Turkey votes in local elections in test of Erdogan’s popularity

The vote is a barometer of President Erdogan’s popularity and will decide who gets to control Istanbul and capital Ankara, both of which he lost in 2019.

A woman casts her vote during the Turkish municipal elections, in Istanbul on March 31, 2024. - Turkish citizens head to the polls on March 31, 2024, in local elections as the President sets his sights on winning back Istanbul, the country's economic powerhouse, after he was re-elected head of state in a tight contest last year. The latest elections come in the throes of an economic crisis that saw the inflation rate surge to 67.1 percent and the Turkish currency crumble against dollar. (Photo by OZAN KOSE / AFP)
A woman casts her vote during the Turkish municipal elections in Istanbul [Ozan Kose/AFP]

Voters in Turkey have gone to the polls in local elections in a crucial test for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he seeks to win back control of key urban areas he lost to the opposition five years ago.

The vote on Sunday is also a barometer of Erdogan’s popularity and will decide who gets to control the economic hub of Istanbul and the capital Ankara, both of which he lost in 2019.

The 70-year-old Turkish leader has set his sights on wresting back Istanbul, a city of 16 million people, where he was born and raised, and where he began his political career as mayor in 1994.

“Winning major cities is more of a deal for the opposition, but also it means access to foreign funds, having transnational links with both economic actors and political actors,” Evren Balta, professor of political science at Turkey’s Ozyegin University, told Al Jazeera.

“If you are governing a major global city, it means you have visibility in the international scene.”

A strong showing for Erdogan’s ruling Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party, or the AK Party, would likely harden his resolve to usher in a new constitution – one that would reflect his conservative values and allow him to rule beyond 2028, when his current term ends, analysts say.

For the opposition – divided and demoralised after a defeat in last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections – keeping Istanbul and Ankara would be a tremendous boost and help remobilise supporters.

Some 61 million people, including more than a million first-time voters, were eligible to cast ballots for all metropolitan municipalities, town and district mayorships as well as neighbourhood administrations.

Voting stations closed at 4pm (13:00 GMT) in eastern Turkey and 5pm (14:00 GMT) elsewhere. Initial results are expected by 10pm (19:00 GMT).

During Sunday’s local elections, clashes between two groups in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast left one dead and 12 people wounded, a local official told AFP.

The incident that took place in Agaclidere village 30km (18 miles) from the city of Diyarbakir turned violent and included guns, the official said. One bullet hit the car of a local journalist.

Vote amid cost of living crisis

Turnout is traditionally high in Turkey, but this time the vote comes against the backdrop of a cost of living crisis. Observers say disillusioned opposition supporters could opt to stay home, doubting the election’s ability to change things.

Governing party supporters, meanwhile, could also choose not to go to the polls in protest of the economic downturn that has left many struggling to pay for food, utilities and rent.

Opinion polls have pointed to a close race between Istanbul’s incumbent mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, of the main opposition, pro-secular Republican People’s Party, or CHP, and the AK Party’s candidate Murat Kurum, a former urbanisation and environment minister.

However, this time, Imamoglu – a popular figure touted as a possible future challenger to Erdogan – is running without the support of some of the parties that helped him to victory in 2019.

Al Jazeera’s Sinem Koseoglu, reporting from Istanbul, said whoever wins the polls will have “far-reaching implications” on Turkey’s politics.

“Imamoglu’s victory might lead him to the opposition leadership and presidential nomination in 2028. But Kurum’s victory might help President Erdogan strengthen his power base and repair his legacy, particularly the troubled economy and foreign affairs.”

Meanwhile, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM Party) and the nationalist IYI Party (the Good Party) are fielding their own candidates in the race, which could siphon votes away from Imamoglu.

A six-party opposition alliance led by CHP disintegrated after it failed to remove Erdogan in last year’s election, unable to capitalise on the economic crisis and the government’s initially poor response to last year’s devastating earthquake that killed more than 53,000 people.

One factor working against Erdogan is a rise in support for the Islamist New Welfare Party (YRP) due to its hardline stance against Israel over the war in Gaza and dissatisfaction with the AK Party’s handling of the economy.

In Ankara, incumbent Mayor Mansur Yavas – also seen as a potential future challenger to Erdogan – is expected to retain his post, according to opinion polls.

His challenger – Turgut Altinok, the AK Party candidate and mayor of Ankara’s Kecioren district – has failed to drum up excitement among supporters.

In Turkey’s mainly Kurdish-populated southeast, the DEM Party is expected to win many of the municipalities, but it is unclear whether it would be allowed to retain them. In previous years, Erdogan’s government removed elected pro-Kurdish mayors from office for alleged links to Kurdish groups and replaced them with state-appointed trustees.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies