BERLIN — A 64-year-old lawyer is challenging Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the very heart of the republic.
Mansur Yavas, a nationalist, is running for mayor in Ankara as the candidate of the opposition in countrywide local elections March 31. Polls say he has a good chance to defeat the AKP candidate.
A win by Yavas would be a political earthquake because Ankara has been ruled by Islamic-conservative mayors close to now Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since 1994.
Approximately 57 million voters will choose local representatives in more than 50,000 local entities, ranging from big cities such as Ankara and Istanbul to tiny hamlets. The elections are the first test for Erdogan and the AKP since Turkey, a NATO member, EU candidate and power broker in Syria, switched from a parliamentary to a presidential system last year.
Erdogan has been campaigning up and down the country as polls suggest a softening in support for the AKP amid an economic downturn that pushed Turkey’s economy into recession and has driven up unemployment to 13.5%, the highest level in ten years.
The president and his AKP have dominated Turkish politics since the party rose to power in 2002 but pollsters say the state of the economy could influence the voters’ choices on March 31. Ibrahim Uslu, chairman of the ANAR polling firm, told Fox News that the economy was the most important issue for more than three-quarters of voters.
As Election Day approaches, the AKP appears to be in for a rough ride. In AKP-ruled Istanbul, the country’s biggest city, a stronger-than-expected performance of the opposition candidate has put pressure on Erdogan’s party. Izmir, on the Aegean coast, the third-biggest city, is an opposition stronghold that is unlikely to swing to the AKP. A defeat for Erdogan’s party in Ankara would, therefore, carry big symbolic significance and could trigger early general elections.
“If this election does not deliver a clear mandate to Erdogan, two or even three of Turkey’s biggest cities could be under opposition control,” said Selim Sazak, a US-based Turkey analyst. “The opposition will then push for early national elections but Erdogan will not be able to sustain another round of election economy. So he needs to win and he needs to win big.”
Yavas could make that impossible.
It is the third time, after 2009 and 2014, that Yavas is trying to become mayor of the capital, a city of 5.5 million people in the Anatolian heartland. In latest election, Yavas narrowly lost to the AKP incumbent at the time, Melih Gokcek, amid accusations of irregularities that helped Gokcek win by 1 percentage point. Gokcek was removed from his post by Erdogan in 2017 to fight what he called “metal fatigue” in the AKP.
This time, Yavas, who is running on a joint ticket of the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the right-wing Iyi Parti (Good Party), is up against Mehmet Ozhaseki, a former AKP minister for the environment and urban planning. Some polls give Yavas a 9-percentage-point lead over Ozhaseki. Yavas said some surveys even see an 11-point margin.
Yavas told the English-language newspaper Hurriyet Daily News the downward trend of the economy was hurting the AKP.
“I have met scores of people who said they will vote for me this time although they had voted for the AKP five years ago,” he said. “I sense that the main motive behind this change in electoral behaviour is the economy.”
As a former member of the right-wing Nationalist Action Party, Yavas could be an attractive choice for nationalist voters who would normally not consider going for a candidate of the CHP. Even the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, a bitter rival of Turkish nationalists, has endorsed Yavas because he represents the best chance to end the AKP’s rule in Ankara.
In an attempt to respond to voter frustration with the AKP, a party known for ambitious and sometimes grandiose infrastructure projects, Yavas is choosing a down-to-earth approach.
“Ankara’s main problem is poverty, unemployment and economic difficulties,” he told the Hurriyet Daily News. “It would be inappropriate to unveil mega or crazy projects under these circumstances. We are, therefore, explaining how we will fight poverty, how we will use municipal resources for job creation and for social aids.”
Yavas “is no left-wing pansy,” Michael Sercan Daventry, a British-Turkish journalist in London, wrote in his blog James in Turkey. Daventry called Yavas a nationalist and a “significant challenger” to the AKP’s grip on Ankara. “There is every reason to believe Turkey’s governing party could lose control of the capital city,” he said.
With Yavas firmly in the lead, his campaign has been rocked by reports in the pro-government media accusing him of financial irregularities in his work as a lawyer. Yavas rejected the allegations but a state prosecutor has started an investigation against him that could lead to a 3-year prison sentence.
Erdogan publicly accused Yavas of forgery and tax fraud. “Now such a man is running for mayor in Ankara,” Erdogan said in a campaign speech in Ankara. “This scandal has become too big to be covered up.”
Sazak said the AKP could still turn things around. “None of this means that Erdogan will lose,” he said, “but there is an opening here for the opposition. If the opposition wins either Istanbul or Ankara, that’s trouble for AKP. If they win both, the flood gates are open.”
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
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