Not so local elections in Turkey


On Sunday, March 31st, Turkish voters will head to the polls to elect mayors, district mayors, and local officials (mukhtars) in cities, villages, and neighborhoods across the country. Local elections seldom attract international headlines. However, the upcoming local elections, particularly the mayoral race in Istanbul, deserve and receive significant attention internationally, as well. The outcome is likely to have profound implications for the future configuration of political parties, shaping the country’s political trajectory under the presidential system.

Istanbul as a major battleground

Istanbul is once again the major battleground of the local elections in March. The metropolis is not only Turkey’s commercial and economic hub but also the country’s cultural and intellectual heart. Winning Istanbul is considered tantamount to winning Turkey because Istanbul, with its population of 16 million and its culturally diverse demography, serves as a microcosm of the country. Control over Istanbul’s budget, its almost limitless pool of rent generation and its vast array of investment opportunities undoubtedly make it an irresistibly lucrative target for all politicians Holding its mayoralty allows the party in the administration to finance numerous groups within the city and beyond through foundations and similar organizations, extending its influence to Anatolia.
Secondly, the mayoral race in Istanbul holds symbolic significance for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. where Erdogan launched his political journey as mayor following his surprising and lucky victory in the 1994 local elections. That’s why the defeat of the ruling party’s candidate in the 2019 Istanbul mayoral race by the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, dealt a humiliating blow to Erdogan, ending 25 years of rule by his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its Islamist predecessors in the city. This loss, alongside the broader outcome of the 2019 local elections wherein the ruling party lost control of major cities, shattered the perception of the AKP as invincible. Some even speculated that this electoral setback marked the beginning of the AKP’s decline in popularity. While Erdogan’s retention of his presidential seat in the 2023 elections has proven that this view was rather premature, the mayoral race in 2019 positioned Imamoglu as a formidable opposition leader with the potential to challenge Erdogan in electoral contests. Winning Istanbul back is, therefore, vital for President Erdogan to bolster his support and consolidate the legitimacy of his leadership under the presidential system.

Kurum’s name is on the ballot, but it is Erdogan’s contest

Given the high stakes in Istanbul’s mayoral race, Erdogan’s decision to choose former minister Murat Kurum as the AKP’s candidate for mayor in local elections last January was a surprise. Not only did Kurum lack charisma, but he also carried a controversial baggage in many respects. Kurum served as the Urbanization and Environment Minister between 2018-2019 and was subsequently elected as a member of parliament for Istanbul. During his tenure as minister, Kurum spearheaded numerous campaigns for extensive affordable housing and urban redevelopment projects in collaboration with the Housing Development Administration of the Republic of Turkey (TOKİ). He also championed President Erdoğan’s ambitious “Kanal İstanbul” project, a proposed artificial waterway, connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. In 2020, Kurum’s ministry approved the environmental impact assessment report (ÇED) for the Kanal İstanbul project. The decision, made amidst growing opposition to the channel’s construction, reflected the government’s unwavering commitment to President Erdoğan’s ambitious vision, dubbed his “crazy project.”
Kurum’s term also witnessed the passage of legislation granting “amnesty for construction violations,” allowing previously illegal buildings to be retroactively approved without adherence to updated building codes, shifting the burden of earthquake preparedness onto property owners. This policy drew criticism for exacerbating earthquake risks and fostering uncontrolled construction without due consideration for safety. The devastating earthquakes in Turkey’s south in February 2023 heightened public scrutiny over government actions, with many attributing the high death toll to AKP policies such as the amnesty.
Recent legislative actions by the Turkish parliament, including the passage of a controversial law championed by the ruling AKP and supported by Kurum, have also sparked widespread criticisms, particularly regarding potential infringements on property rights. This law focuses on urban transformation in areas prone to disasters like earthquakes and grants the government authority to expropriate properties by fiat. The law’s ambiguity raised concerns about potential abuses of power and the displacement of residents and green spaces for development purposes.

Uneven level playing field

Some argue that Erdogan picked Kurum as a candidate because he prioritized loyalty to his leadership over other qualifications. Erdogan could have anticipated an easy race, assuming that the opposition voters, deeply frustrated with the CHP, would withdraw their support from Imamoglu. However, as Kurum trailed behind Imamoglu in the polls, Erdogan stepped up his campaign efforts. He has been organizing rallies, calling on his voters for support “one last time,” signaling his intention to leave office upon finishing a final term under the presidential system. Erdogan does not refrain from using the stick, either. In a fairly obvious warning to residents of Istanbul, Erdogan hinted at the possibility of withdrawing support from municipalities led by the opposition. He suggested that interruptions in municipal services could occur if the AKP’s candidate were not elected in the local elections.
As observed in the last few years, elections in Turkey take place on an uneven playing field. According to media watchdog groups, approximately 90% of Turkey’s media is controlled by the government or its supporters, resulting in extensive promotion of the ruling party and its allies’ campaigns and limited exposure for the opposition. For instance, state broadcaster TRT allocated 32 hours of airtime to the ruling party within the initial 40 days of campaigning, in stark contrast to the mere 25 minutes dedicated to opposition candidates, as reported by the opposition. Erdogan has been using the advantages of being in office frequently utilizing state resources to support Kurum’s campaign trail. Perhaps for the first time, ministers are openly endorsing a mayoral candidate in the local elections. Yet, it remains to be seen whether or not their endorsement of Kurum would make any substantial difference in the outcome.

Gap Widens between Imamoglu and Kurum

According to the MetroPOLL survey of March, Imamoğlu, who held a 3-point lead over Kurum in February, appears to have widened the gap to a 10-point lead as the election draws near. One key factor suggested in the survey which contributes to this trend is İmamoğlu’s adept campaign performance. Imamoglu is widely regarded as a young and charismatic politician who skillfully showcases his achievements in Istanbul while addressing pressing issues that demand attention. In his speeches, Imamoglu not only highlights the services he has delivered to Istanbul but also sheds light on the attempts by the AKP government to impede these efforts. With his focus on service, Imamoglu appeals to AKP and the Nationalist Action Party MHP voters as well. But at the same time, he rallies a significant portion of opposition voters through his critical stance towards the AKP and Erdogan. His broad-based political strategy enables Imamoglu to garner support from voters across the political spectrum. Ozer Sencar, Founder and Director of MetroPOLL Research, anticipates that if İmamoğlu secures victory once again in the upcoming local elections in March, he stands a strong chance of being elected President in 2028.

Turkey’s Kurds as the kingmaker

In 2019, Imamoglu secured an electoral victory through the alliance between the CHP and the IYI Party, bolstered by strategic voting from the Kurdish voters. This time around, however, Imamoglu is running in the local elections without the support of pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM) -formerly HDP- or the nationalist IYI Party. The outcome of the mayoral race hinges largely on the Kurdish voters, who make up an estimated 10% of the electorate in Istanbul. The government’s policy of ousting elected mayors from their positions over alleged ties to the outlawed PKK, replacing them with state-appointed trustees has pushed the Kurds to converge around alternative political parties in the previous years. The AKP’s Istanbul defeat in the March elections was also blamed on the administration’s alienating discourse against Kurdish voters. While Kurdish votes played a critical role in Imamoglu’s win in Istanbul, the HDP’s indirect support to six-party opposition alliance’s (table of six) candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has arguably created mixed results in the presidential elections. To an extent, it played into President Erdogan’s hands as he used this tacit alliance against the opposition, accusing the opposition parties of siding/cooperating with the PKK. As the Dem Party fields its own candidates this time, it is difficult to foresee the direction of the Kurdish voters in Istanbul, especially after the CHP’s Afyonkarahisar mayoral candidate Burcu Koksal’s controversial anti-Kurdish remarks early this month, which may alienate the Kurdish electorate.

The rise of YRP

Meanwhile, another trend that should be watched closely in Turkish politics is the rise of a new religious-conservative party, the New Welfare Party, or YRP. Led by Fatih Erbakan, the son of the late PM Necmettin Erbakan – whose now-defunct Welfare Party (RP) dominated Turkish politics in the 1990s- YRP seeks to uphold the Milli Görüş vision, aligning ideologically with the AKP, from which founders including President Erdoğan once broke away. YRP joined the People’s Alliance in the general elections of May 2023, but decided to run independently in the upcoming local elections. It is expected to sway votes from AKP, appealing to conservative and religious voters, disenchanted by Erdogan’s handling of the economy.

Voting for Turkey’s democratic future

The mayoral race in Istanbul holds significant importance not only for the city’s environmental sustainability but also for the future of the political opposition in Turkey, CHP in particular. If Imamoglu were to lose, it would have adverse ramifications on the future trajectory of the CHP and could potentially sway the outcome of the presidential elections in 2028. Conversely, the CHP’s ability to retain control over the major cities it secured five years ago would inject new life into the party and position it as a viable alternative to Erdogan’s ruling party. Following the electoral setback, the CHP underwent a leadership change. However, given his poor track record with candidate lists, it’s hard to ascertain to what extent the party’s new chairman, Ozgur Ozel, generates enthusiasm among the party base.

On the other hand, Erdogan secured re-election for a second five-year term in a divisive election last year. A victory for Erdogan’s party could prompt the Turkish leader to pursue constitutional amendments that might extend his tenure beyond the current term limit. Currently, Erdogan and his allies lack sufficient parliamentary seats to enact a new constitution. However, another electoral triumph could potentially persuade some conservative opposition parliamentarians to switch sides.

In this scenario, the CHP would face significant turmoil. The only potential silver lining could be the emergence of a new opposition party from the ruins, akin to a phoenix rising from the ashes. However, in the interim, there’s a risk that Turkey may undergo a significant transformation, further compromising its democratic credentials. That is why the implications of the local elections extend far beyond the local level, as they hold the key to Turkey’s democratic future, which will ultimately determine Turkey’s position in an increasingly volatile world.

Should the Turkish electorate break Erdogan’s power grip in politics by defying him and his coalition in municipal elections, it could pave the way for a more conducive political environment for democratization in the country, which would serve as a beacon of hope for other countries grappling with reversing the slide to authoritarian rule.

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