Turkey’s local elections

Karam Said, Tuesday 2 Apr 2024

What do the wildly popular municipal elections say about the state of politics in Turkey?

Turkey s local elections

 

More than 48 million Turkish voters, or 78 per cent of the electorate, reported to the polls on Sunday, 31 March, to elect municipal leaders. They chose figures from more than 35 parties as well as thousands of independents who fielded themselves for local office in the country’s 81 provinces.

Opposition candidates comfortably secured their mayoral seats in many municipalities, especially the larger metropolises where secularist views aligned with the liberal Republican People’s Party (CHP). The opposition parties prevailed in 40 provinces while the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) retained control of 41.

The campaigns, coming nine months after the hotly contested parliamentary and presidential elections, saw an intensification of already sharp political polarisation in the cities that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hoped to win back from the opposition. Taking advantage of his platform as president to campaign for AKP candidates, Erdogan inveighed against incumbent CHP mayors, accusing them of mismanagement and worse. In the southeastern provinces, the AKP and its ultranationalist ally in the People’s Alliance, the National Movement Party (MHP), ratcheted up their customary anti-Kurdish rhetoric, taking every opportunity to claim that the pro-Kurdish, progressive People’s Equality and Democracy Party (DEM) is the political wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), designated in Turkey as a terrorist organisation.

As has been the case for many years, the economy was the main determinant of voting trends, its impact increasing in tandem with shrinking GDP, declining per capita purchasing power, the steep drop in the value of the Turkish lira, and the overall deterioration in living standards. The opposition parties had little difficulty highlighting the shortcomings of the ruling AKP’s economic and monetary policies, as mirrored in Turkey’s downward trajectory in international economic and investment ratings and the reduced confidence in the Turkish economy often because of the executive’s personal interventions in monetary policy.

The Kurdish minority question was a key factor in predominantly Kurdish municipalities in the southeast, as well as in the metropolitan areas. The DEM, the successor of the Green Left and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), campaigned vigorously, not only to counter the government’s pressures but also to deliver a message to the other opposition parties about the weight and value of the Kurdish vote. The main opposition parties, notably the CHP and the IYI (Good) Party, did nothing to oppose the AKP’s and MHP’s political siege against the HDP, which culminated in a lawsuit filed in January 2023 to shutter what had been the third largest party in parliament. Despite evidence refuting the allegation that the HDP had any connection with the PKK, the Turkish Constitutional Court rejected the HDP’s request to delay the final verdict on the case until after the May 2023 parliamentary and presidential elections. The HDP, therefore, decided to merge with the Green Left to form the DEM for the purposes of the parliamentary elections. In addition, they decided not to field a presidential candidate and instead pit their considerable weight behind the main opponent to President Erdogan, the CHP presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

Foreign policy issues do not normally figure prominently in local elections in which, according to public opinion surveys, rising prices, democratic freedoms, and the Syrian refugees issue rank foremost among voters’ concerns. This year, however, the Israeli war on Gaza has riveted the attention of Turkish public opinion and Turkish cities have seen massive rallies in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Drawing on this, many opposition candidates criticised the Erdogan government for not taking a firm enough stance against Israel and its brutality.

The question of Syrian refugees was as much a hot button issue in the 2024 local elections as it was in the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2023. CHP candidates, especially in the metropolitan areas, took pains to highlight the measures they had taken as mayors and municipal leaders to mitigate the adverse effects of the refugee crisis on the economy, jobs, and standards of living. Turkey hosts more than three million Syrians displaced by the Civil War in Syria, not to mention several hundred thousand displaced from Afghanistan and other parts of Asia. Many Turks regard the refugees as a main cause of high inflation and rising real estate and food prices and resent them for benefiting from public services meant for Turkish citizens.

Terrorist violence, which has also reared its head again in Turkey recently, became another campaign issue. The attack on a Roman Catholic church in Istanbul in January raised concerns over the growing presence of IS-K (for Khorasan) in Turkey. Opposition candidates accused the government of negligence and even turning a blind eye to IS sleeper cells in Turkey. The AKP lashed back at its adversaries, accusing them of sympathising with PKK terrorism, the last incident of which was the suicide bombing in front of the Security Directorate building in Ankara in October 2023.

The opposition parties’ gains and the corresponding losses of the AKP and its coalition partner, the MHP, in the municipal elections did not surprise observers given the public opinion surveys documenting the declining popularity of the ruling party against the backdrop of the steady economic deterioration and mounting social problems in recent years. The CHP, in particular, had scored major inroads in the 2019 municipal elections which ushered in Ekrem Imamoglu as the mayor of Istanbul and Mansur Yavas as the mayor of Ankara. Both Imamoglu and Yavas won second terms with even greater majorities in this year’s elections, testifying to voters’ satisfaction with their performance in office. The CHP also claimed victories in many municipalities that had been controlled by the AKP for two decades, such as Bursa, Manissa, and Balikesir.

The CHP’s robust performance this year may also have to do with its ability to effectively manage the internal crisis it suffered following the May 2023 elections in which the party and its leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, fell short of the high expectations pinned on them at the time. The CHP has since restructured itself and elected a new chairman, Özgür Özel, to replace the long-serving Kilicdaroglu. Its successes testify to its ability to campaign and mobilise voters without forming a coalition with other parties, as has been the case in the May 2023 elections.

Local elections are of crucial importance to the political parties across the Turkish ideological spectrum because of their immediate connection to the needs and concerns of their grassroots bases. So, for the opposition parties, for example, winning mayorships and municipal council seats enables them to build support in the intervals between parliamentary elections by serving their constituencies. Similarly, for the ruling AKP sustaining control over municipal posts serves to counter opposition pressures and stem the erosion of its grassroots bases.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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