Stakes Are High for Turkish President, Opposition in Local Elections

washington — Millions of Turkish citizens will head to the polls Sunday to elect mayors and local administrators for their cities and districts.

The elections come less than a year after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan secured his term for another five years last May.

“Now we have 2024 ahead of us,” Erdogan said in his victory speech, adding, “Are you ready to win both Uskudar [a district in Istanbul where Erdogan’s personal residence is] and Istanbul in the local elections in 2024?”

Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) aims to win back key cities, including Turkey’s largest, Istanbul, and its capital, Ankara, which it lost to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in 2019 through its alliance with the nationalist IYI Party.

Istanbul race

Winning Istanbul and Ankara, two cities that account for a quarter of Turkey’s population, gave the CHP a key position in power for the past five years.

Some analysts observe that the Istanbul race will be one of the main contested races.

“This election largely revolves around Istanbul. In the presidential elections, [opposition alliance candidate] Kemal Kilicdaroglu received more votes than Erdogan in both rounds in Istanbul,” political scientist Ismet Akca told VOA.

Istanbul, with its 15 million population, is symbolically important for political parties. An old saying in Turkish politics – “Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey” – was used by Erdogan a couple of times. Early in his career Erdogan was the city’s mayor, from 1994 to 1998.

The current Istanbul mayor and CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu was considered one of the possible vice presidents if the opposition alliance had won the May 2023 parliamentary and presidential elections.

However, after Erdogan’s victory in May 2023, the opposition alliance, headed by CHP and IYI, collapsed. The two parties are running their own candidates in the local elections.

Also, new political parties, including the center-right DEVA, the far-right Victory Party and the Islamist New Welfare Party, have emerged over the past five years, and they will compete in the Istanbul race with their own candidates.

In the 2019 election, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP, which is using a new name, DEM Party) did not announce a candidate and supported the opposition alliance’s Imamoglu. However, this year, the DEM Party has campaigned for prominent Kurdish politician Meral Danis Bestas, its candidate for Istanbul.

Erdogan’s AKP selected Murat Kurum, 47, former minister of environment and urbanization, who was one of the leading figures in the government’s response to the February 2023 earthquakes that killed more than 50,000 people in southeastern Turkey.

Main opposition CHP has Imamoglu, 52, seeking a second term. Already one of the most prominent figures in Turkey’s opposition, he is expected to run for president in 2028 if he wins.

With the lack of a broader alliance and Kurdish votes, Imamoglu is facing a tough race against Kurum, as Erdogan and his Cabinet officials are quite active in his campaign.

Erdogan’s ‘last election’

During a meeting of the Turkish Youth Foundation on March 8, Erdogan, 70, asked for support in the local elections, saying, “This is a final for me; under the mandate given by the law, this is my last election.”

“The eyes of the entire Islamic world are on Turkey. What will happen in Turkey? What result will the AKP get in these elections?” the president continued.

Erdogan came to power in 2002 and served as prime minister until 2014, when he became the first president elected by the public. He was re-elected in June 2018 and May 2023.

The Turkish constitution, which was last amended in 2017, enables the president to serve only two terms of five years. However, according to Article 116, if the parliament decides to repeat the elections during the president’s second term, the president may run for election again.

Erdogan hinted in November 2023 that his party aimed to work on a new constitution. Political scientist Akca thinks Erdogan’s statement was meant to consolidate his party’s voters.

“Erdogan does not want to lose this election to Imamoglu for the second time. The latest elections reveal that the lower classes and young people dissatisfied with the AKP are looking for other options,” Akca told VOA. Many of those voters have shifted allegiance from AKP to the Islamist New Welfare Party.

“The president is trying to overcome this problem with his emphasis on the Islamist cause and his speech with a high emotional tone.”

Gonul Tol, director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey program, said Erdogan is involved “as if he were the one on the ballot box.”

“So he is intervening in the electoral process so often and attacking the incumbent, CHP Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, almost on a daily basis. It sounds like this is turning into a referendum on Erdogan, which I personally believe is a bad strategy,” Tol said Thursday in a webinar.

Kurdish votes  

Several prominent Kurdish politicians, including Ahmet Turk, Leyla Zana and the imprisoned former HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas, have recently named Erdogan as one of the vital actors in the solution to the conflict with the Kurds.

“Our door is closed to terrorists and those who play a political game under the guidance of a terrorist organization,” Erdogan said Wednesday while campaigning in Diyarbakir.

Some analysts think that Erdogan ended the possibility of a peace process.

“Considering Erdogan’s speech, I do not expect anything like a new compromise, negotiation or a meeting between DEM Party and Erdogan,” Reha Ruhavioglu, director of the Diyarbakir-based Kurdish Studies Center, told VOA.

The Turkish government says the DEM Party has links with the PKK, which the United States, European Union and Ankara have designated as a terrorist group. The party denies this allegation.

In 2019, the then-HDP won 65 municipalities, but later, the mayors of at least 48 municipalities were sacked over terror accusations and placed under the control of government-appointed trustees.

This story originated in VOA’s Turkish Service. VOA Turkish’s Hilmi Hacaloglu and Mahmut Bozarslan contributed from Istanbul and Diyarbakir.

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