On Sunday Turkey holds critical local elections, with control of the country’s main cities up for grabs. With inflation soaring and recession threatening, the election may pose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan biggest challenge.
A week ahead of Sunday’s polls Erdogan rallied hundreds of thousands in his hometown of Istanbul, in a bid to consolidate his voting base.
Even though Erdogan is not up for election, he is leading the campaign, aware his AK Party’s more than decade-long grip on most of Turkey’s main cities is under threat.
Since Erdogan won Istanbul’s mayorship in 1994, a victory that served as a springboard for him to dominate Turkish politics, the city has been his unassailable power base. However, the latest opinion polls indicate the outcome of Istanbul local elections is too close call.
‘All the poverty’
In Istanbul’s Gungoren district, people line up for state-subsidized food in a small local park, which is overshadowed by a vast, idle construction site.
“I see Gungoren as worse now, then how it once was. Is that right?” said CHP Istanbul mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, addressing a crowd from the roof of his campaign bus.
“Yes,” shout the people, waving CHP flags.
“All the poverty that a person can experience exists here,” Imamoglu said, “there are no green areas, there is no social life, it is a district that is left deprived of all the richness of life. We will take care of that.”
Gungoren in the past strongly backed Erdogan’s AK Party, but people are angry.
“We are retired people, by the 15th of the month our pension is finished, after that we are hungry,” said Seniye, who wears a religious headscarf.
There is still strong support for Erdogan by people who believe AKP can still deliver.
“We are very hopeful about the elections. We just came here to see who is this Imamoglu because our path and choice is solid: We say AK Party,” said one man, who did not want to give his name.
With the Istanbul local election the closest in decades, the outcome could be in the hands of the pro-Kurdish HD Party.
Erdogan accuses the HDP of being a terrorist party, claiming it’s linked to the outlawed Kurdish separatist group the PKK, a charge the party denies.
Since the 2015 collapse of peace talks with the PKK, thousands of HDP officials have been arrested, along with elected mayors, parliamentary deputies, and its leaders.
Ahead of the local elections, the HDP says the crackdown has intensified, particularly in western cities.
The growing pressure saw the party, in a surprise move, decide not to contest mayoral elections in Turkey’s main western cities, focusing its efforts in the predominantly Kurdish region.
“This pressure we are facing of arrests means we have to come up with new methods to resist,” said Ertugrul Kurkcu, honorary president of the HDP.
“That is why in the seven main western cities outside the Kurdish region, we are calling on our supporters to vote for the opposition to help voters defeat Tayyip Erdogan,” he said.
He said “our supporters are voting for the opposition not because they like them, but for the strategic reason of defeating Erdogan.”
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Second largest opposition party
The HDP is Turkey’s second largest opposition party and accounts for as much as 10 percent of the vote in Turkey’s main cities. However, it is far from certain that all its party supporters will heed their leadership’s call to back the CHP opposition.
“The HDP’s supporters, there are secular people, liberals and of course in the party, there are conservative, religious, and rightist Kurds,” said professor Baris Doster of Marmara University.
“I think that the liberals, the seculars, the social democrat supporters of HDP, they will vote for the opposition CHP,” he said. “The conservatives, the rightist voters of the HDP, will vote for Erdogan’s party, or they will stay at home.”
The HDP is working hard to persuade its supporters to go to the polls Sunday and vote against Erdogan’s AKP.
“Some supporters were unhappy about the decision not to stand for office,” said Gul Demir HDP’s co-leader of Istanbul’s Kadikoy district.
“However, I believe in this election campaign period we could explain ourselves to our base. In Turkish we have a saying, ‘great minds think alike.’ What is obvious is that we have entered a very heavy fascist system. It feels like the last exit before the bridge.
“If we lose these elections, if we don’t strike a blow to Erdogan, I don’t believe there will be elections in Turkey again,” Demir said.