This article is part of a longer report from MEI's Turkey Program on Turkey in the aftermath of the March 2024 local elections, What Comes Next for Turkey? Prospects for Change on the Political, Economic, and Foreign Policy Fronts


The results of the March 2024 local elections came as a surprise to observers of Turkish politics. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) won a major victory, besting the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) and relegating it to second place for the first time since the AKP won the 2002 general elections and then gradually established an electoral autocracy in Turkey.1

The CHP’s victory was highly significant, not only because its candidates in Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, won with even larger margins than they did in 2019, but also because the party’s control expanded from metropoles to provincial and conservative districts in Anatolia, which traditionally had been skeptical toward the CHP. Overall, the CHP won in 35 out of 81 cities, receiving 37.7% of the total votes, while the AKP won in just 24 cities, receiving 35.4% and experiencing its first electoral defeat.

The magnitude of the opposition win was especially unexpected because only 10 months earlier President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP had notched another victory in the May 2023 general elections, despite a 60%-plus annual inflation rate and widespread dissatisfaction with economic conditions. The results of the 2023 elections came as a major surprise to opposition groups, which had expected they would be a turning point in Turkey’s transition from authoritarianism.

As such, while the 2023 elections caused widespread disappointment among opposition voters and an acute rise in political apathy, the 2024 elections once again restored hopes for Turkish democratization. About a month after the local elections, in early May 2024, President Erdoğan held a private meeting with CHP leader Özgür Özel at the AKP headquarters. The meeting ended with both leaders announcing the beginning of a new period in Turkish politics, which Erdoğan described as a “softening” and Özel as a “normalization.”2

In this regard, the 2024 elections raise some important questions for observers of Turkish politics. Did the big wave of change the opposition was expecting in the 2023 elections finally arrive 10 months late? Can the CHP use its control of municipalities to broaden its support base further before the next general elections? Should we expect the CHP to use its new powers to push for legal and administrative reforms? Could such reforms lead to the release of those convicted in politically motivated prosecutions? Alternatively, could the AKP use the "softening” of the political environment to push through belt-tightening policies, and thus restore the economy and the party’s popular support before the next elections? And finally, can the AKP use more cooperative relations with the CHP to advance a sugar-coated constitutional change to enable Erdoğan to serve another presidential term? We do not have a crystal ball, but recent developments shed some light on what may lie ahead.

Customers queue to exchange money at a foreign currency exchange bureau in Istanbul on May 3, 2023. Photo by Kerem Uzel/Bloomberg via Getty Images.
Customers queue to exchange money at a foreign currency exchange bureau in Istanbul on May 3, 2023. Photo by Kerem Uzel/Bloomberg via Getty Images.


Economic Downturn and Authoritarian Consolidation

We know that authoritarian regimes do not merely rely on oppression. Some level of public consent is necessary for authoritarian consolidation, and autocratic leaders typically obtain it by extending economic benefits to key voting blocs. As Desai et al argue, “authoritarian bargains” form when citizens exchange rights and freedoms in return for economic transfers.3 Indeed, over the years, the AKP owed its success mainly to its ability to harness the economic interests of its key electorates from both low- and high-income groups. Tax and housing policies, welfare benefits, extension of cheap credit, and lucrative procurements all supported this redistributive system.4 The costs of this redistribution were placed disproportionately on middle-income voters, not a typical AKP constituency. Yet the party’s redistributive capacity was not sustainable and faced challenges over time. Populist economic policies that prioritized rent generation over wealth creation, short-term interests over long-term ones, and popularity over economic rationality had their limits. Economic problems began to appear after 2016 and became more prominent after 2018, when inflation began to spike.

The AKP’s declining redistributive capacity sparked defections, contributing to the loss of the Istanbul and Ankara municipalities to the CHP in the 2019 local elections, after nearly 25 years under the AKP and its predecessors.5 The AKP’s loss of access to precious land rents in Istanbul — and to some extent, Ankara — after the 2019 elections further strained the patronage links between the party and its voters. Until 2019, the AKP had enjoyed the discretion to transfer land rents directly and indirectly to its voters and cronies. These rents were particularly important in rewarding pro-government media owners, through cheap land and lucrative public-private construction projects.6 Thus, the loss of access to valuable land rents constituted a critical turning point in the demise of the AKP’s redistributive system.

The AKP government’s decision to keep interest rates low and control the USD/TL exchange rate after 2021, despite high inflation, constituted another turning point in the decline of its economic power. While both policies served some populist interests and pleased certain groups, such as those who received cheap loans, the resulting high inflation was costly for most voters, especially wage earners.

In the run-up to the 2023 elections the economic situation did not look good for either Erdoğan or the future of his authoritarian bargain.7 Yet, risking a balance-of-payment crisis, he managed to push through populist economic policies one more time. An above-inflation increase in the minimum wage (of about 100% annually), expansion of early retirement to more than 2 million voters, and free natural gas supplies were among the populist benefits Erdoğan extended to voters shortly before the elections.

In addition, Erdoğan’s campaign embraced an emotional message, arguing that Turkey’s economic problems were only temporary. Erdoğan suggested that the AKP had fixed economic problems before and could do so again. By contrast, the opposition lacked both skills and previous accomplishments, he argued, so one could not trust them with as important and delicate a job as handling the economy.8 He also targeted the six-party opposition coalition’s governance scheme, whereby each party leader in the Nation Alliance would have veto power over presidential decisions, saying it would make it impossible to act decisively on critical issues, including economic ones. The outcome would be a cacophony as “six drumsticks would be hitting a single drum simultaneously.”9

Erdoğan’s campaign also emphasized that citizens’ daily economic problems were secondary to larger, immaterial goals. While not denying AKP supporters’ economic discontent, the incumbent’s campaign highlighted that pragmatic interests could not be placed above moral ones. “Could one give up on their love?” Erdoğan’s campaign would ask, inviting AKP voters to support their party one more time, for the love of Erdoğan, the love of their cause, or the love of their nation.10

The campaign also downplayed the importance of daily economic struggles by emphasizing Turkey’s accomplishments in the defense industry, including the development of battle tanks, drones, naval vessels, and fighter jets. Erdoğan successfully used a national-developmentalist narrative to deemphasize his poor performance in fighting high inflation and declining wages.11 He securitized the elections, claiming that a Nation Alliance victory would jeopardize Turkey’s national interests because the opposition was backed by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM) and thus, indirectly, by the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).12

Erdoğan’s emotional campaign was important in minimizing the influence of objective economic conditions. We know that voters do not automatically defect when they are economically dissatisfied. Instead, they compare their options and try to decide which candidate is more likely to improve their economic conditions in the future. Here, emotions play an important role as they influence how voters perceive their options and the broader economic environment.13 In the 2023 elections voters reelected Erdoğan, despite their economic frustration, because they were convinced that there was not a better alternative.

But as time went on, some voters clearly changed their minds and defections came though, after some delay, in the 2024 local elections. While further research is needed to understand who defected and why, existing evidence shows that economic dissatisfaction was among the main reasons for AKP voters’ frustration with the party.14 The AKP government was unable to reduce prices or boost wages between the 2023 and 2024 elections. The radical changes in economic policy embraced after the 2023 elections, under the new minister of treasury and finance, Mehmet Şimşek, were in line with conventional economic principles. However, the bitter medicine that came with this sudden return to economic orthodoxy, such as high interest rates and budget cuts, frustrated average voters, who were already exhausted by the previous impact of high inflation. The government’s refusal to increase the pensions of retirees, who made up around one-fourth of the electorate, despite heavy public pressure, was among the strongest signals that populist demands could no longer be met in the way they were in the past.15 Cutting populist redistributions in the run-up to elections was not a typical Erdoğan move, but as he openly told voters, this time he had no choice.16 He was taking a risk with the 2024 elections, and as the results showed, that risk was realized.

Is the AKP Losing or the CHP Winning?

We know that removing autocratic incumbents from office via elections is not merely a result of their failure but also due to the opposition’s skill. Particularly important is the ability of opposition leaders to bring together voters from different political backgrounds.17 Efforts to unite a divided opposition benefit greatly from charismatic leaders who can gain the trust and support of various ideological or cultural groups.18

For over a decade, from 2010 through 2023, Erdoğan was lucky to face Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as the CHP leader. Kılıçdaroğlu presented himself as a kind and gentle individual and disagreed that such qualities did not help when competing with a popular strongman figure like Erdoğan.19 Erdoğan, by contrast, made the most out of these personality differences over the years and portrayed Kılıçdaroğlu as a weak figure who could not even control the six-party opposition alliance, let alone Turkey.20

In the 2024 municipal elections, however, it was the CHP’s turn to enjoy all the advantages of charismatic candidates. This was particularly the case for the party’s Istanbul and Ankara mayors, Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, whose popularity largely surpassed that of AKP candidates Murat Kurum and Turgut Altınok. Both İmamoğlu and Yavaş, along with many other mayoral candidates nominated by the new CHP administration under party leader Özgür Özel, appealed to a wider voter base beyond the typical secularist, middle-class CHP constituency.21 These candidates were able to gain the trust of voters who were previously skeptical about the CHP, including those with conservative and nationalist inclinations. As a result, the CHP’s mayoral candidates played an important role in weakening the AKP’s partisan ties and motivating its frustrated voters to stay home on election day, if not defect.

It is also important to note that while some of the defectors did not vote for the CHP but moved to other, smaller parties, such as the conservative New Welfare Party (YRP), the CHP candidates’ de-polarizing influence must have played some part in this choice as well. After all, a more polarized political atmosphere would most likely have consolidated conservative voters around the AKP.

Indeed, evidence suggests that feelings of political alienation among AKP voters were higher before the 2024 elections, and while economic frustration was one factor at play, another was their relatively positive views about CHP candidates. Apathetic or alienated AKP voters typically felt that it did not really matter who won the elections.22 While this sentiment was certainly negative in part, due to the low political efficacy that voters perceived, the glass was still half full. In contrast to the polarized atmosphere of 2023, when AKP voters saw their party’s victory as critical for the furtherance of their political ideals, the level of partisanship was much lower before the 2024 elections. This suggests that voters felt freer to make choices that maximized their interests, independent of pressure from their party’s propaganda.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited the main opposition Republican People’s Party after 18 years and met with its leader Özgür Özel on June 11, 2024, in Ankara. Photo by Yavuz Ozden/dia images via Getty Images.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited the main opposition Republican People’s Party after 18 years and met with its leader Özgür Özel on June 11, 2024, in Ankara. Photo by Yavuz Ozden/dia images via Getty Images.


What Lies Ahead?

According to Geddes, the possibility of a transition from an authoritarian regime increases during its first 20 years.23 For her, it is within this period that an autocratic government faces most of the challenges it possibly can. If an autocrat survives this period, then the window of opportunity for a transition starts closing for most countries, to open again only after 35 years.

Shortly after the AKP reached the two-decade mark since coming to power, Turkey held two elections within a 10-month period. While the 2023 general elections gave the AKP another term in government, the 2024 local elections made the CHP the country’s leading party, for the first time since 1977. The current situation is far from a regime transition, but it still constitutes a historic turn in Turkey’s prospects for democratization.

The 2024 elections signaled that the AKP’s authoritarian bargain with its supporters has weakened. The party is losing support mainly because it can no longer maintain populist redistributions. Meanwhile, the CHP is finally seen as an acceptable alternative by the average voter.

The 2024 elections also created a critical opportunity for the CHP to further expand its voter base in the medium run, by making itself more visible and proving its ability to govern. At this point, state propaganda or asymmetrical media coverage will hardly be enough to “hide” the CHP from voters and limit awareness of its policies and performance. Now, through its control of municipalities across the country, the CHP has the chance to reach out to citizens on a daily basis, better understand their needs, and respond to their problems on site, all of which can increase its popularity to new levels.

Under the circumstances, it will be difficult for Erdoğan to restore the AKP’s votes and maintain his autocratic position. In fact, he faces a dilemma. To prevent further erosion of public support, Erdoğan needs to improve macroeconomic conditions. However, overcoming the existing economic problems in the medium run requires him to resist populist pressures and commit to the new orthodox economic policies in the short run, which include some unpopular belt-tightening measures. Thus, he needs a softer opposition during this critical period. Further, the AKP government will also benefit greatly from cooperating with the CHP in cutting unnecessary public expenses. Now that access to patronage networks is more evenly distributed between the AKP and the CHP, Şimşek’s plans to reduce public spending can hardly succeed if the two parties compete in providing patronage.

At this point, we may expect some changes in national politics, even before the next general elections. With political power now more balanced between the AKP and the CHP, the two parties can forge a new political bargain around mutual interests, as suggested by their joint announcement of a “softening-normalization” period. If this period lasts, we can expect several changes. Firstly, the two parties’ leaders will likely reduce the use of a polarizing and threatening discourse. This may be beneficial because opposition threats often push incumbents to use additional measures to stay in power, which end up being costly for both sides. Secondly, they may also embrace some administrative reforms that increase transparency and meritocracy in public administration.24 Thirdly, we can anticipate some cooperation in the implementation of the new economic program.

Certainly, the restoration of Turkish politics will require much more than what the “softening-normalization” plan may offer in the short run. Key measures like an end to political prosecutions, reinstitution of horizontal checks on government, guarantees of individual rights, and changes to the election law will likely have to wait for a change in government or a further increase in opposition support. It is also important to note that positive change may require the opposition to not give more than it receives. While a less polarized atmosphere and some coordination around common goals may benefit society as a whole, a toothless opposition would lose its current electoral support and, thereby, its leverage in bargaining with the government.

In sum, Turkey’s prospects for political change rely more than anything on the CHP’s ability to preserve its newly won central position, respond to voters’ daily needs through its municipal administrations, and maintain a positive trend in its popular support. In the face of an opposition that continues to grow stronger and with a declining ability to provide populist redistributions to attract voters, Erdoğan will have few options other than choosing moderation or facing an electoral loss in the next general elections.


Seda Demiralp is professor of political science and the chair of the Department of International Relations at Işık University, as well as a non-resident scholar with MEI’s Turkey Program. Her work concentrates on state-business relations in Turkey, Turkish political parties and elections, populism and emotions in Turkish political life, and gender archetypes in Middle East folklore.

Photo by Yasin AKGUL/AFP/via Getty Images.


1 According to Freedom House, in 2018 Turkey’s status changed from “partly free” to not free. See Freedom House, “Turkey: Freedom in the World 2018 Country Report,”

2 Gamze Elvan, “Siyasette yumuşama-normalleşme tartışmaları: İpler Erdoğan’ın mı elinde?,” Medyascope, May 9, 2024,….

3 Raj Desai, Anders Olofsgard, and Tarık Youseff, “The Logic of Authoritarian Bargains,” Economics & Politics 21, no. 1 (2009): 93-125,

4 Seda Demiralp, “Making Winners: Urban Transformation and Neoliberal Populism in Turkey,” Middle East Journal 72, no. 1 (Winter 2018): 89-108.

5 Evren Balta, Seda Demiralp, and Selva Demiralp, “Debating voter defection in Turkey,” Turkish Studies 24, no. 5 (2023): 739-63,

6 Demiralp, “Making Winners,” 89-108.

7 Gönül Tol, “Erdoğan’s authoritarian bargain collapses in Turkey,” Financial Times, April 4, 2023,

8 “Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan: Ekonomik sıkıntıları yine biz çözeceğiz,” TRT Haber, April 16, 2023,….

9 “Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan: “Bir tane davula 6 tokmak birden inecek”,” Ekovitrin, January 10, 2023,….

10 AK Parti, “İnsan doğrudan hiç vazgeçer mi?,” YouTube, April 14, 2023, video, 1:18,

11 Aykut Öztürk, “Whisper sweet nothings to me Erdoğan: developmentalist propaganda, partisan emotions, and economic evaluations in Turkey,” Democratization 30, no. 7 (2023): 1357-79,

12 “Erdoğan slams continued PKK support for Kılıçdaroğlu,” Daily Sabah, May 24, 2023,….

13 Öztürk, “Whisper sweet nothings to me Erdoğan,” 1357-79.

14 Seda Demiralp, 2024 Yerel Seçimlerine Doğru: Seçmen Apatisi ve Siyasi Tercihler (IstanPol, March 2024): 1-28,….

15 “4 seçmenden birisi emekli: 31 Mart yerel seçimlerinin sonucunu emekliler mi belirleyecek?,” Euronews, March 21, 2024,….

16 “Erdoğan: ‘Even if we halt all our other payments, we will not be able to provide our retirees with the pension hikes they have been promised’,” Medyascope, March 5, 2024,….

17 Elvin Ong, “What are we voting for? Opposition alliance joint campaigns in electoral autocracies,” Party Politics 28, no. 5 (2022): 954-67,

18 Walid Jumblatt Abdullah, “The Mahathir Effect in Malaysia’s 2018 election: the role of credible persons in regime transitions,” Democratization 26, no. 3 (2018): 521-36,

19 Murat Sabuncu, “Maltepe İzlenimleri: Kılıçdaroğlu rüzgarı var, ilk turda cumhurbaşkanlığını kazanabilir,” T24, May 7, 2023,….

20 İhsan Yılmaz, Nicolas Morieson, and Ana-Maria Bliuc, “AKP’s populist framing of Erdogan as the tough, macho, militaristic savior of ‘the people’ against the Western imperialists,” May 10, 2023, ECPS,….

21 Demiralp, 2024 Yerel Seçimlerine Doğru, 1-28.

22 Demiralp, 2024 Yerel Seçimlerine Doğru, 1-28.

23 Barbara Geddes, “Authoritarian Breakdown: Empirical Test of a Game Theoretic Argument,” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Atlanta, September 1999),….

24 For possibilities of administrative reforms, see Barbara Geddes, “A Game Theoretic Model of Reform in Latin American Democracies,” American Political Science Review 85, no. 2 (June 1991): 371-92,

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