Disarray in Turkish opposition boosts Erdoğan's hopes of regaining Istanbul

Pollsters suggest that disunity among Turkey's opposition parties has bolstered President Erdoğan's optimism about the prospect of his ruling AKP reclaiming control of Istanbul in the upcoming municipal elections this month.

People walk under election posters for Turkey's President Erdoğan and his ruling AKP flags in Istanbul, Feb. 20, 2024. REUTERS/Umit Bektas


Disunity among Turkey's opposition parties has boosted President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's hopes that his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) can regain control of Istanbul in this month's municipal elections, pollsters say, following his victory in last year's presidential vote.

The outcome of the March 31 election in Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, is seen as key in deciding the political fate of its mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, 52, long touted as a potential leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and possibly a future president.

Five years ago, İmamoğlu and the secularist CHP dealt ErdoĞan a heavy blow in municipal elections by winning control of Istanbul, the president's home city, and the capital Ankara after 25 years of rule by the AKP and its Islamist predecessors.

But ErdoĞan, who has dominated Turkish politics for nearly a quarter of a century, beat off a strong opposition challenge last May to win re-election as president, while the AKP and its allies secured another parliamentary majority.

The alliance that helped propel İmamoğlu to victory in Istanbul has since collapsed, and his nationalist and pro-Kurdish allies are fielding their own candidates this month.

Recent polls point to a close race, with pollsters MAK this week showing 41.5% support for İmamoğlu, just 1.5 points ahead of AKP candidate Murat Kurum. According to pollster Murat Gezici, Kurum had 44.1% support, ahead of İmamoğlu's 43.5%.

"The race is neck-and-neck, on a knife edge," özer Sencar, chair of pollsters Metropoll, told Reuters, emphasizing the importance of Istanbul for future national politics.

"If İmamoğlu wins the election in Istanbul and this election is not cancelled by objections in some way, he will become the president (of Turkey) in 2028," he said.

Istanbul Mayor İmamoğlu addresses the crowd during a gathering organized by Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (İBB) at Barbaros Square in Istanbul, Dec. 30, 2023. REUTERS/Dilara Senkaya

İmamoğlu loses his allies

But İmamoğlu's hopes in Istanbul have been dented by the decision of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Equality and Democracy (DEM) Party and the Turkish nationalist Good (İYİ) Party, whose voters supported him in 2019, to field their own candidates.

"The damage that the İYİ and DEM parties will do to İmamoğlu must be taken seriously," Sencar said.

Metropoll's latest survey showed support for İmamoğlu among Kurdish voters had declined to 32% last month from 35% in January. Support among İYİ party voters fell to 45% from 64%.

Discord within the CHP itself, which elected a new leader this year, has added to İmamoğlu's challenge, with many in the party unhappy with the choice of election candidates.

"The biggest risk for the opposition in Istanbul is that it is becoming more fragmented than ever," said Ertan Aksoy, head of Aksoy Research, whose survey conducted 40 days ago showed İmamoğlu to be 3-4 percentage points ahead of his AKP rival.

İmamoğlu has accused central government of hampering his delivery of services in Istanbul since 2019. Campaigning is now focused on solving traffic problems in a city of 16 million and the need for urban transformation, given earthquake risks in the region.

In election campaigning, ErdoĞan has made the opposition's difficulties the focus of his speeches.

"No change has been able to cure the political exhaustion of the CHP. Everyone who comes and goes just makes things worse," he told a rally this week.