Democratic Scenes from Türkiye

Diane Gündüz

Summary: Despite promising electoral results, Türkiye faces challenges to its democratic integrity, highlighted by allegations of electoral manipulation and suppression, especially in Kurdish-majority regions — Editors

The political balance in Türkiye is so volatile that it is difficult to even predict election results a week ahead. The election is not only between a few candidates, but also between the coalitions, the alliances, the blind believers, the blind opponents, and the people who are no longer surprised by anything but still do not lose hope. That is why each election in Türkiye is experienced as if it were the final election.

Local elections in Türkiye are held every five years, independently of general elections. The parties participating in the elections determine their candidates for the administration of each province and the districts of that province, and the elections are held according to a democratic process. The local elections of March 31, 2024, constitute the first defeat suffered by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power for 23 years. According to the preliminary official results, the Republican People Party (CHP) finished the elections as the first party with 37.76% of the votes, and the AKP finished the elections in second place with 35.48% of the votes. On the other hand, the New Welfare Party (YRP), which represents the ultra-conservative electorate in Türkiye and participated for the first time in local elections, came in third place with 6.19% of the vote. The People’s Equality and Democracy Party (DEM), composed mainly of Kurdish voters and which was forced to make several changes due to cases for the closure, came fourth with 5.7% of the vote. Unofficial results showed that the AKP lost 18 provinces where it was in power. The CHP won municipal governments in 15 provinces, including cities it had not won since the 1950s. The election process in Hatay, one of the provinces most affected by February’s earthquakes, was highly controversial. Hatay residents held the CHP mayor responsible for the destruction and decided to support the AKP. The CHP’s strongest mayors were re-elected in two major cities: Istanbul and Ankara.

We can assume several important reasons for this victory of the opposition party, the CHP. First of all, the failure of the ‘National Alliance’ or ‘Table of Six’, established during the process of preparing for the May 14 general election on behalf of the CHP, meant the end of the road for the party’s president, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Opposition party members elected Özgur Özel as its new leader, ending a 13-year term for incumbent Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. In contrast to Kılıçdaroğlu’s more moderate and middle-of-the-road attitude, Özel was a remarkable name with his harsh statements, consistent positions, and focused, reassuring speeches. Additionally, the sympathy and support for Özel by Ekrem İmamoğlu, the mayor of Istanbul, who is expected to be the future CHP’s leader, had a positive impact on the public.

The major cities under CHP control, especially Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, are of strategic importance in terms of rent. Faced with the AKP government’s hostility towards greenery and love of concrete, the attitude of CHP municipalities against rents has transformed into a very distinct slogan. Pro-student, pro-child, and pro-women municipal policies have become more and more popular day by day. Through the “City Restaurants” project, poor people were able to access better quality food at lower prices. It was known that, especially during the period of the AKP municipalities, many public places in

Istanbul, including the coastline, had been handed over to private companies and businesses for the sake of profit. However, over the past five years, the reopening of these areas to the public by the mayor of Istanbul, İmamoğlu, and their services have been appreciated by the public.

Beyond that, Özel also managed to attract the attention of Kurdish voters. Contrary to Kılıçdaroğlu’s timid attitude, Özel did not hesitate to declare his support for the Kurdish people. The emphasis Özel and İmamoğlu placed on the presence of Kurdish as a language in society had a positive impact. The decline in the vote rate of the DEM party in Istanbul was one of the indicators of the support of many Kurdish voters for the CHP candidate.

Of course, these are important reasons, but are they enough for the CHP to win? No.

The policies followed by the AKP government during the elections had more impact on the CHP’s victory than any of these reasons. Like the CHP, The AKP government was also part of another alliance in the May 14 general elections. The New Welfare Party (YRP), known for its far-right and reactionary attitudes, supported in recent years by religious sects and communities in Türkiye, was one of the members of this coalition. However, due to disagreements within the alliance, the YRP decided to participate in local elections independently for the first time, leading to a significant drop in AKP votes. Surprisingly, YRP finished the elections as the third party. We will see more closely what consequences this progress will have for Türkiye in the coming years.

Furthermore, the AKP government, which does not hesitate to exploit the religious feelings of the people under any circumstances, turned a deaf ear to the genocide in Gaza, which provoked reactions. It is remarkable that the ruling party leader, who did not refrain from speaking out the first several days of the occupation of Gaza, then fell totally into silence in a short time. Certain exiled Turkish journalists have published papers and materials regarding ongoing trade deals with and new agreements with Israel, increasing backlash. Some ruling party MPs were among those who maintained these trade agreements. Additionally, banners displayed by the people at ruling party rallies to draw attention to the genocide in Gaza and to oppose ongoing trade deals with Israel were confiscated by police forces. As a result, voters in many cities governed by conservative parties since the 1970s have chosen to support the opposition party representing the center-left.

Corruption, which government officials no longer feel the need to cover up, was another reason for the loss. We can clearly state that in the face of the economic crisis, poverty, housing problems, and unemployment that Türkiye has been experiencing in recent years, the AKP government’s passion for rent and luxury pushed it to carry out an electoral process disconnected from the public. As it is known, the earthquakes in February last year caused damage in 11 provinces in eastern Türkiye; three cities were almost destroyed. Right before the local elections, houses built with public donations were delivered to citizens, who lost their homes in this disaster in Adıyaman. However, it was revealed that all the residences were granted to members of ‘the Menzil Community’, which has been far-right religiously operating in Türkiye for a long time and is openly supported by the ruling party. The people of Adıyaman, which did not have an opposition party district municipality throughout 47 years and was governed by the sect in question, supported the CHP, and the ruling party lost that province as well.

So, where are we today, and can we talk about electoral democracy?

Even if the picture that emerged on March 31 is interpreted as an indicator of change, it demonstrates an attempt to deal a blow to Turkish democracy. It was established that a few weeks before the elections, military, police, and government officials were temporarily stationed in Hakkâri, Bitlis, Şırnak, and Kars, the eastern provinces where most Kurdish voters live, and that they voted in favor of the AKP. The will of the Kurdish people, usurped for years by the appointed trustees of the eastern provinces, was directly ignored by the government. Despite the significant difference in votes between AKP and DEM, the renewal of the elections was requested, in Diyarbakır and Silvan. Today, the election results in Van province, where the DEM party won with an overwhelming majority, were irregularly declared invalid, and the AKP candidate was declared the winner. In a short time, curfews were declared in some provinces of eastern Türkiye. This is an attempt to thwart the will of the Kurdish people. Civil unrest, which has now become a classic of every election in Türkiye, is caused by the government itself.

Yes, the results of this election are promising, but Turkish politics is also going through a significant test of democracy. Today, we can only talk about democracy with solidarity. And in the coming days, we will see what solidarity the Turkish left will show against the oppressive regime.


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