Tolga Ildun

World News


Turkish Voters Sent a Message to the Ruling Party, But Will it Listen?

It has been 22 years since the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) first swept into power in Turkey, installing Recep Tayyip Erdogan as prime minister and setting the country on a new course, upending the traditional elite-controlled secular state.

Earlier this year, however, Turkish voters delivered their strongest rebuke of the ruling party in its history, as they gained only 35.5% of the vote in the March local elections while the traditional opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) outperformed with 37.8% – its strongest showing since 1977, despite having failed to mount much of a challenge in last year’s presidential election.

Unsettled voters, driven in large part by frustration with deteriorating economic conditions, are sending a clear message to the AK Party to change course. Now that the ruling party has had a few months to regroup and strategize, it is surprising how little has changed to manage this unpopular tide of public opinion.

The unexpected election outcome revealed some interesting trends and shifts in public attitude. More and more Turkish citizens are rejecting the tired old polarization and populism and seeking to promote new, younger leaders, higher representation of women, and a more forward-looking vision for the country’s future.

The result is certainly an urgent wake-up call for the AK Party, which has become accustomed to dominating enough of the rural vote to remain in comfortable control. It is crucial to recall that when the AK Party was founded in 2002, it curated an identity as an anti-establishment and anti-status quo platform, promising to upend the traditional elite-controlled secular structures. Now, in 2024, it is discovering that it is it that has become the entrenched establishment party.

The winds of change have been a long time coming. Early on, the AK Party initially garnered praise for its management of the economy. They were successful in reigning in inflation rates, boasting a significant reduction from 45% in 2002 to 8.8% by 2007. However, recent years have witnessed a staggering reversal, with inflation rates soaring to unprecedented heights, reaching 19.6% in 2021, 72.3% in 2022, and 54.9% in 2023. This alarming surge is emblematic of budget mismanagement and overspending, exacerbating the economic woes faced by ordinary citizens, whose purchasing power has been steadily eroded.

Foreign direct investment (FDI) inflow, once a cornerstone of Turkey’s economic stability, has also witnessed a precipitous decline, plummeting from a peak of 3.6% of GDP in 2006 to a mere 1.4% as of 2022. The rising cost of living, exemplified by a staggering 72% increase in food inflation from 2004 to 2023, underscores the deepening impoverishment experienced by vast swathes of the population.

This election underscored the pivotal role played by two distinct voter archetypes: the steadfast opposition voter and the disillusioned swing voter. While the former remained committed to opposing the ruling party, the latter sought to express their dissatisfaction and fatigue with the prevailing status quo, reflecting a broader sentiment of fading accountability.

The recent electoral triumph of the CHP underscores the potential for substantive change within Turkey’s political landscape. However, this success must be tempered with a sober acknowledgment of the challenges that lie ahead. To be successful, the CHP will have to shift its messaging to appeal to mainstream Turkish voters, and thus far has appeared disinclined to do so.

A second challenge is the intra-opposition competition between the two most popular aspiring leaders, the Mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, and the Mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavas. If these local elections were a preview of the 2028 presidential election, the two would need to cooperate and not weaken each other. They both command strong followings and achieved significant majorities—however, Imamoglu, who is younger, has stronger appeal among women and the youth.

To sustain momentum, the CHP must adopt a pragmatic approach aimed at rationalizing the party and embracing a broader spectrum of society. Despite comprising 25-30% of constituents, the left bloc remains a formidable force that must be cultivated and mobilized effectively.

Conversely, the AK Party’s electoral strategy, characterized by an overemphasis on national security threats and populist rhetoric, has faltered in recent years. The party’s failure to address the concerns of women and youth, coupled with its neglect of core ideological principles, has alienated traditional conservative voters, precipitating an identity crisis within its ranks.

Despite mounting dissatisfaction and electoral setbacks, the likelihood of substantive reform within the AK Party remains remote. The party’s entrenched leadership, coupled with its reluctance to undertake any of the needed reforms to economic policy, signals that they are quite likely to stick with the status quo and hope that the opposition can once again defeat itself. The absence of institutionalized checks and balances, exacerbated by the opaque nature of the ruling coalition with the MHP, further undermines prospects for meaningful change.

It’s a great pity, too, as the country desperately needs decisive leadership to manage these mounting economic challenges. The imperative for genuine reform has never been more pressing, and the election outcome shows that there is popular demand for change. We will see if anyone is willing to step up and listen.