Istanbul, Turkey – Turkey is going to the polls in local elections on March 30. The vote comes amid allegations of government corruption and bribery, debates about a so-called "parallel state", and with government moves to block Twitter and YouTube heavily criticised.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party [AKP] have come out of each general election since the party was first elected to power in 2002 with more votes than before, securing nearly 50 percent of the vote in 2011 general elections.
But this election may represent the AKP’s biggest challenge to date, and is being described as a litmus test for upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. The main parties fielding candidates are Erdogan’s AKP, the main opposition party Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the pro-Kurdish Justice and Development Party (BDP).
Al Jazeera examines the major issues that have dominated discussions ahead of the March 30 polls.
The local elections first garnered attention with anti-government Gezi Park protests in June 2013, when thousands of people descended on a park in central Istanbul against the municipality’s gentrification plans.
The elections have been dominated by a new scandal that began on December 17 last year, when three AKP cabinet ministers’ children were arrested on corruption charges, and several government figures were implicated in graft probes.
Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republic People’s Party (CHP), has tried to make sure the graft probe remains at the centre of the election process. "The state’s conscience woke up on December 17," CHP leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, said, referring to when the first arrests were made.
Erdogan blamed rival Fethullah Gulen, the US-based head of the Gulen movement, for the recent controversies, and their feud has dominated the headlines. Erdogan described the Gulen movement as "a threat to national security" and called the Gulen movement "a terrorist organisation".
Recent opinion polls show that people are confused about the public AKP-Gulen feud. While 60 percent of Turkish people believe the corruption allegations are true, 57 percent also think that the graft probe is a coup attempt targeting Erdogan.
Ahead of the polls, various audio recordings have also leaked, with the latest reportedly showing top government and security officials discussing launching military operations into Syria. The Turkish government banned Twitter and YouTube over these leaks.
The ‘Big Three’
There is a prominent saying in Turkish politics: "The one who takes Istanbul, takes Turkey". Indeed, Istanbul is home to 9,997,000 voters, or one-fifth of the total Turkish electorate.
The AKP candidate running for Istanbul mayor is incumbent Kadir Topbas. His biggest rival is CHP candidate Mustafa Sarigul, who is currently the mayor of the city’s Sisli district, a middle-class neighborhood.
While Sarigul has brought a breath of fresh air to CHP’s campaign, AKP does not appear concerned; Topbas secured 44 and 45 percent support in the two previous elections, respectively.
In the Turkish capital, Ankara, incumbent mayor Melih Gokcek, who is representing AKP, is running for a fifth consecutive term in office. The CHP’s candidate in the city is Mansur Yavas, previously a member of the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP].
The two political rivals faced off once before, in the mayoral race in 2009, where Gokcek defeated Yavas. This time around, CHP is campaigning on the slogan, "Everybody’s mayor".
The western Turkish city of Izmir is widely known for its loyalty to Turkey’s founding leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and seems very likely to remain a CHP municipality.
While Erdogan wants to take Izmir this time, CHP has raised its target to winning in all 30 districts of the province.
AKP’s candidate for Izmir is former Minister of Transport, Binali Yildirim, whose has been implicated in corruption allegations, while the CHP candidate is incumbent mayor Aziz Kocaoglu.
According to recent estimates, Turkey’s Kurdish citizens make up 15-20 percent of the country’s total population.
While there is a lack of official data on Kurdish voting trends, a principle issue for Kurdish voters is no doubt the peace process between the AKP government and Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK].
The Peace and Democracy Party won seven out of 12 provincial municipalities in the 2009 elections, including the southeast province of Diyarbakir, while AKP won the remaining five provinces.
The local election results may be an indicator for Turkey’s presidential elections, which are scheduled for August 2014, and parliamentary elections set for 2015.
In previous local elections in 2004 and 2009, AKP earned 42 percent and 38 percent of the vote, respectively. Any result below those levels in the March 30 polls would be seen as a loss to Erdogan. More importantly, Erdogan may decide to call early general elections if he loses in Istanbul and Ankara.
An AKP bylaw prevents deputies from being elected to parliament for more than three terms. Unless this regulation is changed, Erdogan cannot run for prime minister for another term, as his rule is set to expire in 2015.
He can, however, run for president in Turkey’s first publicly-elected presidential elections in August.
Meanwhile, the incumbent President Abdullah Gul, a co-founder of AKP that Erdogan first nominated for the presidency in 2007, has yet to announce whether he will be a candidate in the presidential elections.
While AKP speaker Huseyin Celik said the party’s primary candidate for the presidency is Erdogan, there are also talks about lifting the three-term restriction to allow Erdogan to remain on as prime minister until 2019.