Turkey's local elections — and whoever wins Istanbul — could dictate the future of the country

As the sunsets, a ferry boat glides across the waters of the Golden Horn with the Suleymaniye Mosque and the city of Istanbul, Turkey in the background. 

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan once said that whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey. If that’s the case, the stakes are high for Sunday’s elections as people across the country of 85 million prepare to select their local leaders and administrators.

Such is the importance of this weekend’s vote that political analysts are speculating that a victory for Istanbul’s incumbent mayor, the center-left Ekrem Imamoglu, would make him a frontrunner for the Turkish presidency in 2028.

That is the last thing Erdogan wants, having already seen his conservative, Islamist-sympathizing Justice and Development Party, abbreviated in Turkey as AK Party or AKP, trounced by Imamoglu and the more secular, moderate Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) in the city’s elections in 2019. So incensed was Erdogan by the election result that he called a second election, only to see Imamoglu beat the AK Party’s mayoral candidate by a yet wider margin.

A win for the opposition on Sunday could set the country in a new direction, presenting a major challenge to Erdogan and the AK Party’s decades-long hold on power. Erdogan himself rose to prominence as Istanbul mayor in the 1990s before later going on to win the presidency. Now he is pushing hard for his party’s mayoral candidate Murat Kurum, a 47-year-old former environment and urbanization minister.

“Istanbul stands out as a very important point of political battle,” Arda Tunca, an Istanbul-based economist at PolitikYol, told CNBC. The city is home to 16 million people, making it more populous than 20 of the 27 countries in the European Union.

And Turkey, as the second-largest military in NATO and a major economic and political crossroads between east and west, has elevated itself as a global player in recent years, playing prominent mediating roles in conflicts like the Ukraine-Russia war and brokering major investment and trade deals with wealthy Gulf Arab states.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy shakes hands with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan during a press conference in Istanbul, Turkey, March 8, 2024. 

Umit Bektas | Reuters

“A lot of countries in the world are governed by cabinets of ministers, but Istanbul — bigger than many of those countries — is governed by a mayor. This is odd but also shows how important it is to win Istanbul,” Tunca said.

Major Turkish cities like Istanbul and the capital Ankara will be key races to watch. Both were won by the opposition in 2019.

“Turkish municipal elections are frequently a political barometer ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections which are scheduled to take place in 2028,” said Kristin Ronzi, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at risk consultancy RANE.

“Although candidates’ platforms for the municipal elections reflect local issues that impact the daily lives of Turkish citizens, the municipal elections can set the stage for the next presidential election.”

Hakan Akbas, a senior advisor at the Albright Stonebridge Group, described the elections as a “watershed moment, potentially reshaping the political map, influencing economic policy, and dictating the quality of urban life.”

“The stakes are high, as the outcomes could either solidify the AKP’s dominance or pave the way for a more pluralistic political landscape,” he said.

‘The main problem for the opposition is the opposition itself’

Despite years of economic turbulence, inflation at more than 65% and the Turkish lira at its weakest ever against the dollar, Tunca thinks Erdogan’s AK Party, which has long been dominant at the national level, will win this weekend’s contest. He attributes that to the opposition itself, which he describes as being its own worst enemy.

“For the opposition, the main challenge is its weak politicians and disorganized politics. The main problem for the opposition is the opposition itself,” he said.

Istanbul Municipality Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu speaks at the 19 May Commemoration of Atatürk, Youth and Sports Day celebrations held at the Maltepe Event Area on May 19, 2023 on Istanbul, Turkey. 

Hakan Akgun | Getty Images

A major opposition coalition came together in May of 2023 in an attempt to unseat Erdogan from the presidency during Turkey’s last general election. The result was a major defeat and disappointment for the opposition, which was led by Imamoglu’s CHP.

Some in Turkey blame that on the fact that the popular Imamoglu himself, now 52, was barred from running by Turkey’s judiciary, in a move that Erdogan’s opponents say was engineered by the president to cut down his competition. The AK Party says the reason behind the ban was tax-related crimes, while CHP supporters say it was purely political.

“Although the AKP has been governing the country very badly and Turkey’s economic conditions have been deteriorating, the AKP is going to be the winner of the upcoming elections again,” Tunca asserted.

Turkey's aggressive rate hikes so far won't be enough to cut inflation to 36%: Professor

Rane’s Ronzi sees the contest as more of a toss-up.

“Polling data for the mayoral race in Istanbul has indicated a close race,” between the two mayoral frontrunners, she said. The opposition is now more splintered than it was before, meaning multiple opposition candidates could split the vote.

Still, she said, “the close polling data from some of the key races indicates that the CHP has significant support in these municipalities. If the CHP candidates win in major races, it would show they can overcome the political fragmentation among opposition parties.”

These candidates would then “likely become positioned as potential presidential candidates ahead of the 2028 presidential elections due to their ability to gain popular support [and] unite opposition voters,” she added.

‘Increasingly authoritarian’

Analysts are meanwhile watching to see how the results will dictate Erdogan’s next moves, and whether an already uneven political playing field will become even less democratic.

Non-profit organization Freedom House, in its 2023 Freedom in the World country report on Turkey, described Erdogan and his AK Party as having become “increasingly authoritarian in recent years, consolidating significant power through constitutional changes and by imprisoning opponents and critics.”

“A deepening economic crisis and the upcoming elections … have given the government new incentives to suppress dissent and limit public discourse,” the report added.

CNBC has reached out to the Turkish Presidency’s Office for comment.

Crucially on AK Party and Erdogan’s side is the national media, Akbas noted.

“The government holds sway over roughly 90% of the media. This dominance tilts public conversation in its favor, leaving the opposition struggling to communicate with voters through mainstream outlets,” he said, adding that Turkish laws “now allow for the jailing of journalists and social media users for up to three years for sharing ‘false’ or ‘misleading’ information. This threatens the democratic cornerstone of free information and debate.”

For Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, a loss for Erdogan’s party may only harden those tendencies rather than disempower them.

If the president’s faction takes the city back from the opposition on March 31, he may feel comfortable enough to focus on more positive legacy-building steps,” he wrote in an article for the think tank. “But a loss could see him double down on nativist and populist policies at home and abroad.”

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