The race is on for key cities as Turkey holds local elections

The race is on for key cities as Turkey holds local elections

Turkey is holding local elections on Sunday that will decide who gets to control Istanbul and other key cities.

The elections have stirred up clashes in parts of Turkey, with one person killed and several wounded in an altercation between two groups in Turkey's Kurdish minority in the village of Agaclidere.

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, according to analysts.

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.

Voter turnout

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 neighbourhood administrations.

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.

A close race

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.

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.

Family values

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.