All Eyes on Istanbul

In Turkey, the municipal elections have begun, with a particular focus on Istanbul. President Erdogan is determined to wrest the city from the opposition, and the outcome could have far-reaching consequences for Turkey.

All Eyes on Istanbul

In Turkey, the municipal elections have begun, with a particular focus on Istanbul. President Erdogan is determined to wrest the city from the opposition, and the outcome could have far-reaching consequences for Turkey. For weeks, noisy sound trucks have been standing in squares and driving through the streets. Television and rallies feature commercials accompanied by respective campaign songs: “If there’s a problem – I’m Murat Kurum” and “Istanbul – once again with Ekrem Imamoglu.”

While more than 1,000 mayors and councilors, along with tens of thousands of neighborhood chiefs, are being elected throughout the country, the main spotlight is on these two candidates from the AKP and CHP for the position of mayor of Istanbul.

Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey

The mega-city, officially home to 18 million residents, holds the most economic power in the country – and consequently, money. In the 1990s, the mayor was Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey,” he once said.

In the 2019 election, however, the opposition CHP’s Imamoglu emerged victorious. If he succeeds again, it could assist the entire CHP in eventually surpassing Erdogan’s AKP.

The President shapes the campaign

There are enough reasons for Erdogan to get involved in the election campaign and directly attack Imamoglu: “In what state did Istanbul find itself when you made me your mayor?” Erdogan asks the crowd at rallies and then answers: “Garbage, potholes, mud. That’s the CHP! And what has changed since Imamoglu took office? Again garbage, potholes, and part-time work, that’s what he did!”

With “part-time work,” he means that Imamoglu focused on various things, such as his CHP, but not enough on the city.

In the Turkish media, the one under attack turns the tables, pointing out the AKP’s long-standing dominance in the city and accusing Erdogan of corruption: “We have done more in five years than they have in 25 years. They have dealt with luxury apartments, built luxury apartments for friends and relatives; I am speaking very clearly here.”

AKP candidate with baggage

One might think it’s about Erdogan and Imamoglu, but Murat Kurum is the actual AKP candidate. He promises measures like earthquake-resistant city reconstruction.

But here he is vulnerable: During his time as Minister of Urbanization and Environment, he oversaw the so-called construction amnesty. Several poorly built but officially approved houses collapsed during last year’s earthquake.

The promise of “peace and happiness”

Both Imamoglu and Kurum evoke a socially better and fairer life in Istanbul in their campaign promises. In the election campaign, they mainly rely on propaganda. Aligned with his slogan “Only Istanbul,” Kurum suggests – like Erdogan – that Imamoglu neglected the city.

At rallies, he praises himself as an honest servant of the city: “Come on, Istanbul, choose your city, so that Istanbul is served again, finds peace and happiness. You can do it, you are brave because you are Istanbul, because you are an Istanbulite.”

For some, this resonates. In a street survey, a man says, “Of course, I will vote for Murat Kurum. Imamoglu hasn’t done anything even though we elected him. He’s just putting on a show.” On the other hand, a woman believes neither of them: “I think Kurum will win, but I don’t really like either of them.”

While there are many candidates from other parties, polls suggest a neck-and-neck race between the AKP and CHP candidates.

A Pre-Determination for 2028?

The outcome of the election is particularly crucial for Imamoglu and Kurum. If Imamoglu wins, it could halt the nationwide decline in significance of his CHP and make him the most promising candidate for the next presidential election in 2028.

If Kurum wins, Erdogan will become even more powerful. Recently, he announced that he would not run for the presidency again, which the constitution also prohibits. However, some believe that if the AKP wins in Istanbul, Erdogan might seek a constitutional amendment to allow for another term in office.

One man on the street even fears that the AKP would simply not accept a defeat in Istanbul: “They will do everything to get Istanbul. And they are capable of doing anything. I am worried. That’s why I am sending my children abroad.”

Council of Europe Concerned about Fairness

How justified such concerns are, no one can say. On election day, the process will probably be similar to the fairness of the elections last year. However, the 2023 election campaign was notably unequal, especially in terms of media presence.

For the election observers from the Council of Europe’s Congress, this is a reason to scrutinize more closely. The head of the German delegation, Sören Schumacher, told ARD that they must look at Turkey with some concern overall.

The equal treatment of parties in the election campaign still needs to be verified. The observers will present their initial findings from the municipal elections, including in Istanbul, on Monday.