The Fall of Erdogan’s AKP: A Watershed Moment for Turkey’s Future

The local elections in Turkey on Sunday 31st of March have reshaped the country's political landscape, carrying significant implications for its future trajectory.

The local elections in Turkey on Sunday 31st of March have reshaped the country’s political landscape, carrying significant implications for its future trajectory. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered a notable defeat, losing key cities. The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) won 35 out of 81 municipalities, including mayoral victories in Turkey’s five largest cities: Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Bursa, and Antalya. This electoral upset signifies a turning point in Turkish politics, raising questions about Erdogan’s grip on power and the direction of the country.

Since assuming the presidency of Turkey in 2014, Erdogan has steadily consolidated power, centralising authority in the presidency and cracking down on dissent. His rule has been marked by a series of controversial decisions, including the clampdown on the media, the judiciary, and civil society, which have raised concerns about the erosion of democratic norms and freedoms in Turkey.

Last Sunday, Turkey held nationwide elections for city mayors, district mayors, and other local officials, with a term of five years. In a significant development, Erdogan’s party, which has been participating in elections since 2002, lost the majority vote for the first time. Furthermore, they also lost control over regions that were previously considered strongholds for the AK Party.  These results reflect growing discontent with the AKP, with many attributing it to years of high inflation. Inflation reached nearly 70 percent in February, prompting Turkey to raise interest rates, a policy Erdogan initiated after his reelection. The AKP’s defeat may also impact Erdogan’s efforts to extend his rule beyond 2028 through a new constitution. The CHP also won the southern city of Adiyaman, which was one of the worst-hit areas in last year’s devastating earthquake, and Kilis Province, a traditionally conservative stronghold that borders Syria. The economic impact of Erdogan’s presidency has also been significant. While Turkey experienced a period of rapid economic growth in the early years of Erdogan’s rule, the economy has faltered in recent years. High inflation, a weakening currency, and rising unemployment have all contributed to economic uncertainty and discontent among the Turkish population. The mismanagement of the aftermath of the earthquake, coupled with corruption in construction projects that resulted in additional casualties, were significant factors contributing to the dramatic drop in support for the AKP and Erdogan. These issues highlighted the government’s failures in disaster response and raised concerns about transparency and accountability. Additionally, years of high inflation and economic challenges under AKP rule further eroded public trust, prompting many to seek change through their votes.

The recent election results serve as a clear rebuke of Erdogan’s leadership style and policies. CHP’s victory in key cities signals a desire for change among the Turkish electorate and a rejection of Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule. This electoral setback could weaken Erdogan’s grip on power and embolden opposition forces within Turkey.

Internationally, President Erdogan’s rule in Turkey has been marked by a delicate balancing act between maintaining relations with Turkey’s traditional Western allies, such as the United States and European Union, while also seeking closer ties with countries like Russia and China.

One of the key aspects of Erdogan’s foreign policy has been the cultivation of closer ties with Russia. This has been particularly evident in the defense sector, with Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system despite objections from NATO allies. This move has raised concerns among Turkey’s Western allies, as it has implications for NATO’s security and interoperability.

Erdogan has also sought to deepen economic ties with Russia and China. Turkey and Russia have increased trade and energy cooperation, with projects such as the TurkStream gas pipeline. Similarly, Turkey has sought to enhance economic relations with China through initiatives including the Belt and Road Initiative.

Turkey’s foreign policy decisions, particularly its closer ties with Russia and China, have indeed caused tensions with its Western allies, who view these moves as potentially undermining NATO unity and Western interests. However, Erdogan and his government have defended these actions as necessary for Turkey’s national interests, arguing that Turkey should not be limited to a Western-centric foreign policy and should pursue relationships with a diverse set of partners.

Whether Turkey is “wrong” in its approach depends on the perspective. From Turkey’s point of view, diversifying its foreign relations and engaging with countries like Russia and China can bring economic benefits, security cooperation, and a more independent foreign policy. However, from the perspective of its Western allies, these moves can be seen as undermining NATO cohesion and potentially aligning Turkey with powers that have conflicting interests with the West.

In terms of potential retaliation from the West, there have been consequences, particularly in the form of strained relations and specific actions such as the US decision to remove Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet programme due to its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system. However, outright retaliation against Turkey by its Western allies remains a complex and sensitive issue given Turkey’s strategic importance as a NATO member and its role in regional stability, particularly in the Middle East.

Turkey is geopolitically important for Russia, China, and the West for several reasons:

1. Strategic location: Turkey straddles Europe and Asia, making it a key bridge between East and West. Its control over the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits gives it significant geopolitical importance for both energy transit and military access.

2. NATO membership: As a member of NATO, Turkey plays a crucial role in the alliance’s defense posture, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea region. Its proximity to conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq also makes it strategically important for NATO.

3. Economic potential: Turkey has a large and growing economy, making it an attractive market for trade and investment. Its geographical position also makes it a potential hub for energy pipelines and transportation routes.

4. Regional influence: Turkey’s historical and cultural ties to the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus give it influence in these regions. Its active foreign policy in these areas can impact the balance of power and regional dynamics.

While Turkey’s foreign policy choices have caused tensions with its Western allies, its strategic location, NATO membership, economic potential, and regional influence make it geopolitically important for Russia, China, and the West. Balancing these relationships will continue to be a complex challenge for Turkey’s foreign policy in the future.

The recent election results could impact Turkey’s relationship with Russia, China, and the West. A weaker Erdogan may be less able to pursue his ambitious foreign policy goals, which could lead to a recalibration of Turkey’s foreign policy priorities. This could have implications for regional dynamics, particularly in Syria and the Kurdish issue, where Turkey plays a key role.

Turkey’s relationship with the West, particularly with the European Union and the United States, could also be affected. Erdogan’s authoritarian turn and his crackdown on dissent have strained Turkey’s relations with its Western allies. The election results could lead to a reevaluation of Turkey’s relationship with the West, with a potential for improved ties if the new leadership adopts a more moderate approach. This of course would be pending the presidential elections in the United States in 2024 and whether Donald Trump is victorious.

If Trump were to win a reelection, Turkey would likely continue to navigate a complex relationship with the United States, characterised by both cooperation and tension. Trump’s administration has shown a willingness to overlook certain issues such as human rights violations and authoritarian tendencies in exchange for strategic cooperation on issues like counterterrorism and regional stability. Thus, a Trump victory could potentially lead to a continuation of this transactional approach, with Turkey leveraging its strategic importance in areas such as Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean, and NATO to maintain a working relationship with the United States. However, tensions could also persist, particularly over issues such as Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, which has strained relations and led to sanctions under Trump’s presidency.

Overall, Turkey’s local elections have ushered in a period of uncertainty and change. The defeat of the AKP in key cities represents a significant shift in Turkish politics and raises questions about the future direction of the country. As Turkey navigates these changes, the international community will be watching closely to see how they will impact regional dynamics and Turkey’s relationships with Russia, China, and the West.

Erdogan’s presidency has been characterised by a series of controversial moves that have polarised Turkish society and drawn criticism from the international community. Upon assuming office, Erdogan  weakening the checks and balances that had previously existed in Turkey’s political system. He also launched a crackdown on dissent, targeting journalists, academics, and activists who spoke out against his government.

One of the most contentious issues during Erdogan’s presidency has been his handling of the Kurdish issue. Turkey has a large Kurdish minority, and the Kurdish separatist movement, led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has been fighting for greater autonomy for decades. Erdogan has taken a hardline stance against the PKK, launching military operations in Kurdish-majority areas and cracking down on Kurdish political parties and activists. His approach has been criticised for exacerbating tensions and human rights abuses.

Erdogan’s foreign policy has also been a source of controversy in the Middle East. Turkey and Israel have had a complex relationship over the years, marked by periods of cooperation and tension. Historically, the two countries maintained relatively good relations, with military cooperation and economic ties forming a key part of their relationship. However, relations began to deteriorate in the early 2000s, following Erdogan’s rise to power and his increasingly vocal criticism of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. He has sought to expand Turkey’s influence in the Middle East and beyond, often clashing with Turkey’s NATO allies in the process. Erdogan has been particularly vocal in his support for Palestinian rights, leading to tensions with Israel and the United States. Despite the tensions, Turkey and Israel have maintained some level of cooperation, particularly in the areas of trade and security. However, Erdogan’s vocal criticism of Israel has made it difficult for the two countries to fully normalise their relations. The recent local elections in Turkey could further complicate efforts to improve relations, as Erdogan’s domestic political calculations may influence his government’s approach towards Israel, especially after such a defeat.

In conclusion, Turkey stands at a crossroads following the recent local elections. The defeat of President Erdogan’s AKP in key cities represents a significant shift in Turkish politics and signals a desire for change among the electorate. Erdogan’s grip on power may be weakened, leading to a more pluralistic political landscape. The international community will be closely watching Turkey as it navigates these changes, with potential implications for regional dynamics and Turkey’s relationships with Russia, China, and the West. The path forward for Turkey remains uncertain, but the elections have set the stage for a possibly new chapter in the country’s political evolution.

Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza
Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza
Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza is a politics and international relations tutor at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. She gained her Bachelor's in International Relations at the Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City and her MA in International Relations and World Order at the University of Leicester, England. She holds a PhD in Politics and International Relations from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. She has spoken at numerous international conferences and has written on topics such as democracy, migration, European politics, Contemporary Mexican Politics and the Middle East. Her research interests include: Democratisation processes, governance and theories of the state, contemporary Mexican politics, Latin American politics, political parties, international relations theories, contemporary USA-Latin America foreign policy.