Turkey’s local elections will have major national implications

A win for President Erdoğan’s AKP party could further marginalise the opposition he defeated in 2023’s general election, making constitutional reform more likely

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (C) announces Murat Kurum (L) as his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) candidate in Istanbul's upcoming mayoral election in March, in Istanbul on January 7, 2024.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (C) announces Murat Kurum (L) as his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) candidate in Istanbul's upcoming mayoral election in March, in Istanbul on January 7, 2024.

Turkey’s local elections will have major national implications

Political parties in Turkey are getting ready for local elections due at the end of March, which look likely to be very close and could reshape the country’s electoral landscape.

Campaigning in municipal-level elections has traditionally centred on local issues, and voting has not run along the lines set by national parties.

However, this time around is expected to be different — a ballot could set the tone long into the next presidential race, even though it is not due for four years.

Having been re-elected only last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is riding high but also looking to secure a deeper hold on politics — not least by ensuring his AKP party regains control of Istanbul.

Meanwhile, national opposition parties will be keen for gains to show that they are capable of some kind of victory and are still a viable alternative after their disappointment in 2022.

That came in a race ultimately won by Erdoğan.

He dashed his rivals’ hopes that the presidency was theirs for the taking, with him looking tired from two decades in power. He won amid a dire economic crisis, hyperinflation, and an outcry over the devastation caused by the earthquake of February 2023.

The opposition coalition – known as the National Alliance, or the “Table of Six”, who came in with high hopes, fractured back into its half-dozen constituent parties. Since then, there have been claims and counter-claims over what went wrong.

The opposition presidential candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, stood down as the leader of its main party, the CHP, making way for a new leader, Özgür Özel.

Republican People's Party (CHP) newly elected chairman Ozgur Ozel (R) and former chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu arrive at the party Headquarters in Ankara on 8 November, 2023.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s AKP– and his partnership with the far-right MHP party – remains intact, with any disagreement between the two groups not making it out into the public domain, in sharp contrast with the opposition.

With the local elections getting nearer, Erdoğan is bringing his familiar brand of divisive campaigning from national elections into the local contests, fuelling existing tensions and creating new ones.

He is seeking to consolidate his support and convince other voters to back his party via a blend of his own personal popularity, party and ideological loyalty and appealing to the self-interest of voters.

Battle for Istanbul

The AKP aims to get back the municipalities it lost in the previous elections, including Ankara, Antalya, and Mersin. But the jewel in the crown will be, as always, Istanbul.

AKP lost Istanbul to CHP in the 2019 elections, which was probably one of Erdoğan's heaviest political defeats.

The city's importance comes not only from being the most populous place in the country, with around 17 million people. It is also the richest, generating income and influence alike for political parties.

The current mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, faces a challenge from the AKP candidate, Murat Kurum, who is the former minister of environment and urbanisation.

Kurum's campaign is set around a theme that resonates with the memories of February 2023: "protection against earthquakes".

Erdoğan is bringing his familiar brand of divisive campaigning into local elections, fuelling existing tensions and creating new ones.

Istanbul is an earthquake zone, and the city needs to make serious preparations, including urban transformation, where old buildings need to be replaced with earthquake-resistant alternatives. The AKP candidate claims he can do it in big numbers and quickly.

Nonetheless, it seems odd for the party, which has been running the country for the last 22 years, to base its campaign on something that the AKP should already have done long ago.

The politics of rebuilding

Earthquakes are also a major issue in other parts of the country — especially in cities in the south and east, which were hit so hard last year.

Erdoğan has already promised a quick rebuild of what was destroyed and to much higher specifications,  but the number of houses built has fallen far short.

The president recently delivered a speech in Hatay, one of the worst-hit cities and implied that municipalities that voted for his party would have a greater chance of support.

His words stirred serious controversy. Hatay's mayor is from CHP, the main opposition.

Parties seem to be expecting a tight race and are reaching out from beyond their base support to floating voters and beyond.

This includes electoral dealmaking, where they agree to pull candidates off the ballot in some areas in exchange for payback by the same move elsewhere to maximise chances of a win.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) poses for a photograph after presenting a key to a woman for a post-quake house during the Drawing and Key Handover Ceremony of Post-Quake Houses in Hatay, southern Turkey.

Meanwhile, wider alliances from the last national elections are shifting.

The New Welfare Party, which was aligned with the AKP in the general elections, and the nationalist and anti-refugee Victory Party, which supported CHP's candidate in the presidential elections in June, have declared that they will run with their own candidates this time.

As the electoral landscape is reshaped, the DEM – a party representing Kurdish interests – has among the best chances of making a real difference in outcomes, with the ethnic group making up between 10% and 12% of the electorate. They often vote as a bloc and could tilt the balance in many places.

Running a  DEM candidate in Istanbul would most likely draw voters away from Imamoğlu, boosting the chances of Kurum.

Foreign policy

Even foreign policy has become an issue at the municipal polls in this set of local elections.

Among the international matters that have an effect is Turkey's approval of Sweden's NATO membership, which came with the approval of the sale of F16 fighter jets to Turkey from the US in return.

Erdoğan's visit to Egypt at the invitation of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has also resonated in the campaign.

Read more: Erdogan in Cairo: A new dawn for Egypt-Turkey ties?

The AKP has highlighted these issues to sell the message "If anyone can do it, it is the AKP".

This slogan has been used for the last two decades by Erdoğan and his party, which wants to portray itself as being able to fix whatever needs fixing.

In Hatay, one of the cities worst hit by the earthquakes, Erdoğan implied that municipalities that voted for his party would have a greater chance of support.

Meanwhile, the opposition points out that most of what needs to be fixed has been broken by the AKP.

However, Erdoğan has a strong track record of eliminating any challenge to his authority. But this time, some observers warn that if his party triumphs, he will have a free hand for the next four years to make radical changes.

This could include amending the constitution, abolishing the constitutional court, and even bringing a new interpretation to religious practices and secularism. For many Turks, this is a genuine cause for concern.

Whichever party is victorious, it is almost certain that the results of local elections in 2024 will have an impact on the national Turkish political landscape. 

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