Istanbul Conquered by Rival

Parisa Pasandepour
10 Min Read
Istanbul Conquered by Rival

Istanbul falls to rival

Turkey suffers a surprising defeat

Istanbul was captured by the rival People’s Republican Party of Turkey, one of the main opposition parties to Erdogan’s government. They conquered all major cities in Turkey, reaffirming their control over Istanbul and Ankara. This event marks Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party’s worst defeat in the past two decades.

After all candidates of the Justice and Development Party were defeated in major cities on Monday, March 31st, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan admitted in a televised speech from the party’s headquarters in Ankara that unfortunately we did not achieve the result we wanted, acknowledging defeat in the municipal elections.

This defeat was very bitter for Erdogan’s party as it included areas like Anatolia, which was once considered the main stronghold of the majority party and it indicated a historic victory for the opposition. At the same time, in the two major cities of Ankara and Istanbul, this victory was a confirmation of the polls five years ago, which had predicted that in the upcoming municipal elections, the Justice and Development Party would suffer a defeat after 20 years of undisputed rule. Ozturk Ozul, the secretary of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, said today that our voters made a very important decision. They decided to create a new policy in Turkey.

Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul and the leader of the Republican People’s Party, thanked the voters. Addressing them, he said, ‘People of Istanbul, you have given us the mandate and opened the path for the future. The defeat of the majority party comes less than a year after Erdogan’s re-election for a new presidential term. This victory, despite difficult economic conditions and widespread criticism of the emergency management after the devastating earthquake in February 2023, strengthened the president’s control over the country.

A historic victory

The tangible numbers and figures show that the Justice and Development Party still dominates the central region of the country and the southeastern areas, including the cities of Kahramanmaras, Gaziantep, and Gaziantep. Although they have lost control of Adiyaman, the Democratic supporters have won in many southeastern areas. The vast areas of the western, southern, and northern regions have come under the control of the Republican People’s Party. They were able to win in Izmir, Ankara, Adana, Antalya, Bursa, the fourth largest city in Turkey, and Balikesir.

In Istanbul, Mayor Imamoglu took the lead with ten points, meaning more than one million votes ahead of his rival candidate. According to the Supreme Election Council of Turkey, the Republican People’s Party won in 36 out of 81 provinces in the country. In this regard, Imamoglu wrote on social media, ‘While we celebrate our victory, we send a message to the world that the decline of democracy is now coming to an end.’

Imamoglu, born in a small village in the Ardahan province in the Anatolia region, became the mayor of Istanbul in 2019. In the last general elections, he ran as a candidate for the position of Vice President along with his rival, Ekrem Imamoglu. Today, according to several analysts, he is considered the main winner of the elections as it seems he has gained more weight and political popularity from these elections, and it is believed that Imamoglu could be a potential strong competitor in the upcoming presidential elections in Turkey.

Reasons for the Defeat

This is actually the first significant defeat that the Justice and Development Party has suffered since Erdogan came to power 21 years ago. For this reason, the results of the polls contain a message that the president cannot ignore. The elections were held in the midst of long-term economic recession, and despite the slight turn by the president after the repeat elections in May and the adoption of orthodox economic policies to reduce inflation and consumer prices, this trend continues.

In orthodox economic policies, which is a globally accepted economic policy, the central bank is completely independent, and no governmental or security institution has the right to interfere in the affairs of the central bank. In orthodox monetary policy, the interest rate is the main tool, and regular use of the budget controls public expenditures and is based on economic activities. Although the return of Mehmet Şimşek as the Minister of Finance and the Central Bank’s decision to increase the interest rate to 45% in January was welcomed by the markets as positive news, inflation in the country is still high.

Official data shows that prices in February increased by 67% compared to the same period last year, although unofficial estimates suggest this figure is 100% or more. It seems that dissatisfaction with the economic recession has led a part of the electoral base of the Justice and Development Party to refrain from participating in the ballot boxes, while other voters have joined the new Islamic-leaning organization, the Welfare Party. This party, which is a new branch of the Justice and Development Party, emerged following Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s refusal to cut trade ties with Israel despite the war in Gaza.

No to Erdoğan

It is unlikely that the political earthquake of local elections will have an immediate impact on the country’s political scene. There is no significant deadline from now until the end of the four-year legislative term, and until then, Erdogan will seek to strengthen his alliance network. The Justice and Development Party has the highest number of representatives in parliament, but its power is also limited, including not having the necessary votes to review the constitution and allow the president to run for re-election in the 2028 presidential elections. Nevertheless, his goal of expanding power may go beyond reach.

Selim Koru, an analyst at the Tepav Institute based in Ankara, says that what has changed in the light of the election results is actually beyond imagination. The vote was not just against Erdogan, especially in Istanbul and many other places. However, many in Turkish society see the votes for thousands of local officials as a referendum on Erdogan’s authoritarian and oppressive style of governance, which includes interventions in monetary policies, restrictions on freedom of speech, and political influence in the judiciary.

This defeat is a clear turning point compared to last year’s presidential election in May, where Erdogan emerged victorious against a coalition of six opposition parties seeking his removal. Aytac Akgul, a prominent analyst at the Brookings Institution based in Washington, stated that this is a strong call for change and believes Erdogan can no longer rely on opponents who are in turmoil and disarray.

Erdogan is not invincible. This is the message that emerged from the local elections, the first significant and unexpected defeat for the Turkish President and the Justice and Development Party, which has been in power for over 20 years. It seems that the winds of change are blowing in the country, where increasing dissatisfaction with the difficult economic situation has turned into protest votes against the President and his government. Although there is no expectation of a political earthquake in the next four years, it is legitimate to ask what repercussions this will have on the leadership of Turkey and the Justice and Development Party, where we do not yet see a successor to Erdogan.


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Master's Degree in International Relations from the Faculty of Diplomatic Sciences and International Relations, Genoa, Italy.