In Turkey's 2009 local elections, Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas was reelected for a second term



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Istanbul and Ankara
reelect sitting mayors

By Andrew Stevens, Deputy Editor

31 March 2009: Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has performed less well than expected in elections seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. The polls, marred by violence in some rural areas, saw close run contests in the main cities of Istanbul and Ankara.

Overall, the result has been seen as set-back for Erdogan, who was seeking to maintain his party’s 47 per cent support rate from the 2007 parliamentary elections and suspended vital negotiations with the IMF until after the poll. The government’s handling of the economy is widely thought to have led to the lower turnout, which did not favour the ruling party.

Erdogan entered the election campaign having earlier suspended talks with the IMF aimed at producing a loan package of up to $25bn to stimulate Turkey’s ailing economy, which after years of sustained growth looks likely to enter recession, amid rising unemployment at 13.6 per cent. The country’s growth followed the AKP’s election in 2002 as the first party to govern without a coalition since the 1980s.

However, the party suffered a major setback last year when Turkey’s constitutional court considered charges that it violated the country’s avowedly secular constitution, a claim it denies, though many former Islamists hold key posts While it escaped an outright ban, sought by some in the country‘s influential military, the party was subject to financial penalties.

Unsurprisingly, Erdogan’s bullish mood gave way to some nervousness on the relentless campaign trail, which may have led to some of the party’s supporters staying at home. Erdogan’s assertion that anything less than the 47 per cent showing from the 2007 elections would be a “failure” for his party was not enough to convince those feeling the effects of the economic downturn that their support was critical.

Overall, with most ballots counted, the AKP secured 39 per cent of the vote, down from 47 per cent in the 2007 parliamentary elections and 42 per cent in the last local elections of 2007. While the party retained the Istanbul and Ankara mayoralties, the races in both cities went neck and neck until the close of polls, with some predicting the possibility of humiliating defeats in its usually safe terrain. Kadir Topbas, Istanbul metropolitan mayor, received a second term as part of the regional elections. However, the candidate for the centre-left opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu put in an impressive performance against the incumbent mayor, running on an anti-corruption platform and is now seen as a marker for future elections, with secularists and progressives uniting behind him.

In the capital Ankara, Melih Gokcek was also re-elected, for a fourth term, albeit amid a number of technical and balloting irregularities. His lead of seven points was questioned by the opposition centre-left Republican People’s Party owing to this, with some street protests breaking out, but is likely to be confirmed.

Particularly embarassing to Erdogan, on account of his own intervention in local races, were the loss of the cities of Izmir, Adana and Diyabakir. In coastal Antalya, the AKP was routed by the CHP when the incumbent mayor was turfed out in favour of a local academic.

Elsewhere, violence in rural areas during the contests, mainly for non-partisan village chief posts, led to the deaths of at least seven people. The Kurds’ Democratic Society Party retained its dominance in the south-east of the country, whereas the CHP emerged as strongest in the north-west and west. However, the loss of fortune for the AKP should not be entirely interpreted as any rise in progressive secularism, as the right-wing Nationalist Movement increased its presence on provincial assemblies and doubled its tally of mayors, while the Islamist Felicity Party doubled its support, albeit to 4.6 per cent.

Ultimately, aside from the local gains made by the opposition, the impact of the poll will be a setback to the Erdogan government’s agenda of political reform, for which he sought a convincing win in these elections as a mandate to continue with efforts to meet the strict criteria set for EU membership. The PM also signalled that a cabinet reshuffle would be likely to show his acceptance of the public mood. However, concern that the government might resort to more populist measures to shore up its support has led to some unease among financiers, who see the stalled IMF talks as critical to regional economic prospects.


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