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Will the Turkish local elections carry a blow to Erdoğan?

In a matter of few weeks, on the 31 March 2019, 56 million Turkish citizens will be heading to the polls to elect their mayors and local representatives in fiercely contested local elections, amid a climate of economic downturn, strong polarisation, and troubled diplomatic and military efforts at the southern border.

A total of 13 parties will be contesting the upcoming local elections, the biggest of which is Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP-ECR) which continues an alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP-NI) under the name “Cumhur/People’s Alliance”. There has been much speculation as to whether this alliance will survive long term, which Erdoğan has resisted saying that the “Cumhur alliance will not last only until the 31st of March, but until the grave”.  As for the opposition, it is mainly represented by the People’s Republican Party (CHP-S&D), as well as the liberal-conservative Good Party (İYİ-*). Both CHP and İYİ continued in the alliance they created prior to the 2018 Parliamentary elections under the name “Millet/Nation’s Alliance”.

Other notable parties contesting the elections include the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP-S&D), which decided not to nominate any candidates in some important provinces including Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Adana, Gaziantep, among others; a decision viewed as a move to support the Nation’s Alliance against its government rival. The HDP also agreed to unite with 6 other Kurdish parties to run on a single list.

Alliances in local elections function differently than in General Elections, as a party in an alliance in the local elections will merely decide not to nominate candidates in provinces where the other party in the alliance has strong candidates, and instead throws its support behind those candidates of the other party.

Turkey has 30 metropolitan municipalities, and in each, a single mayor for the entire city as well as district mayors will be elected.


It is no secret that Istanbul, due to its economic importance as well as strategic geographical location stretching between two continents, is the most important metropolitan municipality in all of Turkey. Istanbul is home to the bulk of Turkish voters, as 1-in-5 Turks live in Istanbul, a total of around 10 million voters. In addition, Erdoğan himself rose to prominence in Turkish Politics after serving as the Mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998.

In an official ceremony attended by President Erdoğan himself, AKP announced its candidates for Istanbul’s 38 district municipalities, as well its candidate for Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, who was revealed to be none other than the former Prime Minister (before the position was abolished) Binali Yıldırım (AKP-ECR). A Prime Minister for little over 2 years, Yıldırım’s government supervised the administration of a constitutional referendum which transferred power to a presidential system that granted more powers to Erdoğan. Yıldırım was later briefly elected as the speaker of the Grand National Assembly, only to resign recently from this position in order to seek the nomination for Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. A staunch supporter of Erdogan and his policies, Yıldırım rose to prominence during his 11-year stint as Minister for Transport, overseeing a large-scale expansion of Turkish infrastructure. This has led him to become popular among a wide scale of Turkish citizens, including non-traditional AKP voters. However, much criticism has been made against him during his time as a Prime Minister where many considered him as a mere puppet of Erdoğan.

Yıldırım faces a contest from the main opposition candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu (CHP-S&D), who faces a tough task ahead of him as his popularity is much lower than Yıldırım’s. İmamoğlu was elected the mayor of Beylikdüzü district in Istanbul in 2014 and has been active in the social and cultural life of the district ever since.

If we consider the 2014 local elections results in Istanbul, where the then AKP candidate was elected with 48% of the votes and was 8 points ahead of his main rival from the CHP party who achieved 40%. The rest of the votes were distributed among (kurdish) HDP-S&D (5%), MHP-NI (4%), and the Islamic Felicity Party (SP-*) (1%).

As for the upcoming local elections, polls show Yıldırım at a comfortable advantage from his main rival, İmamoğlu. However, the gap between candidates, which measured at up to 13 points at the start of the campaign, has narrowed down to 6-7 points in more recent polls. In fact, the ADA research company poll conducted between 10-17 February put Yıldırım at a low 4-5% advantage, giving 41% support to Yıldırım and 36% support to İmamoğlu. If this trend continues until the day of the elections, İmamoğlu might have a small shot at winning the race. In the highly unlikely event that this happens, this will be a major blow to Erdoğan and his party, perhaps the biggest since AKP rose to power in Turkey in 2002.


Ankara is arguably the ground of the most fiercely contested race, evidenced by the fact that Erdoğan himself has held 6 campaign rallies in the capital (at time of writing) with more planned in the coming weeks, as well as rallies attended by prominent members of the ruling party such as the Minister of Interior Süleyman Soylu.

In Ankara, the main opposition candidate Mansur Yavaş, who was also the CHP candidate in 2014 (when he narrowly lost to his AKP rival among numerous voter fraud and irregularities allegations which reached the European Court of Human Rights) is running head to head with the AKP candidate Mehmet Özhaseki, who served as Mayor of Kayseri Province for a record of 5 consecutive terms.

In 2014, Ankara witnessed a narrowly contested race that delivered controversial results. The AKP candidate, Melih Gökçek, won his fourth term in office by 1% of the votes ahead of the main opposition candidate Mansur Yavaş. However, Gökçek was said to have been forced to resign prior to the end of his term by an increasingly powerful Erdoğan as part of the so-called “fatigue” resignations from the AKP.

Today, almost all polls show Yavaş leading, which even led to Erdoğan claiming he had no confidence in polling companies when asked about those Ankara polls during a live interview. Contrary to the situation in Istanbul, AKP has been able to narrow the gap with the opposition numbers, and in one recent poll conducted by ADA research company, the AKP candidate reached 49% closely followed behind by Yavaş who recorded 48% in the same poll. The race in Ankara remains anyone’s game, and the opposition has very good chances of taking this key municipality from the ogverning party.


Historically termed as the fortress of CHP, this third most important municipality located on the shores of the Aegean with its huge monumental sculpture of Ataturk’s face sitting on one of its mountains, symbolically reflecting this city’s strongly held commitment to secularism, has always been loyal to the CHP and its candidates. This time will likely be no different.

The opposition candidate Mustafa Tunç Soyer (CHP-S&D) is contesting this metropolitan municipality after serving for 2 consecutive terms as the mayor of Seferihisar district in Izmir province. He faces off the government candidate Nihat Zeybekçi (AKP-ECR) who was elected to Parliament as MP representing Denizli province and currently serves as the Minister of the Economy. Despite being a well-known figure in Turkish national politics, Zeybekçi’s chances of winning the race in Izmir are slim, if not non-existent at all. The CHP candidate has been comfortably ahead in the polls, leading by as much as 10 points.

Yaman is a member of the Europe Elects team, working as a data analyst. Euan Healey was the contributing editor.

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