Identity politics or economic realities: Turkish local elections and beyond

We will see in this local election to be held on March 31 if the crisis really forces workers and retirees to warn Erdogan through local elections or if issues like identity politics and party affiliation will determine the outcome. (Foto: AA)On March 31, Türkiye will once again exercise its democratic right to vote in local government elections. Yet, this election transcends mere local political dynamics; it stands as a pivotal moment shaping the trajectory of Turkish politics at large. In the wake of the May 23 general elections, Türkiye’s political landscape is undergoing significant shifts, with the opposition striving to carve out its niche in the shrinking political sphere. The question looms large: Will this recalibration primarily hinge on ‘identity politics’ or ‘economic considerations’?Let’s begin by examining the recent remarks made by Murat Kurum, the Istanbul Metropolitan Mayor candidate from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), regarding the New Welfare Party (Yeniden Refah). The New Welfare Party, an opposition faction known for expanding its voter base, particularly by drawing support away from the AKP, has been a significant focus of attention of the ruling party.In an interview on A Haber, Kurum said he doesn’t even consider the possibility of Yeniden Refah voters “making the mistake” of not voting for him, stating that it would pose a risk to his election. He also mentioned that Yeniden Refah voters “are sure that their votes for their own party would benefit CHP mentality.” He aimed to Yeniden Refah leader Fatih Erbakan, who prirotized “identity politics.”On the same day, prominent Kurdish political figure Leyla Zana reiterated her call to vote for their own candidates in Istanbul more strongly, emphasizing not only identity politics but also party affiliation.“If we are strong, we will have counterparts,” Zana said in her statement to Asopress.Expecting a simplistic approach like “if we lose to Ekrem İmamoğlu, President Tayyip Erdoğan will understand our value and engage in dialogue” from a politician like Zana, an experienced Kurdish politics, would not be accurate. Moreover, there is a clear effort to unite DEM around identity politics.Identity politics and party affiliationKurum may be right. He aims to confront Yeniden Refah voters, who share the same identity affiliation as the political Islamist core of the AKP, with a moral dilemma, which could lead to a dissolution of the 4-5 percent voting potential for Istanbul seen in polls.Some religious communities whose sources of funding were cut off after İmamoğlu won the election in 2019 are openly expressing their desire for an AKP mayor again. For instance, within the İsmailağa Community, an Islamist social media “influencer,” Cübbeli Ahmet Hoca, who is struggling for power, declared not voting for the AKP’s “People’s Alliance” as sinful.On the other hand, for example, in the breakdowns of MetroPoll’s survey, 46.3 percent of DEM Party voters in Istanbul and 64 percent of İYİ Party voters tend to vote for İmamoğlu for Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Mayor.Here, what unites DEM and İYİ Party voters in İmamoğlu’s favor is not identity politics but party affiliation.Distribution according to the parties voted for. Source: MetroPoll, Turkey’s Pulse, March 2024Kurum, Akşener, ZanaSo, what Kurum says about Yeniden Refah voters with his emphasis on identity politics seems valid in terms of pushing party affiliation into the background with another moral dilemma. On the political dimension of these reasons, there is a perspective of “let Erdoğan lose, let the AKP not come back,” and on the other hand, there is a need to warn Erdoğan due to the economic crisis.Opposition IYI Party leader Meral Akşener, on the brink of the election, directing her criticisms – as expected from an opposition party – not towards the ruling People’s Alliance but directly towards the main opposition CHP, especially İmamoğlu, and Ankara candidate Mansur Yavaş, who seems to be in a leading position in Ankara according to polls, indicates an effort to keep party affiliation alive through the CHP.Therefore, despite having different ideological and political realities, it is understood that Kurum, Zana, and Akşener are trying to appeal to the conscience of voters through identity and party affiliation.In this case, in local elections, issues such as the cost of living, retirement pensions, the livelihood problems of workers, the economic crisis, which is Erdogan’s real nightmare, is overshadowed.Despite all state apparatus and opposition parties standing against İmamoğlu, Kurum, who is in trouble, also emphasizes identity politics.What will workers and retirees say?However, both identity politics and party affiliation take a back seat to how the economic crisis can be overcome.When it comes to the economy, the issue is stuck on how much the retirement pension will increase.Erdoğan finally admitted that making useless increases and promises with election economy actually worsens the cost of living and erodes pensions; he said he would reconsider in July.The same problems existed in the 2023 elections. At that time, there were loud statements like “The cries of retirees will be heard,” but Erdoğan won again.As for workers, the minimum wage, which is 17,002 liras, is no longer an exception but has become a rule in Türkiye; more than half of the working population works for minimum wage or similar wages. But when the alternative is unemployment, the philosophy of “We should be grateful for this” prevails.We will see in this election if the crisis really forces workers and retirees to warn Erdogan through local elections or if issues like identity politics and party affiliation will determine the outcome.We will understand this on Monday morning.Surmounting obstacles: Potential impact of Imamoğlu’s victory

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