Why is the Istanbul election important for Turkish politics?

As the local elections approach, campaigns and political polemics accelerate, the outcome of the election in Istanbul is seen as important not only for the metropolis but also for Turkey as a whole.

Istanbul is Turkey’s most populous city and even larger than some countries in Europe. Hence, who wins the mayoralty in Istanbul on March 31st will be decisive in terms of how the country’s politics will be shaped in the near future.

With the announcement of the final candidates, a multi-candidate race in Istanbul is all but certain. The two prominent candidates are Ekrem İmamoğlu, the Mayor of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IBB) and the candidate of the CHP, and Murat Kurum, the candidate of the People’s Alliance and former Minister of Environment and Urbanization.

Istanbul is a small model of Turkey

According to 2023 data from the Turkish Statistical Institute (TurkStat), Istanbul’s population is 15 million 655 thousand 924 and 18.34 percent of Turkey’s population, approximately one-fifth, lives in Istanbul. Istanbul also has the highest population density with 3,13 people per square kilometer.

However, only about 2 million 200 thousand of this large population is registered to the Istanbul population. Others have fled to Istanbul from around other cities across Turkey.

Experts draw attention to the fact that this feature of Istanbul brings the “hometown element” to the forefront in voting behavior, especially in local elections.

Political Communication Consultant Suat Özçelebi points out that Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey and hosts people from all different cities and says, “Istanbul is a small model of Turkey and those who govern the city are as well known by the public as the Prime Minister and the President and hold the most prestigious office in terms of political career at home and abroad.”

Özçelebi says that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political career is based on his success as mayor of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, and explains the importance of the city as follows:

“The budget and opportunities that Istanbul controls are also important. The fact that it has the potential to fund many groups in the city, to ‘feed’ not only Istanbul but also Anatolia through foundations, associations and similar organizations, and to enlarge the sphere of influence of the ruler also increases its attractiveness. A service or achievement here creates a political response and impact in Anatolia as people from all provinces live here.”

In addition to being Turkey’s largest city in terms of population, Istanbul is a metropolitan city where qualified manpower and significant investments are concentrated.

The results in the city, where the polarization of the country in last year’s presidential elections had an impact, are close and the electorate, like the country as a whole, is split almost in half. According to the results in Istanbul, on May 14, the opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu received 48.56 percent of the vote and President Erdoğan 46.68 percent, while Kılıçdaroğlu received 51.78 percent and Erdoğan 48.22 percent in the May 28 election, in which only two candidates remained.

In Istanbul, the highest number of votes for the opposition came from districts with higher income and education levels, such as Beşiktaş and Kadıköy, while Erdoğan received more support from districts with relatively lower income levels, such as Sultanbeyli and Esenler.

Political scientist Evren Balta considers the race in Istanbul as one of the most critical elections in Turkey in many respects, pointing to the concentration of white-collar and middle class in the city:

“These classes have been feeling underrepresented for a very long time and İmamoğlu seems to have created a breathing space for them. Therefore, the loss of İmamoğlu may mean the loss of this representation in a sense.”

Does the winner of Istanbul always win Turkey?

President Erdoğan once said “Whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey”, a prediction often repeated by other politicians to show the importance of the city.

Balta says that it is important that the March 31, 2024 elections will be held right after the May 14 and 28 elections, saying:

“March 31 has important dimensions for the opposition in terms of what happens after a major electoral defeat, and for the government in terms of whether it can consolidate its May 14 victory. If the Justice and Development Party regains Istanbul, which it lost in the 2019 elections, it will largely mean the consolidation of its power.”

Erdoğan won the mayoralty of Istanbul against a divided opposition in the 1994 local elections, a victory that was one of the turning points that brought his party to power.

Özçelebi said that the CHP achieved a success in 2019 by winning metropolitan cities, adding:

“Istanbul is the masterpiece of these cities and can cover all failures and even defeats. The fact that Istanbul was won in 2019 despite losing the elections was a source of motivation not only for the CHP but for the entire opposition. It fed the feeling that they could take the election from an increasingly authoritarian government through political struggle.”

Stating that this psychological effect is important for all opposition voters, Özçelebi said, “The 2024 Istanbul results will have a huge impact on the opposition masses. Even if many cities are lost, the preservation of Istanbul will have such an impact.”

In the March 31 and June 23, 2019 elections, the CHP’s victory in Istanbul after 25 years raised hopes in the opposition that it could reach the momentum achieved by the Welfare Party in 1994, but this could not be achieved in the 2023 elections.

The decisive election for Imamoğlu

Who wins the Istanbul election will be decisive not only for Turkey but also for the future of the CHP and İmamoğlu.

Reminding that the opposition was “disorganized and leaderless” after the May 14 election, Balta explains the importance of this for İmamoğlu as follows:

“The opposition has already lost the tendency to make an alliance to a great extent. If İmamoğlu wins Istanbul despite the fact that he entered the election without an alliance, despite the conflicts within his own party, the tensions within the Millet Alliance and the fact that the votes will be divided with the DEM Party’s nomination of a candidate, then he will have an unpreventable rise on the political scene. It would be like a new leader being born.”

Balta adds that such a victory would mean “opposition leadership” for İmamoğlu.

While İmamoğlu won the March 31, 2019 local elections by a margin of 13,729 votes, he increased his votes in the June 23 election, which was held after the Supreme Electoral Council canceled the election, and increased his margin by more than 800,000 votes over his rival Binali Yıldırım.

Özçelebi said that this election will determine the conditions for the IBB Mayor to rise faster in his political career or to fight harder for a certain period of time:

“Elbette her şey bu seçime bağlı değil. Ancak İstanbul’da kaybederse CHP içindeki genel başkanlık yarışı ve 2028 Cumhurbaşkanlığı adaylığı süreci bundan negatif etkilenir. Parti içindeki kısır tartışmalara girmek yerine kendine yeni bir yol da çizebilir. Bunun içinde farklı bir siyasal parti olma olasılığı da düşük değil. Alacağı halk desteğinin oranı ve nasıl kaybettiği çok önemli.”

İmamoğlu’nun sadece İstanbul’da değil tüm Türkiye’de siyasal karşılığı ve sempatizanları çok yüksek bir siyasetçi olduğunu ifade eden Özçelebi bu seçimi de kazanırsa İmamoğlu’nun CHP içindeki mücadele hangi düzeyde olursa olsun 2028’de Cumhurbaşkanı adayı olacağını düşünüyor.

Özçelebi, “Bunun karşısında iktidar İmamoğlu’nun yeni bir başarı öyküsü yaratmasını ve bunu büyütmesini önlemek için her şeyi yapacaktır” diyen Özçelebi, bu mücadelenin İmamoğlu’nu daha da büyüteceğini söyleyerek, “Kazanırsa 2028’in yıldız Cumhurbaşkanı adayı olur” diyor.

DW Türkçe / Gülsen Solaker