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It’s election frenzy and that’s because more than at any other time in recent history, Turkish voters will determine whether the Justice and Development (AK) Party headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodgan will tighten its grip on power after 12 years in government, or be told to change its ways.
This may explain why in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, Mayor Kadir Topbas is noticeably missing from campaign posters, and instead Mr Erdogan is pictured on billboards alongside smiling AKP voters with testimonies that read; ‘Before AKP there were mounds of rubbish in the city, but now it’s clean’.
Other posters feature voters saying ‘Now, I can go to any hospital for a check-up,’ and ‘I became a home owner by making a payment that was just like paying rent.’
Mr Erdogan wants to remind the electorate that under his watch, the AKP greatly improved services and presided over a period of unprecedented economic growth.
Irem Koker, a reporter with the daily Hurriyet newspaper, says that it appears Erdogan is personally campaigning to win 80 cities.
“He’s putting his leadership to the vote rather than the candidates’ credentials. [It’s] as if he will be mayor of all,” Koker said.
It makes the 2014 local municipal elections feel rather more like general elections. And some voters are buying it.
Hasan, a Kurdish businessman originally from Diyarbakir in the east but a long time resident of Istanbul, says he has never voted for the AKP before, but this time he might.
“I’m thinking of voting for AKP in my local district as they have provided services and made life better,” he said.
But when it comes to voting for Istanbul as a whole, Hasan will probably vote for a Kurdish party, in tandem with traditional voting trends.
Gezi Park, Corruption, and the Gulen rift
But despite some criticism of how he has campaigned on behalf of his party, Mr Erdogan’s hands-on-approach is not without reason.
This year’s local elections come just ten months after the country was rocked by the Gezi Park anti-government protests that lasted all summer and effectively locked down the city centre, leaving tourists in clouds of tear gas for months.
The local lira currency devalued, and has yet to recover. Economists are now talking of a looming credit crisis that could be as damaging as the crunch that hit the US in 2008. Economic prospects for Turkey as a leader among emerging markets have dimmed in recent months.
The March 30 vote also comes on the heels of political crises that have frustrated the prime minister.
On December 17, a public corruption probe was launched against business leaders and senior politicians close to Erdogan; several were arrested and accused of profiting from illegal construction ventures and bribery, among other charges.
The arrests sparked a cabinet reshuffle, a string of ministerial resignations, and the firing of a number of prosecutors who brought the charges forward.
In February, websites published leaked recordings of an alleged phone call made on the same day between the prime minister and his son discussing the need to hide up to 30 million Euros. The recordings allegedly implicate Erdogan in the public corruption scandal.
Erdogan says the recordings are merely montaged recordings spliced together and part of a plot against his leadership orchestrated by his former ally, the Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen, who resides in Pennsylvania.
Erdogan accuses the scholar of creating a parallel state to challenge his leadership and has vowed to curb the reach of Gulen’s Hizmet (Service) movement, whose followers include police chiefs and prosecutors leading the investigation.
Hizmet, which is believed to have millions of sympathisers with an accumulated wealth of billions of Euros, has until now supported Erodgan’s rise to power.
Barcin Yinanc, and associate editor at Hurriyet Daily News, believes the rift between Erdogan and Gulen will have an effect on the municipal election results now that the ‘alliance’ between the two appears broken.
“I’m convinced that although the number of voters who are loyal to Gulen is unknown (estimates range from 3 to 6 per cent) they will not be voting for AKP. They will try to inflict as much damage as possible on the AKP by voting strategically,” Yinanc told The BRICS Post.
She believes that Gulen supporters will vote for the stronger candidate in their districts.
“For them it’s not the party ideology that is important. We have a saying in Turkish, when you fall from the sea, you even embrace the snake,” she added.
Following the leaked conversations between the prime minister and his son, it came to light that tens of thousands of peoples had been wiretapped in Turkey.
In a move to control the message Turkey blocked social networking site Twitter earlier this week just hours after the prime minister threatened to do so at a rally.
The OppositionDespite Erdogan’s blocking of some social media, opposition parties are still turning to online campaigning in a bid to dent the prime minister’s – and AKP’s – hold on power.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) this year launched an online campaign that uncovered thousands of what they describe as “ghost voters” in Istanbul.
Claims of election rigging have been frequent in recent polls, although there has been no major case that has changed the results of elections.
But Safak Pavey, an MP from the CHP, believes that the issue of ghost voters is proving to be far larger of a problem than she had anticipated.
“For example, in my local area in Istanbul (Besiktas), the local administrator told me that 400 new residents who evidently don’t live there had been registered [to vote],” Pavey told The BRICS Post.
“We discovered ghost ballot papers in all three districts of Istanbul. It was not the police but our own teams that discovered them. But it is on a far more organised and larger scale than we can control or pursue effectively,” she added.
The CHP, who are campaigning on four key issues – corruption, unemployment, discrimination and heavy tax burdens – appear to be tightening the race with frontrunners AKP.
The latest polls put AKP at 40 per cent and CHP at 32 per cent of the national vote.
But Ilter Turan, a professor of international affairs at Bilgi University, believes it’s almost impossible to predict what will happen at the ballot box on Sunday.
“In an atmosphere where people’s communications are being listened to, if someone comes to you and asks you how you would vote, would you trust them and give an honest answer?” Turan says.
Nevertheless, some election analysts believe that AKP does face serious contenders.
Mustafa Sarigul, CHP’s Istanbul mayoral candidate, could give Erdogan a run for his money, says Hurriyet’s Koker.
“Sarigul is the only guy who can pose a challenge to AKP,” he says.
“He’s not the cleanest of politicians and many people know this … he’s using the same tactics as the AKP, but he’s a populist guy and his district Sisli works efficiently,” Koker said.
Whether Sarigul becomes Istanbul’s next mayor, says Koker, is not the end game as the poll results may position him to run against Erdogan in next year’s general elections.
“I’m not sure he’ll beat AKP in Istanbul this time around, but Sarigul has greater ambitions. He wants to lead the party and if he wins more votes than Kilicdaroglu – the present leader of the CHP – did in 2009, he’ll have a real chance at doing that,” Koker added.
Mr Erdogan has enjoyed popular support from conservative Kurds in the southeast, but this support may be wavering according to Ertugrul Kurkcu, an MP from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party or BDP.
“One of the major concerns of Erdogan is losing his votes in the Kurdish areas. And this is because of the developments in Kurdistan. Kurds are very much offended by the aggression being shown in his approach to Western Syria,” Kurkcu says.
In Istanbul, the Kurdish coalition made up from the BDP and the Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), is backing Sirri Süreyya, a filmmaker-cum- independent politician elected to parliament in the last general elections, for mayor.
They believe he appeals not only to Kurdish voters, but also to the city’s liberals.
The latter feel the CHP have failed them, and that the AKP no longer represent them, particularly in light of the police violence unleashed during and since the Gezi Park protests, and the ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression.
Kurkcu says: “The main aim of the Kurdish coalition is to increase the vote in Kurdistan and double it in the Western part of Turkey, particularly in Istanbul. If we secure above 10 per cent, which is the national threshold, it will makes us a permanent factor in every political calculation.”
Hurriyet Daily News’s Yinanc believes such gains at the polls will give the Kurds leverage in the stalled peace process – negotiations designed to end the three-decade-long conflict between Turkey’s security forces and the secessionist Kurdish militia, the PKK.
“The BDP is trying to get as [many] votes as possible to strengthen its hands in the negotiations after the elections,” she said.
All these factors could persuade voters to shift their loyalties, making these elections a crucial indication of how Turks want to be governed in the years to come.
By Jody Sabral for The BRICS Post in Istanbul, Turkey