In Istanbul, thousands of people started the new year with celebrations held in the city's important squares and streets. New Year's Eve, 2024. (Photo credit: Cemal Yurttaş / Anadolu Agency)

What is agenda of campaigns as Turkish local elections near?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) mayoral candidates in 26 provinces, including Istanbul, on Sunday.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) mayoral candidates in 26 provinces, including Istanbul, on Sunday.

Murat Kurum’s nomination suggests that the ruling party will focus on housing, urban renewal, earthquake preparedness and public projects on the campaign trail. It was also noteworthy that Erdoğan talked about “serving the city,” “true municipal administration,” “winning the local elections to reach the ‘Century of Türkiye’ goals” and “the opposition’s ideological impositions and politics of fear” at that event. All those points highlighted the AK Party’s intention to underline what was possible to shed light on the shortcomings of the Republican People’s Party (CHP)-affiliated mayors.

Indeed, Erdoğan took a jab at CHP Chairperson Özgür Özel without mentioning Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu, with reference to his role as de facto co-chair of the main opposition party: “Through our victories, we shall also liberate Mr. Özgür. One cannot engage in politics with one’s debts hanging over one’s head. If Mr. Özgür would like to obtain his political license, he should get rid of his guardians and masters instead of attacking us.” The president also took that opportunity to highlight Özel’s ongoing efforts to talk the Green Left Party (YSP), informally known as the Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM Party), into a collaboration: “He seems to think that he can make people forget under which terms he was allowed to become CHP chair and what holds him down by making concessions to the separatists at every turn.”

It is no secret that any opposition figure whom President Erdoğan targets tends to become more popular at the grassroots level. Let us recall that Imamoğlu signaled his intention to take on Erdoğan, not the People’s Alliance. That is why the Turkish president isn’t expected to talk about the opposition’s mayoral candidates directly.

Likewise, Kurum’s initial statements focused on Istanbul exclusively, suggesting that the ruling party sees Imamoğlu’s appetite for intraparty and national politics as a weakness.

Another major campaign theme will be to strike a balance between national and local politics. The ruling party and the opposition will inevitably discuss national issues like ideology and identity. What really matters is whether that combination will become a synthesis capable of winning over voters in metropolitan areas.

Opposition’s strategy

The main opposition party fired the first salvo by opening to debate the political regime’s future with reference to the postponement of the Super Cup final. That is how they hope to win over the Good Party’s (IP) secular-minded, right-wing voters under the guise of grassroots cooperation. That discourse, however, won’t put pressure on the People’s Alliance. If anything, it could provide the ruling party with some rhetorical ammunition.

Specifically, fueling political polarization by talking about “regime change” would cause the CHP to drift away from the supporters of the right-wing opposition parties. By contrast, the ruling party could easily highlight its commitment to the republic and its values. Indeed, Erdoğan promptly stopped the CHP chairperson’s attack and used the “regime” discourse to carve out a new discursive space: “Once again, they use our republic and its founder, Ghazi Mustafa Kemal, as materials most suitable for exploitation. In truth, this nation has no problem with the republic or Ghazi Mustafa Kemal.”

On Sunday, the president went even further, warning that the pawns of a foreign government have resurfaced ahead of the municipal elections to cloud people’s judgments: “They make no effort to step out of their echo chambers to understand the nation. They were prisoners of artificial fears for years. Today, they drown in their ignorance, hate and confusion – to such an extent that they do not even know the Shahada. This is a nation that etched the Shahadah into its national anthem.”

Is it useful for the CHP, which is compelled to collaborate with the YSP, to talk about regime change? Absolutely not. Quite the contrary, criticizing the AK Party with reference to the republic’s core principles severely undermines CHP’s ongoing search for partners. Let us recall that Selahattin Demirtaş, the former head of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), made statements during the judicial proceedings that attacked Atatürk for years. Fueling polarization in an attempt to repeat what happened in 2019 might cost CHP dearly. The bottom line is that the charge of being “part of a dirty game against Türkiye” would be far more effective than criticism along the lines of “regime change.”

[Daily Sabah, January 10, 2024]

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