Turkey’s local elections will take place on March 31, 2019 in 81 Turkish cities (30 of them are metropolitan cities). Turkey’s long time ruling Islamic-oriented party Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) decided to keep its electoral alliance called “Cumhur İttifakı” (People’s Alliance) with Turkish nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) before the elections. Accordingly, MHP will support AK Parti candidates in 27 metropolitan cities including three biggest and most developed cities of Turkey (İstanbul, Ankara, and İzmir) and AK Parti will support MHP candidates in return in 3 metropolitan cities (Adana, Mersin, and Manisa). In addition, in other 21 ordinary cities, People’s Alliance electoral coalition will contest with only one candidate. That means, in 51 out of 81 Turkish cities, AK Parti and MHP will act together. Moreover, Great Unity Party (BBP), a small Islamist-Turkish nationalist party also declared that in 30 metropolitan cities and Kurdish populated Southeastern Anatolian cities, it will support the candidates of the People’s Alliance.
Opposition parties also decided to keep their electoral alliance in order to have chance against People’s Alliance. The main opposition party, Kemalist-social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) decided to maintain its electoral alliance “Millet İttifakı” (Nation Alliance) it has established during the 2017 Presidential election campaign with the center right-Turkish nationalist İYİ Parti (Good Party). Two secular-oriented parties made an agreement for presenting only one candidate in 23 metropolitan cities and 27 ordinary cities. CHP limited itself with 19 metropolitan candidates (including three biggest cities) and 38 other candidates. İYİ Parti on the other hand was able to dictate its candidates in important metropolitan cities including Balıkesir, Trabzon, Denizli, and Gaziantep. Other important parties that will contest in the local elections are Islamist Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi) and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). However, HDP did not present candidates in some cities including İstanbul, İzmir, Adana, Ankara, Mersin, Aydın, Bursa, and Antalya in order to support the Nation Alliance against authoritarian practices of the government.
If we look at the popular political themes before the elections, we see that opposition parties often use the recent slowdown of Turkish economy and the devaluation of Turkish lira as major points of criticism towards Erdoğan (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) government. Turkey’s failed Syria policy and deteriorating relations with the European Union and the United States are also within the menu of opposition leaders such as Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and Merak Akşener’s speeches. The AK Parti government and MHP on the other hand present these local elections as a matter of survival (bekâ in Turkish) to Turkish voters, a highly exaggerated approach for local elections which have nothing to do with national security issues. President Erdoğan also uses his personal charisma and populist attacks towards the opposition to win the hearts of the electors. For instance, he recently blamed Nation Alliance for acting on behalf of the terrorists by using a Schmittian (Carl Schmitt) approach to politics. President Erdoğan also threatened Kurdish voters by saying that if they continue to vote for HDP candidates, Turkish government might annul the election and appoint a trustee for such municipalities.
Yıldırım vs. İmamoğlu
Especially in three big cities, both electoral alliances put forward very good candidates. In Istanbul, the heart of Turkey’s economy with more than 16 million residents and former Byzantian and Ottoman capital, AK Parti and MHP will endorse Binali Yıldırım, Turkey’s former -and the last- Prime Minister and Minister of Transportation. With his experience, successful career and connections within Turkey and abroad, Mr. Yıldırım seems to be a perfect choice. However, CHP and İYİ Parti’s common candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu is also a good choice with his democratic stance and proven success at Beylikdüzü Municipality. Recent polls made by Gezici Company in the last week of February suggest that, Mr. Yıldırım will win the election with a margin of 4 to 6 points (52.1 % against 46.6 %). I also think that Binali Yıldırım has more chance to win Istanbul for several reasons. First of all, losing Istanbul would be a great damage to Erdoğan’s new regime and might even a signal the decay of his government; a factor which guarantees that AK Parti will use every means to win the election. Secondly, Istanbul has become a very conservative city in the last few decades due to rural-to-urban migration from Anatolian cities, a notion that has changed the classical multicultural and cosmopolitan atmosphere of the city and created a new -unofficial- Islamist capital. Thirdly, Binali Yıldırım is a very famous and trusted politician for the majority of Turkish people contrary to enigmatic (unknown) İmamoğlu. It is true that a young and successful politician like İmamoğlu could create a difference right place at right time; but CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s choice still seems risky. Lastly, the voting pattern of the Kurdish voters in Istanbul will be the decisive factor due to large Kurdish population in the city and it seems like Kurdish voters do not hate Mr. Yıldırım or adore Mr. İmamoğlu, a fact that shows Kurdish votes might not go to İmamoğlu as a bloc.
Özhaseki vs. Yavaş
In Ankara, according to the word in the street, the opposition has more chance. CHP and İYİ Parti chose Mansur Yavaş, a Turkish nationalist politician coming from MHP tradition as their common candidate. Yavaş is a good choice for preventing populist attacks coming from the government and especially from President Erdoğan thanks to his ultra-nationalist background. Erdoğan’s criticism towards Mr. Yavaş for supporting pro-Kurdish groups and terrorist circles makes non-sense for Turkish voters who know Yavaş for several years. Moreover, in Ankara, unlike İstanbul, the number of Kurdish voters is low and Turkish nationalists’ voting preference is the key factor for winning the election. Both Mansur Yavaş and Mehmet Özhaseki are successful municipal leaders that Turkish people have confidence. Recent polls suggest made by Gezici Company in the late February suggest that, Mr. Özhaseki will win the race with 51.8 % against Yavaş’s 46.3 %. However, I still think anything could happen in Ankara due to reactions towards the AK Parti government’s economic performance as well as MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli’s decreasing popularity among the Turkish nationalist voters in recent years.
Zeybekçi vs. Soyer
In İzmir, CHP is confident of its victory. Although CHP’s coalition partner in Nation Alliance İYİ Parti is not satisfied from the choice of Tunç Soyer, former municipal leader of Seferihisar, it would be a great surprise for everyone if Soyer is beaten by People’s Alliance candidate and former Economy Minister of Turkey Mr. Nihat Zeybekçi. Nihat Zeybekçi’s job is really difficult since he represents the “other” in a highly secularized city like İzmir. Although Zeybekçi tried everything to present himself as a secular Muslim candidate and even said that he is not against the production of vine, it seems like this would not be enough for changing the voting preference of large majority of people in İzmir.
Among other important cities to be mentioned, especially Antalya will witness a tight race between People’s Alliance candidate and current municipal leader Menderes Türel and Nation Alliance candidate Muhittin Böcek. Gezici Company’s recent poll points out that Türel would win the election, but the difference will not be larger than 5 points. I think CHP might still have a chance in Antalya since the city is based on tourism industry and secular parties in general perform better in terms of tourism due to Islamist parties’ tendency to ban alcohol and night-life. In Bursa also, Nation Alliance could win with Mustafa Bozbey against People’s Alliance candidate Alinur Aktaş. Recent polls also strengthen this view. In Aydın, polls suggest that People Alliance candidate Mustafa Savaş will topple down current municipal leader endorsed by Nation Alliance, Mrs. Özlem Çerçioğlu. However, due to her successful performance and good reputation as an exemplary female mayor, I think Çerçioğlu could also win one more time.
If we look at the general picture, I think local elections will not be helpful to Turkish democracy, which is in sharp fall in recent years in terms of freedoms and rule of law. Considering the fact that there will not be a Presidential election scheduled until 2023, it would be too optimistic to claim that everything will be good if CHP could increase its vote. As far as I am concerned, only if CHP could win both in İstanbul and in Ankara, in addition to İzmir, we can talk about a meaningful transition of power taking place at the electorate base. However, this does not seem realistic especially in İstanbul. So, we have to wait until Turkish voters send a strong signal by supporting the opposition parties in order to improve Turkish democracy. Another solution is the return of the AK Parti to its reformist and pro-Western agenda. However, this does not seem possible for the moment. Finally, I should add that there are political discussions in Turkey right now about the necessity of a new centrist party, which will be established by former political stars of AK Parti including previous President of the Republic Mr. Abdullah Gül, former Economy Minister Mr. Ali Babacan and former Turkish Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Mr. Ahmet Davutoğlu.
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ozan ÖRMECİ