The governing AK Party will not win Turkey’s third largest city – and they’ve only got themselves to blame
Few will be surprised by this website’s latest prediction: the western town of Izmir, Turkey’s third largest, will be retained by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) at Sunday’s local election.
It’s unsurprising, because the town is popularly known as a stronghold; the Turkish press frequently call Izmir the “CHP’s castle.”
The Büyükşehir boundary changes, which have thrown many other Turkish councils into contention, have only a small effect in Izmir. Rural voters account for a small share of the electorate and, unlike towns like CHP-held Ordu, are unlikely to influence the result.
That, and the city’s progressive outlook and fierce secularism makes Izmir politically the safest of Turkey’s three largest cities.
So why did this website take so long to call it for the CHP?
Izmir not as left wing as the CHP thinks
Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AK) has long wanted to take Izmir and has poured money into campaigning there. This is partly because it is the only one of Turkey’s big three cities never to go with AK.
It is also because AK had a credible chance of winning. Remember that Izmir is not as left-wing as CHP supporters like to believe. As my analysis in December showed, Izmir had a centre-right mayor as recently as 1999 and it has overwhelmingly supported parties of the right over left-wing parties in general elections.
This year was the AK Party’s greatest challenge to the CHP yet: by rolling out a cabinet heavyweight, former transport minister Binali Yıldırım, the party wanted to show it was serious about winning the town and generating ideas for running it.
AK in with a chance
As I noted in December, AK were showing signs of a strategy to win the town. At Mr Yıldırım’s unveiling, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a point of emphasising how his party was not interested in interfering with people’s lifestyles.
Mr Yıldırım himself said he wanted to clean the nasty sewage smell in Izmir’s bay area so that restaurant-goers could “enjoy their rakı outside”, combating his party’s reputation for restricting alcohol consumption.
Mr Yıldırım’s former job was a bonus too: traffic and transport are a problem in any large city, and his ministry was involved in funding and building the İzban commuter network.
So what went wrong?
But my December piece was written three days before 17 December, when a police and judicial operation saw the arrest of several AK figures, including the sons of four cabinet ministers. The political atmosphere has transformed completely as Mr Erdoğan launched a crusade against a so-called “parallel state” under Fethullah Gülen.
These local elections have since been strongly influenced by national issues in many Turkish towns, but nowhere more so than Izmir. Izmirites disgruntled with the current CHP mayor, Aziz Kocaoğlu, may have been persuaded to switch sides, but this election has become a referendum on Mr Erdoğan’s leaedership and the message of opposition will be strong in Izmir.
That does not mean the AK Izmir campaign is just a victim of national politics. On Friday morning, hours after Twitter had been blocked across Turkey, it emerged one of the court orders had been filed by Mr Yıldırım himself – in his former guise as transport minister. There’s no coming back from a killer blow like that.
For more on the race in Izmir, see James in Turkey’s dedicated page.