Istanbul residents denounce AKP policies ahead of local elections

On March 31st, Turks will head to the ballot box to vote in local elections, choosing mayors and neighbourhood leaders throughout the country. 

Many voters in Istanbul are hoping for a change in the status quo amid unchecked urban development despite an uptick in municipal services.

The electorate in Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality – Turkey’s largest city by population and area – is an essential segment for parties opposed to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

The AKP has governed much of Istanbul for 24 years, and this vote will serve as a referendum on people’s trust in the party, which has ruled Turkey for 17 years, often through authoritarian and repressive methods. 

One problem for many Istanbul residents is traffic, which has been made worse in recent years by unfettered urban development. 

Ibrahim Özcan, a 51-year-old waiter who has worked all over the city, takes the bus every day, and often sits in traffic for hours. In September 2017, Moovit, a public transportation app, found that Istanbul residents spend an average of nine hours a week in traffic. 

Much of the traffic problem is due to a lack of reliable and useful infrastructure, although the city is under constant development. 

“My beautiful Istanbul has become a pile of concrete,” said Özcan. “There is no green space left in the Gazi district. Even in a very intense but short rainfall, the roads turn into streams. There’s no infrastructure. The children can’t see the sky through the concrete buildings. I don’t like voting, but I might do it this time.”

Ayşe Caner, who is 29, agrees that recent policies have completely changed the face of the city. 

“The existing municipalities have harmed the historical and cultural fabric of Istanbul, and all the green areas have been plundered,” she said. “The people living in this city could not understand the fact that Istanbul entered a race to get a share of the rent. A significant part of Istanbul's population is from rural areas, not urban. This is what keeps the AKP alive.” 

Through the constant demolition and closing of buildings over the years, the AKP administration has made its stance clear, according to Gürsel Canıklıoğlu

"The administration made a statement that it was against culture and art with the destruction of the Atatürk Cultural Center,” said Canıklıoğlu, who works in publishing. “They closed Dostlar Theater. The ruling municipalities trampled all over the city's cultural fabric." 

Nursel Bazma is a 23-year-old Turkish literature graduate who works as a restaurant hostess. She thinks municipalities are too focused on construction and should boost employment numbers instead. 

“Municipalities should stop making roads and open employment centres instead,” she said. “Everywhere is concrete, and the forested areas have been completely destroyed. I’m not happy at all in this city. I have thoughts about going abroad as it’s impossible to live in this country. My future is bleak. If I hadn’t studied, then maybe I would have found a job at a factory. When I started university, I never thought I’d have been a seating hostess.”

As of September, Turkey’s unemployment rate for people between the ages of 15 and 24 hovered just under 20 percent, significantly higher than the overall rate of 11 percent. 

Compounding the high joblessness rate are inflation-related price hikes in water, electricity, and natural gas. At the beginning of September, the cost of electricity went up 9 percent, the fourth price hike the year. Natural gas also increased 9 percent in September, leading many people struggling to pay their heating bills this winter. 

Eda Yılmaz, a 20-year-old accounting student at Kocaeli University, 50 kilometers east of Istanbul, says municipal services shouldn't be used for profit.

"The municipality shouldn't charge for water,” she said. “They should give scholarships to poor students. Transportation must be free. I'm trying to stand on my own two feet by playing music in the street. I'm going to vote, but I'm of course not going to vote for right-wing parties." 

Özcan, who came from a family that supported the secularist People’s Republican Party (CHP), said that he was considering voting for Ekrem Imamoğlu, the party’s Istanbul candidate.

Imamoğlu - who is a politician from Trabzon in Turkey’s north and a former district mayor in Istanbul’s Beylikdüzü district – has attracted support from both the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), as well as from the right-leaning GOOD Party as part of a broader alliance between the two parties. 

During a recent 17-minute speech, Imamoğlu used the word “Allah” five times, to convey the message that “I’m one of you” to the religious right, and said he was “gaining strength from Atatürk,” to appeal to his secular segment. 

Others criticise the way in which Imamoğlu – who is not a well-known name – was put up for nomination inside the party, pointing to the oligarchism with Turkish political parties. Decisions are generally taken by a handful of party leaders, and the task of the voters is to approve these decisions.

Nevzat Yıldırım, a candidate for Beşiktaş for the HDP, criticised the CHP's nomination process for not holding primaries in a more transparent way. 

"This is not right,” said Yıldırım. “They acted in accordance with a political understanding that governs the country rather than the party. I'm not comfortable with this because I'm going to vote. There should be no imposition. They are not raising up anyone's voice to the top.”

Caner echoed these thoughts. 

“I expected the CHP to come up with an exciting candidate,” she said. “The top-down candidates that were put forward mean they are ignoring people. I'm going to vote for a candidate who is opposed to the administration, to pave the way for more breathing room.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.