Izmir expects another opposition win, even as troubles mount

There is little doubt the main opposition will again win in Izmir during March 31 local elections, but that does not mean Turkey’s third-largest city is not overwhelmed with problems, or that voters are happy with the performance of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has run the secularist stronghold for 15 years.

The secular identity and lifestyle choices of Izmir residents, and, more importantly, their rejection of the ruling Justice Development Party (AKP) at every election, has cost the city and its hinterland dearly as the Islamist government has blocked investment and funding for the province.

For example, in February the Transport Ministry said it had allocated only 30,000 lira ($5,500) for public transport projects in Izmir, while AKP-controlled Istanbul received 3.2 billion lira and Ankara got 1 billion lira.

The AKP candidate for Izmir is former Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekçi, originally from the neighbouring province of Denizli. Zeybekçi promised major infrastructure projects such as new highways and metro lines. But in an election where identity and party loyalties are possibly more important than policy, Zeybekçi has to a large extent focused on assuring the people of Izmir that he will not interfere in their lifestyles.

But even the AKP’s most ardent supporters admit a Zeybekçi win is unlikely. Ahmet Zafer Menekli, a 53-year old tradesman, said the AKP would get the highest percentage of the vote nationwide. “But I do not think they will in Izmir. I am sure in the future they will hand Izmir to the AKP, but not in this election,” he said.

Mehmet Dursun, a 44-year old worker agreed. “None of Izmir’s problems are being solved. Such a large city has neither heavy industries, nor opportunities for employment,” he said, calling Izmir a metropolitan village. “I am an AKP supporter, the time for an AKP municipality has come, but unfortunately I do not believe they will win in Izmir.”

Izmir was not always a CHP stronghold. Burhan Özfatura served two terms as Izmir mayor for the conservative secular Motherland Party in the 1980s and 1990s. When he was succeeded by the CHP’s Ahmet Priştina in 1999, the AKP was only 10 points behind. But the gap has increased since then, reflecting the growing political polarisation within Turkey.

“In this country now there is the AKP and the others. Why can’t the AKP win? As a woman, if you ask me, I am more disturbed by a government that is disturbed with my laughter, my way of sitting, my clothes,” said the CHP Izmir general-secretary, Hacer Taş Gültepe.

Hasan Gezer, a 25-year student, complained about the lack of jobs, but said he would vote for the CHP, even though it came at a price. “Restricting funds to Izmir and the lack of services could strengthen the AKP’s hand in future. Naturally, people want access to the best of everything,” he said.

In recent years, there has been a trend for white-collar workers to move to Izmir from Istanbul. The city offers the newcomers a more relaxed way of life, easy access to the sea, and most importantly, a space free from the pressures of conservatives. The newcomers are perhaps better placed to judge the differences between the services offered by municipalities run by AKP and CHP mayors.

Berk Yaylalı, who recently moved to Izmir, said he would support CHP candidate Tunç Soyer on March 31. “In terms of municipal services, the AKP is better than the CHP. Compared to Istanbul, it seems Izmir has failed to solve its infrastructure problems or is solving them at a slower pace. Yet, Istanbul lacks the peace of Izmir, the respect and sincerity in daily contacts among people,” he said.

The incumbent CHP mayor, Aziz Kocaoğlu, has been in charge of the city since 2004. This month, he launched a climate action plan for the province. He is known for his support for agriculture and for transport projects, but he is also criticised for not resisting huge construction projects and for failing to improve infrastructure.

As well as a seaside promenade and boulevards filled with bars and restaurants, there are also striking inequalities in Izmir. Next to the city centre, in the Basmane district, there is another face of the city.

“Can you believe this is Izmir when you look around? Look at the houses people are living in,” said Ismail Yılmaz, who is running a car park. “What has done Aziz Kocaoğlu for 15 years for those people apart from building new pavements. I voted for the AKP in previous elections, but I will not in this one. How can I vote for a party that increases fuel prices twice in one day?” he asked.

Tunç Soyer, the new CHP candidate for mayor, is popular with local people and has promised to work more for Izmir’s deprived neighbourhoods.

Walking up the hill from Basmane, you reach the Kadifekale neighbourhood, a place mostly inhabited by Kurdish people who moved to Izmir to escape violence in the southeast in the 1990s. Kadifekale residents are wont to say: “We look down on Izmir the way Izmir people look down on us.”

Kadifekale is close to the city centre, but the lack of public transport is obvious. Hanife Kaygısız, 38, moved to Izmir in 1995 from the southeastern province of Mardin, said Kurds were discriminated against when it came to jobs and services.

But the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has not fielded a candidate in Izmir in order to strengthen the hand of the CHP against the coalition between the ruling party and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

“We will vote for the first time for the CHP in this election. In my opinion, the CHP is no different than the AKP, but we will do this to push back the AKP-MHP alliance,” said Kaygısız.

Even loyal supporters of the CHP, which has not won a general election since the 1970s, admit they are not happy with the party’s performance in the city.

“For example our roads are poor, there is no environmental planning or cleaning services. When it rains, we can hardly walk on the roads,” said Yaşar Saltuk, who said his family had supported the CHP for generations. “We are voting for the CHP because of our concerns about the AKP. We are not against the AKP because it is religious, we are against it because we fear it will interfere in our lifestyles."