Turkish opposition party the CHP secured an unlikely and historic victory at the country’s local elections on Sunday.

The social democratic party became the first since the ruling AK Party (AKP) was formed in 2001 to beat them in a nationwide count, while also winning the mayoralties of all of Turkey’s five largest cities.

The AKP not leading the national vote count is an unprecedented development in Turkish politics, given that even in 2019 with the historic mayoral victories in Istanbul and Ankara, the CHP were 14 points behind the ruling Ak Parti nationwide.

The gap was even starker during last May’s parliamentary elections, where the Ak Parti won 42.6 per cent and the CHP won 22.7 per cent.

Arguably the most important city on the Turkish electoral map is Istanbul, the country’s largest city, with a population of 16 million.

CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu had pulled off a shock victory in 2019, edging past former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. This year, the AKP spared no effort in its attempts to win the city back.

However, Sunday’s result in Istanbul was a landslide, with an 11 per cent margin between Imamoglu and Kurum. Imamoglu said on Sunday evening as the votes were being counted that he believed he had won “a million more votes” than his rival.

Speaking at a post-election rally, he said the election had “taught a lesson” for Turkey’s central government to “not apply pressure” on his municipality.

He also mentioned the planned Istanbul Canal, which had been planned by Erdogan to circumvent the Bosphorus and allow an alternative route outside of the city’s limits from the Black Sea to the Dardanelles.

“The canal is finished, Istanbul will live. No one should ignore elected officials. Let them work together,” he said.

He added, “this evening, Istanbul said, ‘Mr President, sign the metro projects you blocked and mind your business’. The nation gave this message. The nation said, ‘I am for peace, tranquility, and democracy’. Let’s see if [the government] gets it.”

In the capital city Ankara, the AKP were routed. CHP candidate and incumbent mayor Mansur Yavas, who had also won the mayoralty in a shock victory in 2019, finished the night with a 28 per cent margin to AKP candidate Turgun Altinok, almost doubling Altinok’s number of votes.

Yavas had already declared victory by 8pm, and addressed a crowd of thousands at Ankara’s city hall later in the evening, telling supporters he had won a record number of votes for an Ankara mayoral election.

He also said, “labour and sweat won, the profiteers lost, social local administration won. The construction barons lost the election in Ankara, the people of Ankara won.”

He added, “these elections draw a roadmap for Turkey as well as for us. If you are accountable to the public with less words and more actions, that is how you get elected with a record number of votes.”

Turkish Cypriot Nicosia mayor Mehmet Harmanci extended his congratulations to both Imamoglu and Yavas, describing both Istanbul and Ankara as “sister cities” of Cyprus’ capital.

Elsewhere, he CHP’s Cemil Tugay strolled to victory in Turkey’s third-largest city and historically CHP-supporting Izmir, while Zeydan Karalar won himself a second term as mayor of fifth-largest city Adana with a comfortable margin.

In Bursa, Turkey’s fourth-largest city, CHP candidate Mustafa Bozbey unseated AKP mayor Alinur Aktas, finishing the night with a nine per cent margin.

In total, the CHP now controls 15 of Turkey’s 30 metropolitan municipalities and 21 of its 51 provincial municipalities. The AKP controls 11 metropolitan municipalities and 12 provincial municipalities.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed supporters in Ankara shortly after midnight, stressing that “the real winner of these elections is democracy and our national will.”

He added that Turkish democracy has “once again proven its maturity” and thanked all those who turned out to vote.

Speaking on party matters, he admitted that “we did not get the result we hoped for” and said discussions would be held regarding the reasons for his party’s decline in vote share.

“Whenever we lose, we identify the reasons and make the necessary changes,” he said.

Erdogan has long recognised the importance of Istanbul’s political leanings in Turkey’s electoral future, once saying that whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey.

He himself rose to prominence in the 1990s after becoming the city’s mayor and had been fighting tooth and nail in this year’s campaign to win the city back for his party and its candidate, former Environment Minister Murat Kurum.

Murat Kurum had been the preferred candidate of Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar, who shared an iftar meal, the breaking of the Ramadan fast, with him ten days ago. Tatar said Kurum had “greatly helped in the opening of Varosha” back in 2020.

At the other end of the scale, CHP leader Ozgur Ozel was in a jubilant mood, saying, “the voters voted for the Republic of Turkey! The CHP has now broken the 25 per cent ceiling and shattered it into pieces.

The CHP is no longer just the party of the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts, but the party of the whole of Turkey!”

local elections in istanbul

Supporters of Ekrem Imamoglu celebrate in Istanbul