Election banners of Murat Kurum (R), mayoral candidate of the ruling AK Party, Istanbul's mayor Ekrem Imamoglu (C) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hang along a street ahead of the local elections in Istanbul, Türkiye, March 28, 2024. (Reuters Photo)

Local elections and future of Turkish politics

It is still unclear to what extent the local elections to be held on Sunday will affect Turkish politics. In terms of macro-political dynamics, the main patterns of politics in Türkiye are not expected to change. After the local elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will have more than four years ahead of him.

It is still unclear to what extent the local elections to be held on Sunday will affect Turkish politics. In terms of macro-political dynamics, the main patterns of politics in Türkiye are not expected to change. After the local elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will have more than four years ahead of him.

It is certain that Erdoğan’s first priority in this four-year period will be economic recovery. This is because things have not been going well in the Turkish economy for some time, and although serious steps have been taken to rein in inflation, there has been no real decline. Türkiye stands among the nations grappling with the highest food inflation rates. Additionally, interest rates remain elevated, while the Turkish lira persistently depreciates against foreign currencies. Therefore, President Erdoğan’s priorities involve revitalizing the economy through the establishment of a sustainable development model, enhancing social welfare, and achieving high growth rates.

In foreign policy, President Erdoğan’s priority is to maintain good relations with regional actors to safeguard Türkiye’s national interests under conditions of uncertainty and in a fragile regional security landscape. Except Israel, it is clear that President Erdoğan has been successful in his active diplomacy, deterrent security policy and defense industry policies based on consolidating Türkiye’a military power. Therefore, the local elections do not pose any risk for President Erdoğan to change his macro policies. Nor will the results of the local elections lead to a significant change in Türkiye’s main political dynamics.

Opposition parties

Across Türkiye, President Erdoğan seems quite satisfied with the dissolution of the consensus reached between the opposition on the 2023 general elections. This is because there is a heated debate between the presidents of the two important members of the alliance. The main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), experienced defeat in the 2023 elections and subsequently replaced its leader, who had been unsuccessful in elections against Erdoğan for 13 years. However, the new chairperson has struggled to fully step into his role.

He failed to transform the CHP and alienated his supporters. He could not persuade other parties in the local elections to ally against the People’s Alliance. Furthermore, he reinforced the perception of being merely a placeholder in his position, especially compared to the ambitious Ekrem Imamoğlu, who once again was CHP’s candidate for Istanbul.

Apart from the general strategy of his party, Imamoğlu cooperated with the Green Left Party (YSP), informally known as the Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM Party), which functions as a political extension of the PKK, in Istanbul and probably hid the framework of the cooperation from his party. Imamoğlu also did not show the respect that the chairperson Özgür Özel deserved and instead of consolidating his leadership, he acted as the chair of the CHP. He narrowed Özel’s space as much as possible and removed him from the Istanbul election process.

Thus, he created his own political space and tried to reinforce the image of himself as the leader of the CHP against Özel. In doing so, he financed a large media space and built a discursive framework loyal to him. By winning the Istanbul elections, Imamoğlu wants both to strengthen himself within the CHP and to secure his candidacy for the next presidential elections by uniting the opposition against Erdoğan around his candidacy.

For this reason, despite all the problems, he preferred to conduct the Istanbul election campaign through polemics rather than through his projects. He tried to respond to Murat Kurum, the candidate of the People’s Alliance who challenged Imamoğlu, with post-truth political language.

The other opposition parties struggled to maintain the voter turnout and support base they achieved in 2023, despite fielding their own candidates. The YSP chose to present its own slate of candidates in the eastern and southeastern provinces of Türkiye but did not challenge the CHP in the western cities. Despite pressure from its grassroots for independent representation, the YSP ultimately sided with the CHP, offering only nominal candidates, influenced by the PKK’s mountain faction. This strategy placed Imamoğlu in a precarious position with nationalist voters in Istanbul, leading him to adopt a vague approach to secure Kurdish votes.

The Good Party (IP), a key ally of the CHP in the May 2023 elections, attempted to distinguish itself by running an independent candidate. Nonetheless, it couldn’t generate sufficient campaign momentum and is likely to fall short of vote expectations, potentially ceding a significant portion of its base to Imamoğlu.

It appears that both the YSP and IP may see their influence wane in Turkish politics as a result of the local elections. The YSP is poised to become a support mechanism for the primary opposition through anti-Erdoğanism, while the IP may struggle to ever replicate its previous success. Other opposition factions are also likely to encounter outcomes that fall short of their aspirations.

People Alliance’s strength

For the ruling Justice and Development Party-led (AK Party) People’s Alliance, the situation looks much brighter than the opposition. The AK Party and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) seem to have reinforced their partnership on three pillars. Although there are nuances in political discourse, they are very careful to maintain a common language. Both parties are on the same line in terms of political practices. On domestic and foreign policy issues, the MHP provides strong support for the government’s policies. More importantly, there is a “sociological integration” in the voter base of both parties. This unity will most likely enable the People’s Alliance to take back some big cities from the CHP and further consolidate the alliance for the next four years. However, for this to happen, the People’s Alliance needs to win Istanbul again.

Murat Kurum, the candidate of the People’s Alliance, spent his three-month election campaign focusing on the major problems of Istanbul and explaining his solution proposals. He built his campaign on the slogan “only Istanbul” and criticized Imamoğlu for not focusing on Istanbul. He was largely successful and succeeded in showing that Imamoğlu’s priority was not Istanbul. He was very effective in shaping the social perception of Imamoğlu. There is a likely scenario that he will win the election.

Istanbul will be a pivotal city in the local elections, likely catalyzing the opposition’s political journey. It is expected to spark significant internal strife within the opposition ranks, heralding a new phase of internal conflict.

[Daily Sabah, March 30, 2024]

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