(LEFT) Incumbent Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu poses with supporters; while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan cast their ballots in Istanbul, on Sunday.—AFP
(LEFT) Incumbent Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu poses with supporters; while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan cast their ballots in Istanbul, on Sunday.—AFP

ISTANBUL: Turkiye awai­ted results from municipal elections on Sunday, with all eyes on Istanbul, the national “jewel” that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has aimed to pry away from the opposition.

Ekrem Imamoglu, incumbent Istanbul mayor and the candidate from Turkiye’s main opposition secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), said on Sunday that he was “very happy” with the initial results of the mayoral elections in the country’s largest city, with nearly 40pc of votes counted.

Separately, incumbent Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas, who is also running for re-election from the CHP, declared victory according to initial results, which showed him leading his rival from the ruling AK Party by nearly 20pc.

The election took place against the backdrop of raging inflation and massive devaluation, with the uncertainty weighing down on many voters.

Opposition inching ahead, declares victory in Ankara

“Everyone is worried about the day to day” 43-year-old Guler Kaya said at an Istanbul station. “The crisis is swallowing up the middle class, we have had to change all our habits,” she said.

“When Turkish people vote, the situation in the kitchen or on their plate changes the voting trend,” Ali Faik Demir, a political scientist at Galata­saray University, told AFP.

Vote change happens “when we cannot afford a living, when we cannot eat”, he said.

Erdogan may not have been a candidate in the municipal vote, but he dominated the campaign.

His road to power in Turkiye began in Istanbul when he was elected mayor of the mythic city straddling Europe and Asia in 1994.

His allies held the city until five years ago, when Imamoglu wrested control of the nation’s economic powerhouse.

If Imamoglu retains his seat, he will likely be the main opponent to Erdogan’s ruling AKP party in the next presidential elections in 2028.

But if Erdogan wins back Istanbul and Ankara, he will have an incentive to “amend” the constitution to stand for re-election for a fourth term, warned Bayram Balci, political scientist at Sciences Po university in France.

As soon as Erdogan clinched re-election as president last May — a post he has held since 2014 — he launched the battle to reclaim the city of 16 million people.

“Istanbul is the jewel, the treasure and the apple of our country’s eye,” the 70-year-old leader said at a recent rally in the city. Erdogan named former environment minister Murat Kurum as his mayoral candidate for Istanbul, painting Imamoglu as a “part-time mayor”.

“This election will mark the beginning of a new era for our country,” Erdogan said after casting his vote in Istanbul at midday on Sunday.

“Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkiye,” Erman Bakirci, a pollster from Konda Research and Consultancy, recalled Erdogan once saying.

In the run-up to the election, Imamoglu has defended his record and has focused on local issues: “Every vote you give to the CHP will mean more metros, creches, green spaces, social benefits and investment.”

After casting his vote with his family in Istanbul around midday Sunday, Imamoglu emerged to applause and chants of “Everything will be fine”, his 2019 election slogan.

“Today is an emotional day for me,” Imamoglu said in the garden of a school polling station.

The election is being held with inflation at a whopping 67 per cent and with a massive devaluation of the lira, which slid from 19 to a dollar to 31 to a dollar in one year. Analysts say this could work in favour of the opposition.

Armed clashes were reported in Turkiye’s Kurdish-majority southeast, leaving one dead and 12 wounded, a local official told AFP.

The pro-Kurdish DEM party said it had identified irregularities “in almost all the Kurdish provinces”, in particular through suspicious cases of proxy voting.

Observers from France were also refused access to a polling station in the region, according to the lawyers’ association MLSA.

Fractured opposition

Some 61 million voters were eligible to cast ballots to choose mayors across Turkiye’s 81 provinces, as well as provincial council members and other local officials.

The opposition has been fractured ahead of the polls, in contrast with the local elections five years ago.

This time around the main opposition party, the social democrat CHP, has failed to rally support behind a single candidate.

Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2024

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