Opposition wins across Turkey owe much to younger, fresher candidates

<span>The Republican People's party Istanbul mayoral candidate, Ekrem Imamoğlu, greets his supporters after the polls closed in the local elections in Istanbul on 31 March.</span><span>Photograph: Erdem Şahin/EPA</span>
The Republican People's party Istanbul mayoral candidate, Ekrem Imamoğlu, greets his supporters after the polls closed in the local elections in Istanbul on 31 March.Photograph: Erdem Şahin/EPA

A fresh-faced challenger hailed a new dawn for Turkish democracy, as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan comforted a defeated crowd outside his party’s headquarters, telling them: “Unfortunately we couldn’t get the result we wanted … everything happens for a reason.”

Supporters of Istanbul’s mayor celebrated long into the night after Ekrem İmamoğlu secured a second term in office, as Turkey’s main opposition party swept to victory in local elections.

The entire evening offered the Republican People’s party (CHP) a glimpse of a possible future, far surpassing expectations among its supporters.

Social media filled with celebratory memes and people piled into cars and took to the streets across Istanbul to blare music, and in some cases tear down posters of the Istanbul mayoral candidate from Erdoğan’s party. One opposition supporter texted a friend to say: “I’m in shock! It’s all real right – is this happening?”

For many, the wave of opposition success was also a window into what might have been had the CHP selected İmamoğlu as their candidate in presidential elections last year. In that race, the opposition forced Erdoğan to a run-off vote, and amid financial turmoil and disastrous twin earthquakes that killed more than 50,000 people, the race had seemed theirs to lose. Ultimately, however, Erdoğan claimed the presidency and a large parliamentary majority, carrying him into another term.

Sunday’s local election results were the best in decades for the opposition, which won mayoral seats in Turkey’s largest cities as well as smaller rural districts in the centre of the country far from their traditional coastal base. Üsküdar, the wealthy Istanbul neighbourhood where Erdoğan has a house went to CHP, as did the eastern province of Adıyaman and several areas close to the Black Sea long considered too conservative to be in play for the opposition.

“No one was expecting a success as big as this,” said Evren Balta, a professor of political science at Özyeğin University in Istanbul.

Before the vote, she said: “We were talking about apathy among the opposition but it seems that supporters of the government were also disillusioned and angry at Turkish politics. Instead of going to the polls, they decided to stay at home.”

While Turkish citizens suffer under the weight of high inflation and an economic crisis that has caused the value of the currency to plummet, Erdoğan won last year’s election after positioning himself as the only figure capable of solving the country’s problems, including rebuilding after the earthquakes.

But Erdoğan’s electoral appeal has since waned, largely due to a new wave of austerity measures enacted by his cabinet. As a result, while his party reportedly outspent its rivals by three times in its attempt to retake Istanbul, his government was unable to offer the electorate the same bonuses it did before the presidential election, which included a raise for public servants and pensions, a month of free natural gas for the entire country and the unveiling of massive homegrown defence infrastructure.

The losses for Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) are the result of several years of internal crisis. The president has long been more popular than his party, but the party’s reliance on his ability to charm the electorate has meant their fates remain intertwined. While Erdoğan put himself at the forefront of the campaign to retake Istanbul from İmamoğlu, the party selected a candidate for mayor who was unlikely to ever present himself as a potential successor, a figure that Erdoğan desperately needs but appears unwilling to anoint.

“There is an institutional crisis within the AKP,” said Balta. “What made the party so successful in the first decade of its rule was that there were many talented people within its ranks, there was technocratic and to some degree meritocratic recruitment which has now gone, it’s all patronage … this also contributes to the AKP’s problem, which is that it’s not delivering enough to the electorate.”

The crisis of succession at the presidential palace, amid the looming threat that Erdoğan could seek another constitutional change allowing him to rule beyond 2028, reached its peak as the opposition promoted a cohort new of leaders.

After its general election loss last year, the CHP appointed a new younger leader, the former pharmacist and trusted candidate Özgür Özel, also seen as a longtime ally of İmamoğlu. Both are part of a wave of change within the opposition, and possess an ability to reach out to conservative and Kurdish factions of Turkish politics, beyond the party’s traditional base.

There was “more than one component” to explain the CHP’s losses last year and their sweeping gains less than a year later, said Balta. “The first one is that candidates matter.

“People got tired after two decades of polarised intense political debates that happened in Turkey, and the CHP has these relatively young candidates of Özel and now their potential presidential candidate İmamoğlu. They have a different way of communicating, and style.”

As a result, said Balta, the opposition was finding support in parts of Turkey that hadn’t considered voting for it in decades, surprising even its own candidates who now have new routes to future political power.

“It’s huge – I’m finding it difficult to express right now. Just look at the numbers - even the map doesn’t quite show the wave of change that’s happening,” she said.