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The Race is on for Key Cities as Turkey Holds Local Elections in Test of Erdogan’s Popularity

ANKARA, Turkey  — Turkey is holding local elections Sunday that will decide who gets to control Istanbul and other key cities. The vote is also a barometer of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s popularity as he seeks to win back control of key urban areas he lost to the opposition five years ago.

The main battlegrounds are the country’s economic hub of Istanbul and the capital of Ankara, both of which Erdogan lost in 2019, shattering his aura of invincibility.

The 70-year-old Turkish president 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.

A strong showing for Erdogan’s ruling Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party, or AKP, 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 demoralized after a defeat in last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections — keeping Istanbul and Ankara would be a major boost and help remobilize supporters.

“There have been political disagreements in the past. There have been unfair situations over which we have voiced concerns. We have made it to today without any major mishaps,” said main opposition leader Ozgur Ozel after casting his vote. It was an apparent reference to Erdogan and government officials using their advantages of being in office and their media dominance during the campaign.

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

People walk under campaign banners of candidates for Istanbul of Justice and Development Party, or AKP, Murat Kurum, center, and Istanbul Mayor and Republican People’s Party, or CHP, Ekrem Imamoglu in Istanbul, Turkey, Friday March 29, 2024. Turkey is holding local elections on Sunday that will decide who gets to control Istanbul and other key cities. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

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 its 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.

Some 594,000 security personnel will be on duty across the country to ensure the vote goes smoothly, Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya said.

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 AKP’s candidate Murat Kurum, a former urbanization 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.

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

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

Hamish Kinnear, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, said that if Imamoglu hangs on in Istanbul, “he will be well placed to unify the fractious opposition and launch a bid for the presidency in 2028.”

However, losing Istanbul would deal a significant blow to both Imamoglu and the opposition, Kinnear said.

Meanwhile, a new religious-conservative party, the New Welfare Party, or YRP, is appealing to voters who have been disillusioned with Erdogan’s handling of the economy and is expected to draw some votes away from his candidates.

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 AKP 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’s 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 militants and replaced them with state-appointed trustees.

Erdogan, who has presided over Turkey for more than two decades, as prime minister since 2003 and president since 2014, has been advocating a new constitution that would put family values at the forefront. He does not have sufficient votes to enact a new constitution now, but a strong showing could allow him to woo some conservative, nationalist or Islamic legislators from the opposition camp for a needed two-thirds majority.

Berk Esen, an associate professor of political sciences at Istanbul’s Sabanci University, said Erdogan is pushing for a new constitution “more conservative than the current version” to expand and define his legacy.

This is where the local elections come in.

“This would be a big opportunity for Erdogan to leave his political imprint,” Esen said.

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