4th Mar 2024


Erdoğan faces a crucial test next month — can he retake Istanbul?

  • At the last elections, in 2019, the opposition Social Democratic CHP won five of the six biggest cities, including Istanbul (Photo: Wikipedia)
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Turkey's local elections have always held significant implications — not just for its domestic political landscape but also for its relationships with international partners, including the European Union. With the 2024 local elections next month, the stakes are high, and the outcomes could shape the future dynamics between Turkey and the EU.

Scheduled for 31 March, the elections have president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan aiming to regain control of major cities from the opposition. This electoral contest poses a major test for both Erdoğan's ruling People's Alliance and the opposition, which faced defeat in the 2023 presidential race.

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  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself served as mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998, using it as a platform to enter national politics (Photo: Moyan Brenn)

The last Turkish local elections in 2019 were highly significant and closely watched due to their implications for Turkey's political landscape. The results were initially contentious. While Erdogan's AKP won in many provinces, the opposition claimed victory in several key cities, with the main opposition party, CHP (Republican People's Party), winning in five of the country's six largest cities.

Notably, Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey's capital and economic hub, held particular significance, as both cities had been governed by mayors from the AKP and the Welfare Party, the Islamist precursor of Erdoğan's party, since 1994.

The initial results showed Ekrem İmamoğlu, the candidate of the Social Democratic CHP, winning the mayoral race in Istanbul.

However, the AKP contested the results, alleging irregularities and calling for a re-run of the mayoral election. In the re-run, İmamoğlu won again, this time with a larger margin, solidifying his position as the mayor of Istanbul.

The 2019 elections marked a significant shift in Turkish politics, boosting the opposition. The results in major cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, signalled a setback for president Erdoğan and the AKP, indicating a changing political landscape in Turkey.

After the elections, the European Commission's then vice president, Frans Timmermans, stated, "By voting for parties that support embracing European values, the country's citizens have sent the government a clear signal," calling on Erdoğan to respect the results.

First we take Istanbul

The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality is the biggest prize of the elections, with Erdoğan vowing to "take back Istanbul." Prior to 2019, İmamoğlu was the mayor of an Istanbul district far from the city centre and was a relatively unknown figure.

However, since reclaiming Istanbul from the religious right after 25 years of control, he has emerged as a rising star in Turkish politics.

Erdoğan understands the importance of being a mayor, having served as the mayor of Istanbul himself from 1994 to 1998. And his term as the mayor served as a launchpad for his subsequent role as prime minister. But he is not the only example; Boris Johnson, Jacques Chirac, and Willy Brandt all used to be mayors of large cities and/or capitals in their countries before serving as heads of governments.

And, compared to the era when Erdoğan was the mayor, cities and their mayors now assume heightened diplomatic importance, surpassing their roles in the 1990s. Mayors function as key players on the global stage, fostering direct relationships with counterparts from other cities and nations to address shared issues. Throughout their terms in office, both İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, the mayor of Ankara, hosted various mayors, ambassadors, and even ministers from European countries.

This time, İmamoğlu faces a new challenge: in December 2022, a Turkish court sentenced him to more than two-and-a-half years in prison for insulting public officials, potentially disqualifying him from holding political office. The ruling will have to be confirmed by an appeals court, and many European institutions, officials, and mayors have condemned the jail sentence.

Yaşar Aydın, a researcher at the Center for Applied Turkey Studies (CATS) at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), emphasised that the EU will closely monitor the elections. Aydın pointed out that the EU is not inclined to take steps supporting Erdoğan in areas such as visa liberalisation or Customs Union modernisation before the local elections.

Highlighting the significance of local elections for Turkish democracy, Aydın said that whether the incumbent ayor of Istanbul, İmamoğlu, will be prevented from running for re-election by the AKP Government is crucial for the EU.

Another important area for the EU is the situation in the southeastern provinces. European institutions have repeatedly criticised the removal of elected officials and the appointment of trustees in place of mayors in Kurdish-majority provinces. The pro-Kurdish HDP won 65 municipalities, but trustees were appointed to three metropolitan, five provincial, 45 district, and 12 town municipalities.

The outcome of the 2024 local elections will undoubtedly have ramifications for EU-Turkey relations. The EU consistently emphasises the importance of democratic principles, human rights, and the rule of law in its dealings with Turkey. The election results will be closely followed by EU leaders, and any perceived deviations from democratic norms could impact the already delicate relationship.

Author bio

Volkan Isbasaran is a freelance writer on Turkish politics, global affairs, armed conflicts, ethnic/religious minorities, and history of the Caucasus, Balkans, and the Middle East. He was formerly a journalist for GercekNews.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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