People photograph seagulls as they fly over the Galata Bridge in Istanbul, Türkiye, June 20, 2023. (AP Photo)

Dynamics in Türkiye as local election looms

Local elections are scheduled to be held in Türkiye on March 31. Although local elections may not significantly shape the immediate future of the country, they hold the potential to trigger numerous political dynamics.

Local elections are scheduled to be held in Türkiye on March 31.

Although local elections may not significantly shape the immediate future of the country, they hold the potential to trigger numerous political dynamics.

In many countries, local elections pertain to city governance, yet in Türkiye, they are often viewed as an extension of the general elections. Following President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s electoral victory in May 2023, Türkiye embarked on a new era. The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) continued its 20-year dominance and alongside the People’s Alliance, secured a parliamentary majority. Subsequently, President Erdoğan undertook structural measures to rejuvenate the economy, persisted in combating terrorism and strengthened his foreign policy momentum through regional normalization.

The opposition, however, encountered a significant setback, leading to the dissolution of their alliance post-election. Despite efforts by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to move past its electoral defeat by ending Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership – after losing 13 elections to Erdoğan – the new leader struggled to assert control over the party and to instigate the anticipated change within the CHP. Moreover, the CHP has evolved into a party where Ekrem Imamoğlu, the mayor of Istanbul, seeks to marginalize his political adversaries and assume central control.

The Good Party (IP), representing the secular and nationalist constituents of the Nation Alliance, underwent fragmentation following internal disputes. Although Meral Akşener, the party’s chairperson, managed to sustain her party, she witnessed a decline in her political influence. The smaller parties within the Nation Alliance failed to make their mark post-election. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), rooted in Kurdish nationalism, aimed to recalibrate its stance following the general elections and sought to preserve its significance amid PKK controversies by changing the party’s name. Its members ran in the May 14 elections under the newly founded Green Left Party (YSP), also informally known as the Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM Party).

Shifting alliances

As the March 31 elections draw near, the core dynamics of Turkish politics remain unchanged. Nonetheless, significant shifts are occurring within and between alliances. The People’s Alliance capitalized on its cohesive stance on crucial political issues, buoyed by the electoral victory. The AK Party and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), principal components of the People’s Alliance, faced no significant hurdles in nominating candidates for the local elections and succeeded in presenting unified candidates in major cities. More importantly, their cohesive discourse on domestic and foreign policies persists. The strategic objective of the People’s Alliance is to recapture major cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, thereby reinforcing the alliance.

Conversely, the outlook for the opposition parties is less promising, attributable to several key factors. Firstly, the CHP is mired in internal conflict. The party’s new chairperson, Özgür Özel, aims to diminish the influence of his predecessor, Kılıçdaroğlu, while asserting his leadership, particularly against Imamoğlu. Losing to the AK Party in the local elections would complicate his ability to retain his chairpersonship, providing Kılıçdaroğlu with a strong basis to reclaim his position. Secondly, the opposition bloc is disintegrating. The IP, positioning itself as a third alternative, criticizes the CHP, with which it previously aligned, and is contesting the elections with its own candidates in major cities. This strategy complicates the CHP’s prospects, especially in Istanbul.

The pro-PKK YSP plans to contest against the CHP’s candidate, Imamoğlu, in Istanbul. Should the YSP nominate a candidate, Imamoğlu’s chances of losing Istanbul could increase. Conversely, if the YSP opts not to field a candidate and instead supports Imamoğlu, it could inadvertently bolster the People’s Alliance’s narrative. The YSP’s ties with the PKK could cast the CHP in a negative light among secular nationalist segments, limiting Imamoğlu’s appeal in Istanbul, where nationalist conservative voters comprise over 55% of the electorate.

Consequently, Murat Kurum, the People’s Alliance candidate and former minister of environment, urbanization and climate change, might win, returning Istanbul to government control. Other small opposition parties, due to their stance against the CHP’s dealings with the YSP and overall policy, are contesting the elections independently. This further weakens the opposition’s stance against the People’s Alliance and augments President Erdoğan’s chances of clinching another local election victory.

National dynamics

While local elections typically focus on city governance, urban development, public services and infrastructure, national politics and policies significantly influence local election outcomes. The ruling party at the national level may consolidate its local support, yet local voters might exhibit varying voting behaviors to express their contentment or grievances with the national government.

The AK Party’s triumph as the leading party in the 2023 general elections and the disarray within the opposition’s ranks remain among President Erdoğan’s greatest advantages in the upcoming local elections. Although economic improvements could unite opposition voters, the economy remains a non-decisive factor. Erdoğan’s charisma profoundly resonates with the broader electorate, and the prevailing regional crises underscore the demand for strong leadership.

Major urban issues, particularly in Istanbul, include the looming earthquake risk and the need for urban transformation, with transportation being a critical concern. Hence, the People’s Alliance’s candidate for Istanbul, Kurum, emphasizes urban transformation and transportation in his campaign. Given the devastation of the Feb. 6 earthquakes, critical city voters, especially in Istanbul, prioritize earthquake preparedness as the foremost security concern. While the People’s Alliance advocates for building resilient cities, other parties are also prioritizing earthquake preparedness and urban transformation in their campaigns.

The outcome of the March 31 local elections is likely to hinge on Istanbul. A victory for the AK Party, especially in Istanbul and Ankara, could significantly impact the opposition, potentially leading to further internal disputes within the CHP. Conversely, if the opposition secures Istanbul, it could have medium-term political ramifications.

[Daily Sabah, February 8, 2024]

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