Facing international pressure, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has embraced Western economic policy orthodoxy. This has meant giving up the clientelistic redistribution that has helped Erdoğan’s party maintain popularity amid severe economic crisis.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaks to supporters at his party’s Istanbul mayoral candidate’s campaign rally on March 29, 2024 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Burak Kara / Getty Images)

In the Turkish local elections on March 31, 2024, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered a historic defeat after over twenty years of uninterrupted dominance. Since its foundation in 2001, the AKP had consistently received the highest percentage of votes in all local and general elections, but its popularity dropped dramatically this election, from 42.56 percent in 2019 to 35.49 percent.

The AKP lost control of eighteen provinces, including major metropoles like Bursa, Balikesir, and Denizli to the Republican People’s Party (CHP), and Şanliurfa to the Islamist New Welfare Party (YRP). In Kurdish regions, the AKP’s decline was even more pronounced, resulting in losses to the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM, formerly HDP) in Muş and Ağri. Likewise, in the city of Van, the Supreme Electoral Board attempted to instate the AKP’s candidate over DEM’s winner, who had received 55 percent of the votes, but massive social resistance from below led to a reversal of this decision in a couple of days. The ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the junior partner in Erdoğan’s administration, also experienced significant losses, with its vote percentage falling below 5 percent, leading to the loss of control over key provinces such as Manisa.

These unexpected losses came shortly after a significant victory in the general elections in May 2023, when Erdoğan secured 52.18 percent of the votes. During a crucial meeting of the AKP Central Executive Committee after the most recent election, Erdoğan highlighted the urgent need to reverse the downward trend, warning that without action, the party would “keep melting like ice in the sun.”

Change in municipality control before and after the March 31, 2024 elections by party. (Şahan Savaş Karataşli)

The CHP’s Resurgence

As Erdoğan’s AKP suffered a major defeat, the CHP — the founding party of the Turkish Republic in 1923, known for its secularist platform that blends center-left and center-right elements and advocates for stronger rule of law — secured an unprecedented and unexpected victory. Receiving 37.77 percent of the popular vote, the CHP became the leading party nationally for the first time since 1977. The CHP expanded its control from twenty-two to thirty-five provinces, which included wins in very unexpected and symbolic places.

For the first time since the transition to multiparty elections in 1946, for example, the CHP won in Manisa — a bastion of the Turkish right wing. Likewise, the CHP triumphed in Balikesir for the first time since 1950, and in Amasya for the first time since 1977. The CHP also secured unexpected wins in Adiyaman, a traditionally conservative province in southeastern Turkey, and in Kirikkale, a stronghold for the AKP since its foundation.

What made the CHP’s victory more surprising was the unusual timing of this success. Ten months earlier, in the 2023 general elections, the CHP-led opposition had high hopes of ending the AKP’s rule. To this end, it had assembled a diverse alliance, which included center-right parties, splinters from the ultranationalist MHP, rival Islamist factions, and defectors from the AKP. It also secured support from the Kurds and many socialist groups to create an electoral united front.

As Erdoğan’s AKP suffered a major defeat in the recent local elections, the CHP — the founding party of the Turkish Republic in 1923 — secured an unprecedented and unexpected victory.

Yet despite the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history, this united-front strategy failed to unseat Erdoğan in 2023. This devastating defeat not only demoralized the opposition but also precipitated the dissolution of the anti-AKP alliance and led to substantial changes within the CHP’s leadership, triggering intraparty feuds and rivalries.

After the May 2023 electoral loss, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, who had led the CHP since 2010, was ousted from the CHP leadership. Despite widespread suggestions that the mayors of Istanbul or Ankara — Ekrem Imamoğlu or Mansur Yavaş, respectively — would have been more viable candidates against Erdoğan, Kiliçdaroğlu and smaller parties in the alliance had insisted on his own candidacy.

After the electoral defeat, in November 2023, Kiliçdaroğlu was replaced by a group of reformers led by Imamoğlu and Özgür Özel. With limited time to prepare for the upcoming local elections with new cadres and without the broad alliances that had previously bolstered the CHP-led opposition against the AKP — as most former ally parties decided to run their own candidates — the new leadership had lowered expectations for the 2024 elections. Rather than anticipating a remarkable victory, many were seriously concerned that the CHP might even lose major metropolises it had won in 2019, like Istanbul, unless it could resolve internal conflicts and unify the party.

What Changed?

The unexpected defeat of the AKP and unprecedented victory of the CHP on March 31 led many to question what had changed over the last ten months. Most commentators on the subject sought the answer in the most obvious element: the change in the CHP leadership and its refreshed image. Many concluded that Kiliçdaroğlu had been a barrier to the CHP’s success against the AKP for several years, and speculated that if Imamoğlu or Yavaş had been the presidential candidates, they might have defeated Erdoğan in 2023. But this popular line of reasoning overlooks the deeper issues at play in the 2024 elections and misunderstands the severity of the structural crisis facing the Turkish political economy and state-society relations.

For much of the opposition, the primary issue with the Turkish economy seems to have stemmed from Erdoğan’s one-man rule, his unorthodox economic policies — notably his belief that lowering interest rates would reduce inflation — his direct control over the Central Bank, and his use of state and government resources to enrich a business circle around him while maintaining the loyalty of his electorate through pragmatic redistribution of various kinds. This is not altogether wrong. To riff off of the Communist Manifesto’s definition of the state, we could say that Erdoğan long ago transformed the executive of the modern Turkish state into an authoritarian committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie who support him.

Understanding this also helps clarify what the CHP-led opposition actually demanded. It sought the restoration of the Turkish state back into a democratic entity that could manage the common affairs of the entire bourgeoisie, rather than only the segment of it loyal to Erdoğan.

The opposition therefore advocated a shift back to “rational” orthodox economic policies in line with the post-Washington consensus. It aimed to dispel the erroneous belief that high interest rates cause high inflation, end the Central Bank’s dependency on the president, and dismantle the political-economic ecosystem Erdoğan had established to benefit his inner circle at the expense of others.

The opposition advocated a shift back to ‘rational’ orthodox economic policies in line with the post-Washington consensus.

Likewise, the opposition argued that if there is to be redistribution, it should benefit all of society, not just AKP-MHP voters, and should support — or at least not undermine — the normal functioning of the economy. At the political level, these changes also required the restoration of normal bourgeois democracy and “the rule of law.” There was no difference on these issues between the old and the new CHP leadership.

Given the poor state of the Turkish economy, rising discontent from the masses experiencing a severe cost-of-living crisis, and pressure from international monetary circles and foreign capital reluctant to lend money or invest in Turkey unless more rational economic policies were implemented, in the 2023 general elections, Erdoğan was compelled to assure that he could implement the reforms promised by the opposition more smoothly and effectively than his opponents could. Thus, he indirectly pledged a partial return to orthodox economic policies. The appointment of Mehmet Şimşek as the minister of treasury and finance immediately after the 2023 elections signaled commitment to his pledge.

This is why the most significant change since last year did not take place within the CHP’s leadership but in the real-life experiences of the AKP-MHP supporters, who were none too happy with Erdoğan’s return to “rational” economic policy amid the worst economic crisis in Turkey’s modern history. As the cautious austerity measures introduced by Şimşek began to bite, it became painfully clear for millions that Erdoğan had exhausted all avenues for navigating out of the crisis.

People also realized that the shift to orthodox economic policies meant the end of the populist wage and salary increases as well as short-term financial fixes and clientelistic redistribution that millions had depended on — even for basic necessities like paying rent and bills — in the superinflationary crisis environment, where wages and pensions are falling below the subsistence level.

Finance as the Real Opium of the People

The real puzzle in Turkish politics is not how the opposition finally managed a victory over Erdoğan, but rather why this had not occurred sooner, given the gradual unraveling of the AKP’s hegemony. Many critical commentators have attributed Erdoğan’s sustained support among the working poor in both urban and rural areas to religious reasons — despite their class interests apparently dictating otherwise.

What this interpretation misses, however, is that Erdoğan has long provided the urban and rural working class with direct aid and a wide spectrum of financial quick fixes. In a highly insecure and exploitative political-economic environment, millions have become reliant not only on direct support and clientelistic redistribution from the AKP government, but also on various “financial fixes” like mushrooming short-term personal loans, easy-access credit cards, and cash advances to cover rent, food, and other basic needs. As Erdoğan insisted on lowering interest rates — citing Islamic law (nas) as justification — he was facilitating access to short- and medium-term credit, essential not only for capitalist firms but also for the broader public. This was a temporary “fix” to delay and partly mitigate the effects of the deep crisis.

Millions have become reliant not only on direct support and clientelistic redistribution from the AKP government, but also on various ‘financial fixes’ like mushrooming short-term personal loans, easy-access credit cards, and cash advances.

Yet like a drug addict needing his “fix” in increasingly frequent and potent doses, much of the public became addicted to these financial fixes, along with direct aid from state and local governments, to survive. This strategy inevitably contributed to the massive inflation and further raised the cost of living, but together with the sporadic and pragmatic increases in the minimum wage before the election times, it helped the AKP retain power.

The AKP’s method of navigating the crisis until late 2023 resembled driving downhill in a car with no brakes, where the only semblance of control came from pressing harder on the gas pedal — because using the handbrake would trigger an even greater disaster. After Şimşek and the new economic administration began to “gently” engage the handbrake by tightening monetary policy, thereby preventing wage and pension increases and cutting credit lines, Erdoğan began to face a roiling discontent, as indicated by the results of the 2024 local elections.

The Paradox of Defeat

Paradoxically, then, the opposition’s victory in the local elections is a consequence of its defeat last year. Had the CHP-led opposition won the 2023 elections (either with Imamoğlu, Yavaş, or Kiliçdaroğlu), it would have likely adopted the same economic policies that Şimşek is now implementing. Under such circumstances, the 2024 local elections could have seen remarkable success for Erdoğan’s AKP, which would have had the opportunity to leverage the opposition’s austerity and monetary tightening policies for its own political propaganda.

Moreover, had the CHP-led opposition won in 2023, it would likely be grappling with the same political issues that weakened the AKP in this local election. For instance, a significant factor in the AKP’s loss of power was the controversy over Turkish state enterprises and business circles linked to the AKP continuing to trade with Israel, including selling military-related logistics, during the atrocities in Gaza. This has alienated many in the Muslim population and allowed rival Islamic parties, such as the YRP, to exploit the apparent hypocrisy.

The deeper problem is that Turkey’s trade relationship with Israel, despite its support for Palestine, is a long-standing dynamic involving not only AKP-affiliated business circles but many more secular ones as well. Therefore, if the CHP had been in power, the AKP might have been able to exploit this issue even more effectively than the CHP has been able to.

So, Turkey may be facing not only a severe economic crisis but a full-fledged regime crisis — with the ruling classes unable to maintain their rule in the old way, and the suffering and want of the oppressed classes growing more acute, to paraphrase Lenin’s definition of a revolutionary situation. But in Turkey today, there is no significant political party, the CHP included, prepared to implement the reforms essential to protect the working and middle classes against the bitter pill that the ruling elite expects them to swallow as part of a return to orthodox economic policies.

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