Turkey's March municipal elections already feel more like a presidential race

What happens in Istanbul at the end of this month will colour Turkish politics for the next four years

Turkey's municipal elections take place on March 31. Nick Donaldson / The National
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Turkey will see pivotal municipal elections take place on Sunday, March 31. The atmosphere in the country’s cities and town halls is charged with political fervour. Banners adorn the streets and television screens are filled with heated debates and candidate profiles. Even traditional Ramadan dinners have taken on a political hue. This election comes at a time of deep polarisation in the country.

All eyes are on Istanbul. Of course, it isn’t all about Istanbul. In Anatolia, the prospect of a sweeping victory for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) looms large. The fragmentation of the opposition bloc following last year’s presidential elections has bolstered the AKP's position, particularly in areas traditionally considered opposition strongholds, such as Izmir, Antalya, Edirne, Canakkale, Adana, and Eskisehir.

But Istanbul stands at the crossroads of shaping not just local governance but also national political trajectories. Polls indicate a tight mayoral race between 47-year-old Murat Kurum, the candidate fielded by AKP, and the incumbent 52-year-old Ekrem Imamoglu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Istanbul’s might be a mayoral race, but in some ways it feels like a presidential one. One reason is symbolic: Turks know that the current President and AKP leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, himself ascended to political prominence in 1994 when he was elected to be the mayor of Istanbul. From 2003 he went on to hold the positions of prime minister and, eventually, president, shaping the nation's trajectory for nearly three decades.

There is a sense that the same path may lie before Mr Imamoglu. A former real estate developer, he has become a prominent figure in Turkish politics. He won a controversial Istanbul mayoral election in 2019, with a slim margin of 13,000 votes (out of four million total) over his AKP rival. His first term was abruptly cut short when that result was annulled over claims of corruption. A government-backed do-over, widely perceived as a heavy-handed intervention by Mr Erdogan, secured a resounding re-election for Mr Imamoglu, increasing his margin to 800,000 votes. Since then, his own charisma has endeared him to the people of Istanbul, and as things stand, he is likely to be Mr Erdogan’s strongest rival in the next presidential election – if the latter indeed decides to run.

Istanbul stands at the crossroads of shaping not just local governance but also national political trajectories

In a Turkey where Mr Erdogan’s position at the centre of politics has felt increasingly permanent, that is suddenly an open question. In a surprising turn of events, earlier this month he said rather cryptically the elections this month would be “a final” for him “with the powers bestowed upon me by the law”, which many have taken to mean he will not run for re-election in 2028. That implication has sent shockwaves across the Turkish political landscape, and sparked intense speculation.

Some, like journalist Nevsin Mengu, have argued Mr Erdogan’s pronouncement may not signify a complete withdrawal from the political arena but rather be a strategic manoeuvre aimed at catalysing a national conversation around new constitutional amendments. More specifically, it may be a precursor to discussions regarding presidential term limits, laying the groundwork for Mr Erdogan to pursue another term.

A constitutional amendment adopted in 2017 sets a two-term limit on the presidency. Mr Erdogan has been elected to the presidency three times already, but only his most recent two terms have been taken place since the amendment was adopted. The amendment “reset the clock”, Mr Erdogan argued successfully at the time. But without any new changes to the constitution his time in office really will be up in 2028.

Even so, 2028 is a long time from now, and the opposition has felt it. Many have observed a lack of motivation among opposition voters following last year's presidential election results, wherein they missed a historic opportunity to end the Erdogan era.

And yet, despite this, many are expected to turn out to vote this month, perhaps to recapture some of that lost opportunity. Mr Kurum has emerged as the AKP’s mayoral candidate for Istanbul, but he is perceived as a weaker candidate than Mr Imamoglu. Asli Aydintabas, a newspaper columnist and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, has pointed out that while Kurum showed competence in his recent role as minister of environment and urbanisation, he lacks Mr Imamoglu’s urban appeal and popularity among young voters. It may be that Mr Kurum’s biggest asset in offsetting this deficiency is the support of Mr Erdogan, who has no shortage of charisma and campaign skills. That sets the stage for a closely contested battle between, really, Mr Erdogan and Mr Imamoglu. Despite internal acknowledgments within the AKP regarding Mr Kurum's relatively low profile, party insiders express a degree of cautious optimism, banking on Mr Erdogan’s enduring popularity to tip the scales in their favour against the opposition in Istanbul and rest of the country.

And it may be that the CHP is banking its future on Mr Imamoglu’s popularity, too. Former CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s departure from leadership after a series of electoral defeats spanning over a decade has paved the way for a younger cohort to assume control over that party. Internal discord and power struggles continue to threaten party unity, as Kilicdaroglu loyalists reportedly undermine Mr Imamoglu’s ascendancy. Nonetheless, the CHP is in a transformative phase; a triumph in Istanbul this month for Mr Imamoglu could cement his status as the party’s de facto leader.

Conversations had among voters in Istanbul are also a barometer, in some ways, for national conversations. The city is huge, home to nearly a fifth of Turkey’s population, and economically and demographically diverse. Across the country, economic concerns surrounding inflation and the cost-of-living crisis dominate the political discourse right now. According to Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey Research Programme at the Washington Institute, declining support for the AKP and Mr Erdogan in Istanbul – where the party base was traditionally found in the working class – may signal a wider loss in working class support. Meanwhile, middle class voters are gravitating towards the CHP.

Despite economic challenges at home, Mr Erdogan was bolstered by his election victory just last year. Since then, he has maintained a robust international presence, fostering warmer relations with the US and initiating reconciliation efforts with Greece and Arab states. Presidential advisors and senior AKP figures emphasise that the President's focus and priority nowadays lie more in international affairs, downplaying the significance of local elections.

Nonetheless, it seems clear from national polling data that the AKP – and the President – will remain a powerful force in Turkey at large for the foreseeable future. What remains to be decided is whether it will continue be a powerful force in isolation, or whether the opposition has what it takes to emerge as a true competitor. This month’s municipal elections may not give a final answer, but they will provide plenty of indications.

Published: March 15, 2024, 6:00 PM