CHP or AKP? Istanbul’s Beyoğlu divided on upcoming vote
Voters in Istanbul's central district of Beyoğlu are sharply divided about their party of choice in Turkey’s March 31 local elections, even though economic problems top almost everyone’s list of concerns.
A win for the main opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP) in the race for mayor of Istanbul would be a bloody nose for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Erdoğan began his rise to power when he was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994, and he and his allies have governed the city of some 16 million people ever since.
Opposition parties are seeking to paint the nationwide municipal elections as a referendum on Erdoğan and his performance on the economy. The lira lost 28 percent of its value against the dollar last year and inflation is stubbornly hovering around 20 percent, with food prices rising particularly sharply.
The CHP candidate to be Istanbul mayor is Ekrem Imamoğlu, a former district mayor of Beylikdüzü, a relatively affluent suburb on the European shores of the city. He faces the AKP's Binalı Yıldırım, a former prime minister and staunch Erdoğan loyalist.
In Beyoğlu, traditionally the city’s entertainment and nightlife centre, Turkey’s economic problems have hit particularly hard with major shops closing in the area and tighter restrictions and higher taxes on alcohol imposed by Erdoğan’s Islamist government hurting the many restaurants and bars in the densely populated area.
In the heart of Istanbul and home to Taksim Square, Galata Tower and the city’s famed pedestrian thoroughfare, Istiklal Street, Beyoğlu is a top tourist destination as well as a liberal-minded and politically-charged district. The epicentre of non-Muslim life in the 19th century and one of the city’s poshest districts, Beyoğlu has experienced a transformation in the last decade.
"Beyoğlu has become a very poor-quality district. There are no good quality stores left,” said 41-year-old Koray Şenor, a shopkeeper in the area for 20 years. “People with only a little money come to Beyoğlu to shop. The stores that do sell good quality goods are suffering.”
Hasan Varol, a 57-year-old shopkeeper, has been working in Beyoğlu for more than 40 years. He said the area’s lack of basic infrastructure was driving shoppers elsewhere.
“The problem with Beyoğlu is that there are not enough toilets and parking. There are no clean and hygienic toilets in Beyoğlu,” said Varol. “Women come into the shop and ask if they can use the bathroom. People who come by car cannot find a place to park.”
Both Şenor and Varol said they would vote CHP. “Ekrem Imamoğlu is an entrepreneurial candidate,” said Şenor. “I think he only has a small chance in Istanbul. But we are trying to ensure the opposition comes to power through voting for the CHP."
Gürsel Polat, a 57-year-old clockmaker and CHP supporter, felt uneasy in Turkey’s turbulent economy. “Our jobs are worse than bad, and we never know what we're going to face when we wake up in the morning,” he said.
Seyfettin Gürsel, director of the Economic and Social Research Centre at Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University, said economic issues would be reflected in the election results.
"In local elections, the administration typically loses votes. During times of high inflation and increased unemployment, the loss of votes will be higher,” he said.
But sociologist Sevinç Doğan said voters were not as fired up by the municipal polls as they were ahead of the June presidential and parliamentary elections, which saw a voter turnout of 86 percent. She said momentum behind the CHP had waned.
"The belief that democracy and freedom can come about with elections at the ballot box is lost or diminishing. We can see this very clearly. There could have been a very serious boycott, but this opportunity has come and gone,” she said.
Some in Beyoğlu blamed the CHP and its supporters for the 2013 Gezi Protests that began as a sit-in against the demolition of a small park in the district, but spread across the country to become the biggest anti-government demonstrations since the AKP came to power in 2002. Police used force to suppress the protests, killing a dozen people and injuring thousands. Scores of people have since been prosecuted for their part in the demonstrations.
“The Gezi protests destroyed the economy, and tradesmen became the victims," said Fatih Taşkıran, 50, a well-known figure in Beyoğlu’s food and beverage industry. “Tourists stopped coming, and hotels were empty, we couldn't do business and had financial difficulties. The country cannot be governed with commotion. The AKP is close to solving the problems faced by Istanbul.”
The AKP has the backing of a wealthy party organisation and a loyal base. It also has the advantage of being in power; its candidate for Istanbul mayor is former prime minister and current speaker of parliament Binali Yıldırım.
"The AKP fits my criteria as a Muslim. In these local elections, I'll vote for the individual, not the party,” said Gökmen İçer, 40. “I'll vote for Binali. If he wasn't there, I'd give my vote to the CHP. I see Binali as being closer to the people.”
Also planning to vote for the AKP is Keriman Esin, a transvestite who has been living in Beyoğlu for 20 years.
“The AKP treats everyone equally. As a gay person, I don’t have any problems. I haven’t had problems with my gay identity since 2001. In my eyes, the CHP is a party with empty sentiments. My two eyes only look toward President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan,” Esin said.