rulership as from now. And opposition party losses, such as those of the IY Party and DEM, will have to reflect on whether and to what extent it was wise, after much hesitation, to opt for not supporting a joint candidate, such as in Istanbul, but to pin hopes an own, separate candidate. The electorate, clearly, did not appreciate the calculations and machinations of the leaders of these parties, instead disobediently prioritizing the strongest party within the opposition with clear chances to defeat team Erdogan and his candidates in the various cities and provinces, i.e. the CHP and its charismatic representatives as lord mayoral candidates especially in Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavaz.


Ekrem Imamoglu has now beaten Erdogan and his different candidates three times in Istanbul elections – quite an achievement in view of the saying that “whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey, in view of Istanbul’s population size and economic dominance, and symbolic importance -, twice in 2019 and now, and hence has now risen to a (potential) position of major political challenger of long-incumbent Erdogan before the next presidential election, in 2028 or before that, should new, early elections be realized, for whatever reason. Like during last year’s electoral context he formally remains under legal threat, indicted for having called those responsible for the re-run of the 2019 local elections “idiots” (sic!), but given his formidable success now any legal action against him would seem to be devoid of any political and legal legitimacy. So perhaps he can now, at long last, credibly aspire to the role of mobilizing leader of a unified opposition, making prospects of change truly credible.

But Imamoglu is after all not the only electoral victor with such aspirations. Mansur Yavaz won Ankara with even greater numbers than Imamoglu in Istanbul. And then, mind you, there is Özgur Özel, the new and fresh CHP leader who can claim credit for the astonishing return of CHP as a dominant opposition party in Turkish politics, at national level. The next few weeks and months will indicate the extent to which this strong troika will prove willing and able to work as a team or whether there will be more of competition and less of cooperativeness.

This will in turn be determined by President Erdogan’s longer-term response to the March 31 cold shower, his first response being a more humble “democracy has spoken”. But whether Erdogan will respond to a reinvigorated opposition´s strengthened opposition posture by dictatorial harshness or, rather, attempts at accommodation with a reform agenda – necessitated by economic need and perhaps other considerations during his last legal mandate period – will dictate the climate for the next few years. During these, a number of demanding constitutional issues are also likely to present themselves. After all, well in time before the next presidential election in 2928 (or before), the incumbent president, with the mandate given to him and his system in the May 2023 elections, will have to decide whether to prepare for bowing out with an untarnished legacy, and if so to identify the necessary constitutional changes in the existing presidential system, or whether, instead, to opt for whatever it takes constitutionally and politically to remain in power, Putin-style, after the 2028 deadline.

The latter option is likely to have been rendered politically far more difficult in the political atmosphere created by the March 31 cold shower. On the other hand, as an indicator that the Kurdish question can be expected to remain a sore point in the emerging political climate, soon after the elections results were announced there were ominous signs of lingering problems in Turkey’s south-east; the resounding victory of the DEM candidate, Abdullah Zeydan, in the Van district contest was annulled by the local election council, that council instead handing the mayorship to the thoroughly beaten AKP candidate, a step now causing uproar in the region.


A final reminder: the March 31 sea-change occurred at municipal level and does not undo any of the concrete political consequences of the May 2023 elections with five more years for Erdogan, an unchanged/unreformed rule-of-law situation, and a more nationalistic-minded parliamentary majority. And next chance to do anything about this, the 2028 elections, is four long years away during which many, many things can – probably will – happen.

Nonetheless, winds of change are, suddenly, blowing, in a fog of uncertainty.

The author is ambassador, holds a PhD and is a fellow of RSAWS.
The text has been previously published on Consilio International.