Voters wary as mayoral race for Turkey’s capital tightens

(Updates with investigation opened into Yavaş)

Turkey’s ruling party is locked in a tight and acrimonious battle with the secular opposition candidate to be the next mayor of Ankara in March 31 local elections, while voters in the capital remain anxious and reluctant to talk politics for fear of repercussions.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which dominates state and private media, has painted its opponents as supporters of terrorism and launched a string of legal cases against individual candidates. Opposition parties have meanwhile formed a loose alliance in order to dent the prestige of the AKP, which has been in power since 2002.

An opposition victory in the mayoral race for Ankara, or for Turkey’s biggest city and financial hub Istanbul, would be a big loss for the AKP, which has run both cities since the mid-1990s.

The main opposition secularist and left-of-centre Republican People’s Party (CHP) has nominated Mansur Yavaş as its candidate to be Ankara mayor, a move calculated to broaden its appeal, since the former lawyer previously served two terms as district mayor of Beypazarı, near Ankara, for the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Pollsters predict Yavaş has a good chance of defeating Mehmet Özhaseki, the joint candidate of the AKP and MHP, which are now in coalition. But prosecutors have opened an investigation to decide whether Yavaş should face charges for abuse of office while a lawyer some 10 years ago.

In the wake of the arrest of tens of thousands of perceived government opponents since the failed coup in July 2016, many voters remain wary.

“This is Turkey. Anything can suddenly happen to a person. That's why people don't want to talk about politics - because we know what happened to people who have spoken. I hope in these elections the CHP will win and things will change,” said Hilal, a 19-year-old student.

Osman, 37, also said he would vote for the CHP candidate.

“Because I work in the private sector I can't speak too much, but I support the CHP, so my son can have a brighter future. The situation of the nation is so obvious that there's no need for me to add anything else,” he said.

According to some experts, political tribalism is still the main factor that influences the preferences of the Turkish voters. As a result, though many voters may be unsatisfied with the parties they support, it is not easy for them to switch loyalties and vote for a rival. The AKP draws much of its support from conservative rural Anatolia and the devout millions who have migrated from the countryside to the big cities in recent decades.

"I'll vote for the AKP because they fit my views. I support them because I live my faith freely,” said Feyza, a 24-year-old teacher.

The same is true for 73-year-old Ahmet, originally from the eastern province of Elazığ. "I love Erdoğan - for this reason, my vote goes to the AKP. There's no other reason. We love him, that's all,” Ahmet said.

Yücel, 30, said he had voted for the AKP in the past, but now thought the CHP might reverse the political and economic tide. “Together with my family, I'll vote for the CHP in this election, because I believe they will change a lot of things. No one is happy with the current situation, including me. People are afraid to say this - and rightfully so. And the one who will change that is the CHP,” he said.

Chief among election issues is the economy, now in recession, with the rising cost of food helping to keep inflation around 20 percent, while unemployment stands at 13.5 percent.

Though local elections have no effect on economic policies, municipalities, especially those that administer significant budget such as Istanbul and in Ankara, have means to alleviate economic difficulties through social assistance.

For 23-year-old Yusuf, a worker on the minimum wage, his decreasing purchasing power is the main problem. But, he said, he was not sure who to vote for. “Everyone promises something, but I don't think they'll follow through,” he said.

Mustafa, 45, was angry with AKP officials who said those who voted for the ruling party would get a key to heaven in the afterlife. “The others promise paradise 24/7, but I don't want that paradise, because I've seen how they've turned this country into hell. For that reason, I'll vote for the CHP and Mansur Yavaş,” he said.

Helped by MHP voters, Yavaş narrowly lost the 2014 Ankara mayoral election to the AKP's Melih Gökçek, but this time the far-right nationalist party is in alliance with the AKP. Support from Kurdish voters could help Yavaş, but it remains to be seen whether they can forget his Turkish nationalist past.

The ruling AKP has nevertheless tried to portray Yavaş as being in alliance with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which the government says is linked to outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels.

The HDP has not fielded candidates for mayor in the major cities outside the mainly Kurdish southeast in order not to split the opposition vote.

“Mansur Yavaş will know that if he is elected, it is with HDP votes. He can’t run his politics ignoring HDP voters, Kurds, and the people of Ankara,” HDP co-chair Sezai Temelli said in an interview on Friday with Artı TV, an online platform.

But pro-government Hürriyet Daily said on Saturday that Temelli had admitted that the HDP would run Ankara and Istanbul municipalities if the opposition won the elections. Despite objections, Hürriyet refused to withdraw the report, saying it was Temelli’s responsibility to explain what he had said.

Yavaş, meanwhile, has not made much effort to appeal to Kurdish voters. After the HDP announced its support of his candidacy, Yavaş said on Twitter that he was seeking the votes of all Ankara residents who acted independently. “Those who fail to put a distance between themselves and terrorist organisations should stay away from us,” he said.

HDP supporter, Harun, said he would still support Yavaş. “We’ll vote for whoever is running against him,” he said, referring to Erdoğan.

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