After the presidential and parliamentary elections last May, Turkish people are ready to vote once again on March 31, 2024, for electing the municipal leaders (mayors) of 81 cities including 30 metropolitan cities as well as 922 districts. Following his decisive victory a few months ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan now tries to take back control of Türkiye’s two biggest cities, Istanbul and Ankara, from the main opposition party, pro-secular CHP’s hands. Erdoğan keeps his electoral pact called “Cumhur İttifakı” (People’s Alliance) with ultranationalist parties such as MHP and BBP. The opposition on the other hand is still in turbulence following the shocking defeat last May and opposition parties will contest the local elections alone without their previously established “Millet İttifakı” (Nation Alliance) electoral coalition. In this piece, I am going to explain some hot spots to be closely watched in the 2024 Turkish local elections.
Ekrem İmamoğlu vs. Murat Kurum
The most important competition will take place in Istanbul, the economic capital of the country. In Istanbul, the current mayor from CHP (Republican People’s Party), Ekrem İmamoğlu, was elected twice in the 2019 local elections and became a champion of democracy due to the annulment of the first election. İmamoğlu worked very hard since then and became a national and even an international political figure with his PR efforts, diplomatic visits, and successful railroad (metro) projects. İmamoğlu wants to get reelected this March and to become the presidential candidate of the opposition in 2028. Coming from a modest family from Trabzon, İmamoğlu could be considered as the left-wing and more secular “doppelganger” of President Erdoğan with his Muslim democratic identity, Karadeniz (Black Sea) region characteristics, and ambitious personality. In that sense, the 2024 local election is not an ordinary election for İmamoğlu and if he wins, it would be almost certain that he will become the opposition’s presidential candidate in the next election (probably in 2028).
But since President Erdoğan was a former Istanbul mayor and he understands that İmamoğlu could be a tough opponent against his party’s candidate (maybe even himself once again) in the next presidential election, he chose Murat Kurum, former Minister of Environment, Urbanization, and Climate Change as his bloc’s candidate. Erdoğan will probably do his best to get Kurum elected by using his influence over the media and state bureaucracy. Kurum’s advantage is his party’s dominating position in Turkish Politics in the last two decades. Moreover, his knowledge of gentrification and earlier experience at TOKİ (Housing Development Administration of Türkiye) makes him an ideal candidate for Istanbul, a gigantic city with having huge risk of a devastating earthquake. However, since the local election in Istanbul is often perceived as a chance for the survival of multiparty democracy in the country, many of the voters will not look at Kurum’s capacity and knowledge, but rather his attachment to the governing party, AK Parti (Justice and Development Party), which is often blamed for setting up an increasingly authoritarian regime in Türkiye.
Another important dimension in Istanbul is the performance of other parties. For instance, the anti-immigrant far-right Victory Party (Zafer Partisi) chose a former MHP politician Azmi Karamahmutoğlu, who could steal some votes from both Kurum and İmamoğlu. İYİ Parti (Good Party) Istanbul mayoral candidate Buğra Kavuncu on the other hand might not reach a high percentage due to the İmamoğlu-Kurum polarization/confrontation among voters. The pro-Kurdish DEM party on the other hand has the potential to become the kingmaker in the 2024 Istanbul local election. The party could choose the wife of its imprisoned leader Selahattin Demirtaş, Başak Demirtaş, as its Istanbul mayoral candidate. As an elegant pro-democratic politician and a bedeviled wife, Mrs. Demirtaş could reach high votes with especially votes coming from Kurdish and female voters, and could help Murat Kurum to pass Ekrem İmamoğlu. In that sense, the DEM party’s decision to put forward a candidate or not will determine the fate of the race. In addition, the new Islamist party within the Erbakan tradition, the New Welfare Party’s (YRP) final decision might be also very influential over the electoral result. So far, talks between AK Parti and YRP have not led to an agreement between the two sides and YRP officials state that AK Parti did not propose a concrete offer. Thus, YRP could contest with its candidate in March and this might decrease the votes of Murat Kurum by a few percent. In any scenario, I think the race will be too close and either Kurum or İmamoğlu will win the election by a small margin (1-3 %). Current opinion polls also suggest that İmamoğlu has a small lead over Kurum but the difference is only a few points.
Turgut Altınok vs. Mansur Yavaş
In Türkiye’s capital, again the competition will take place between two big parties; the AK Parti and the CHP. CHP’s candidate in Ankara and the incumbent mayor Mansur Yavaş has many personalities since he comes from an ultranationalist background (MHP tradition), but contests from a social democratic party. Moreover, he is identified with Ankara. Thus, he can take votes easily from the left-wing and right-wing voters. But to take back Ankara, President Erdoğan did not repeat the mistake he made in 2019, and this time he chose a local Ankara politician, the former mayor of Keçiören, Turgut Altınok. Altınok, similar to Yavaş, is a well-known local politician in Ankara and he served many times as Keçiören mayor from different right-wing parties. In that sense, Erdoğan chose the best possible candidate among the alternatives against the mighty Yavaş. İYİ Parti leader Meral Akşener on the other hand picked Cengiz Topel Yıldırım as its mayoral candidate. However, Yıldırım does not have a real chance against Yavaş and Altınok, especially in a polarization atmosphere that would favor the stronger candidates. In that sense, two ultranationalist candidates coming from the Grey Wolfes (Ülkü Ocakları) tradition will compete in Türkiye’s capital, a fact that shows the lack of balance in Turkish Politics, with a weak left and dominating right-wing politics. Similar to Istanbul, in Ankara as well it seems like only a few points margin will determine the winner. Current polls suggest that Mansur Yavaş is the favorite and has a higher chance of winning the election. However, the difference between the two candidates is less than three points, a fact that shows that anything could happen. Furthermore, I should add that, in the 2023 presidential election, opinion polls misguided people and did not foresee Erdoğan’s victory.
Other Important Cities
In Izmir, CHP’s new leader Özgür Özel made a shocking decision and he changed the current mayor Tunç Soyer of İzmir with the Karşıyaka mayor Cemil Tugay. AK Parti on the other hand chose Hamza Dağ as its candidate. In addition, İYİ Parti’s İzmir candidate Professor Ümit Özlale is also labeled as a high-profile figure by the Turkish media. However, unless a “force majeure” happens, it seems like the CHP candidate Cemil Tugay will win the election easily since İzmir is known for its strong secular and republican tradition. Earlier polls also suggest that CHP has a 15-16-point lead in İzmir at the moment.
In Antalya, President Erdoğan chose Hakan Tütüncü, the mayor of Kepez as the mayoral candidate. CHP on the other hand decided to continue with the incumbent mayor Muhittin Böcek. The competition in Antalya will be also very interesting since the two parties have almost equal support and Antalya is the second most important tourism destination in Türkiye after İstanbul. Current polls suggest that CHP has only a 0.5-point advantage in Antalya, a fact that shows anything could happen on March 31, 2024.
Other than these big, populated, and rich cities, it is almost certain that AK Parti will continue to dominate Turkish Politics and win most of the municipalities. This is related to the success of the party and its uncontested leader President Erdoğan in reaching all segments of the society with high-quality health and social services. Moreover, the support of the global south for President Erdoğan is also clear. For instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Türkiye this February to show solidarity with the Turkish government and improve Turkish-Russian relations. But the percentage that the party/bloc will get, should be interpreted as people’s satisfaction level with the current regime. In addition, the electoral performance of the new pro-Kurdish party DEM will be also an important indicator since it will show the trend among the Kurdish voters.
Finally, the 2024 Turkish local elections will be an important step for Türkiye’s political trajectory. With a weakened opposition losing the municipalities of two big cities; Istanbul and Ankara, Türkiye’s political transformation into a more authoritarian state might gain pace. Or in case the opposition keeps its power and/or expands it, we might be more optimistic for a transition into a full-scale democracy in the near future from a competitive authoritarian regime. I hope the Turkish people will make the best decision…
Assoc. Prof. Ozan ÖRMECİ
 See; https://artigercek.com/politika/istanbulda-dem-partili-son-anket-imamoglu-kurum-arasindaki-fark-yuzde-kac-282126h; https://artigercek.com/politika/orcden-istanbul-secim-anketi-imamaoglu-ve-akp-aday-basa-bas-279456h.