Turkey heads to the polls for local elections

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

On March 31, millions of Turks head to the polls to elect district mayors, metropolitan municipality mayors, provincial assemblies, and neighborhood and village representatives in local elections. The results of the race, especially in the country's biggest cities where the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is trying to win back the seats it lost in 2019, will shape Turkey's future, including economy, governance, and international position. Although not racing himself, President Erdoğan has been at the forefront of his party's election campaign trail. As pointed out by Turkey pundits, the race is between consolidating authoritarian rule vs the opposition's prospects as a viable alternative to decades-long conservative rule.

All eyes on Istanbul

Istanbul, where the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) secured victory in 2019 after twenty-five years of AKP's reign, is one of the key cities in this year's race. Retaining Istanbul as well as Turkey's other large cities — Ankara, Izmir, and Antalya — where the opposition party secured victory in previous local elections can boost the morale among Turkey's opposition, which suffered a loss during general elections last year and has remained fractured since.

“Are you ready to win Istanbul in the local elections,” said President Erdoğan after the victory in general elections in May 2023. For many pundits, this was a signal that the president's next target was winning the city's mayoral office in the upcoming local elections.

Losing control over the municipality in Istanbul in 2019 was described as a major blow to Erdoğan, as its where he started his political career when he was elected mayor in 1994.

In total, 22 political parties have candidates on the ballot, in addition to 27 independent candidates for Istanbul's mayoral seat. Istanbul's ballot, with 49 candidates, has the highest number of candidates of all cities in the country.

All eyes are on two key contestants: The CHP's Ekrem İmamoğlu, who has been in office for five years, and AKP's Murat Kurum, the former Minister of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change.

Both have promised to adopt earthquake-safe infrastructure and ease the city's long-time traffic problem.

In 2019, after the CHP's Ekrem İmamoğlu won against the AKP's Binali Yıldırım, the latter objected to the results. In the re-run, İmamoğlu won with an even higher margin —  some 860,000 votes versus 13,700 votes.

But this year's playing field is more complicated. In 2019 the opposition was in coalition with DEM, the Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party, or DEM (formerly HDP, Turkey's main pro-Kurdish Party) and the nationalist IYI Party, drawing them a larger support base in the capital Ankara and Istanbul. This time, both DEM and IYI have their own candidates in the race game, which may damper the CHP's political chances.

DEM is still expected to secure victory in regions with predominantly Kurdish-populated in Turkey's southeast. Whether they can keep their seats is another question. Following previous local elections many of the party's democratically elected mayors — 58 to be exact — were removed and replaced by the state-appointed trustees over the former's alleged ties to the Kurdish militants in reference to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK a designated terrorist group by Turkey and the West.

DEM's predecessor — the HDP — is facing potential closure over alleged militant ties, which the party has vehemently denied. HDP's co-founder is also behind bars.

Also in the race is a religious-conservative New Welfare Party (Yeni Rifah Parti). Pundits say, it could divide AKP's votes among conservative and religious voters disillusioned by President Erdoğan's (mis)handling of the economy.

CHP is likely to retain its mayoral seat in the cities of Ankara and Izmir.

What is at stake?

The first point of business are constitutional changes which could allow incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to stay in power, despite earlier promises these elections would be his last.

While the president cannot legally run in the next presidential race in 2028, according to Turkey's Constitution, there are two scenarios in which this can change. In the first scenario, President Erdoğan and the AKP would need to secure 400 votes in the parliament to change the constitution. Turkey's parliament, the Grand National Assembly, consists of 600 seats. At the moment, the AKP and its main ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), hold 313 seats. Thus, pushing for a constitutional amendment with a parliamentary vote would largely depend on whether the ruling party and President can secure the support of other political party representatives.

In the second scenario, the parliament can call for an early election. But even in this scenario, 360 parliamentary votes are needed.

According to the Constitution, President Erdoğan could not run in the May 2023 election either. But that was contested ahead of the vote in May by the People's Alliance (a coalition of the ruling AKP and the nationalist MHP), who argued at the time that it would not constitute a third term on the grounds that Erdoğan's first term in office was before the 2017 constitutional changes replacing the country's governing structure. Constitutional lawyers argued otherwise but to no avail.

“The upcoming election cycle presents the opportunity for Erdoğan to consolidate power at both the national and local level—and to cement his dominance over the entire Turkish political system for years to come,” wrote academic Sinan Ciddi, in a column for Foreign Policy.

Election (in)equality

President Erdoğan has relied heavily on his presidential powers as well as the government institutions and media ahead of the vote. In a country where 90 percent of traditional media is controlled by the government it was not surprising to see that much of the air time, has been devoted to the ruling party and its candidates.

Moreover, disinformation is rampant just as it was during the general elections last year. Earlier in March, an artificial intelligence generated video of incumbent mayor of Istanbul, showing him praising Erdoğan.
Last year, during general elections, Erdoğan also relied on such videos. During Istabul rally, as Erdoğan stood onstage, a video played on a large screen beside him linking his main rival in the election, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, to the Kurdish nationalist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). As the video started playing, Erdoğan addressed the crowd of supporters, “[they] are walking shoulder [to] shoulder with the PKK. You, my national and local citizen, will you vote for them?” Fact-checkers debunked the video and proved its content had been manipulated.
Turkey has a long history and tradition of blocking content or throttling internet access. In December 2023, the Information Technologies and Communications Authority (BTK), Turkey's top telecommunications watchdog, imposed an access ban on 16 VPN providers. According to independent internet watchdogs that document censorship online over the years, Turkey has blocked hundreds of thousands of websites. In 2023, according to an internet censorship report by the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), an organization providing legal support to journalists and individuals facing trial in freedom of expression cases, “access to at least 35,066 domain names, 3,196 news articles, 2,090 social media posts, and 184 social media accounts were blocked in 2022.”

Abundance of control measures have helped to shield “Erdoğan and the AKP’s disastrous management of the country,” according to Ciddi.

“What is really at stake on March 31 is the destiny of Turkey’s authoritarian system of government, under construction since 2017,” wrote Marc Pierini, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, and Francesco Siccardi, a senior research analyst at Carnegie Europe.

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