Undecided voters could surprise in March elections

As the March 31 local elections draw close, Turkish voters are facing a political landscape so chaotic that a great many are still undecided about which way to vote – if they vote at all.

For a start, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power for 17 years and, through the party’s predecessors, in control of certain municipalities around Turkey for the last 25 years.

Yet the party decided to focus its manifesto, released late last month, on city planning, infrastructure, and construction, a topic that seized the agenda last week when a partially illegally-built eight-storey Istanbul residence collapsed, killing 21 people.

In fact, Erdoğan’s manifesto reads like a confession of the mistakes and destruction wrought on local governments throughout his time in power. Promises to limit high-rise building, create environmentally-friendly cities, govern with input from the people, and have transparent and cost-efficient administrations, would better fit a party seeking power for the first time.

Cities and municipalities across Turkey have been under AKP control for years, if not decades, and in the name of urban transformation, thousands of poor families have been turfed out of their homes to make way for new construction. Through government institutions, the Housing Development Administration (TIKA) and Emlak Konut, contractors favoured by the government have made a fortune putting up skyscrapers, luxury housing estates, residences and shopping malls.

Now, Erdoğan complains that “no green space is left in cities beside cemeteries,” and that the skyline of Istanbul’s historic district of Sultanahmet has been sullied by skyscrapers.

“We betrayed Istanbul, and we still are betraying it,” he said in 2017, referring to the city’s many highrises. “I, too, am responsible for this situation,”

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), responded to the president with a strong rebuke.

“You have no right to complain. Those in power must create solutions, not complain. Why have you not done anything you talked about until now? Was there someone to stop you?” Kılıçdaroğlu demanded.

Erdoğan evidently understands that the economic impasse he has led the country to, which is currently so severe that citizens are barely able to afford staple foods, will lose him more votes than his electoral promises can deliver.

So, the president has turned to chauvinism, first going off at those protesting the high food prices, who he implied were distracting from Turkey’s real problem of fighting Kurdish militants. “Do you know the price of bullets?” Erdoğan asked at a rally last week.

The AKP and its far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) allies are, as ever, keen to paint the opposition CHP and its nationalist Good Party allies as linked to terrorists for cooperating with the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the second largest opposition party, which has been targeted by the government for its links to the Kurdish political movement.

But, as the major parties line up, it is outlying parties that could bring some big surprises to the table on March 31.

The Great Unity Party, a far-right Islamist nationalist party that stood alongside the AKP and MHP in last June’s elections, will this time run its own candidates.

The Islamist Saadet Party, an opposition ally last year, will this time only offer conditional support to the CHP and Good Party, while running its own candidates for most municipalities. In the party’s stronghold municipalities in the southeastern province of Adıyaman and the eastern province of Bitlis, it is the larger opposition parties that will support Saadet’s candidates.

The HDP has agreed to back CHP mayoral candidates for Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, Turkey’s three largest cities, and will back Saadet’s candidate in Adıyaman and the centre-left Democratic Left Party’s candidate in the southeastern city of Gaziantep, Celal Doğan.

To add to the complex situation, many candidates have switched allegiances, with some changing sides between the major parties and others running for smaller parties.

With surveys showing between 17 and 27 percent of voters as undecided and between 4 and 6 percent saying they will not vote, there remains a great deal of uncertainty over which way these elections will go.

Such high numbers of undecided voters indicate widespread dissatisfaction with the major players, and if a large number choose to cast their votes for Great Unity Party, Saadet Party or Democratic Left Party candidates, there could be some big surprises on election night. On the other hand, a split vote could also help one of the major alliances achieve crushing majorities at ballot boxes.

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