The recent Istanbul mayoral election in June 2019 demonstrated the divisions in Turkish politics – between those on the left who aspire for Turkey to become a secular state and those on the right who are religiously conservative and want the Islamisation of Turkey.

This mayoral election took place on March 31st, along with the other mayoral elections in Turkey, as they do every 5 years. The centre-left CHP’s Ekrem Imamoglu ended up winning the Istanbul mayoral election with a margin of 0.2% ahead of the centre-right and religiously conservative AKP’s Binali Yildrim.

Erdogan demanded the Istanbul mayoral election to be re-held and scheduled it for the 23rd of June. He cited irregularities found in the results as the reason for repeating the election. Istanbul was where Erdogan’s political career began and a loss for his party there was humiliating for him.

In 1994, after giving up amateur football, he was elected as the mayor of Istanbul. He then established the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 as a pro-European moderate conservative party. Ever since then the Istanbul municipal area has been a significant stronghold for them.

Despite Erdogan’s keenness to re-hold this mayoral election, the result ended up growing to an even bigger margin. The CHP’s Ekrem Imamoglu ended up winning the mayoral election with almost 55% of the vote compared to the AKP’s Binali Yildrim who earned just under 45% of the vote. This showed that the people of Istanbul had already spoken in the original election in March and they were frustrated with the AKP and Erdogan.

Historical context of divisions in Turkey

The historical context of divisions in Turkey date back to the period of the early 1900s when charismatic and secular leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk came to prominence at the time of the Ottoman Empire. Atatürk was a strong believer in the secularisation of Turkey and was arrested for his anti-monarchist activities against the Ottoman Empire in the early years of his political career. He was also a strong believer in transforming Turkey into a western country. He built strong alliances with countries such as the US. Roosevelt even became a huge admirer of Atatürk.

One of his most successful moments, apart from being a successful military general at the Battle for Gallipoli was the end of World War I. Atatürk took Turkey out of the first world war when it became clear that they would be on the losing side. Siding Germany and Austro-Hungary had cost the country many lives and the empire was practically collapsing. After the Turkish War for Independence and Atatürk abolished the Ottoman Empire and established the Turkish Republic.

Atatürk was a strong believer in the granting of equal rights for both women and men. He granted these rights in the early 1930s when women were granted full universal suffrage. This meant that Turkey became the first Muslim majority country to grant equal rights to both women and men. He also made Turkey a secular state without any official religion abolishing the wearing of hijabs or burkas for women.

Divisions in Turkey?

The ideas of the presidency of Atatürk still resonate strongly in Turkey with supporters of Atatürk referring to themselves as ‘Kemalists’. Events during the Gezi Park protests in May 2013 are one of many examples of divisions in Turkey.

Those on the centre-left want to return to the period of a secular Turkey without any official religion. Those on the centre-right and religiously conservative want to maintain Islam as the official religion of Turkey and are supporters of the government of Erdogan. Turkey has pulled towards authoritarianism under the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Accession negotiations sped up with the EU in 2005. These negotiations have stalled ever since with the government of Erdogan clamping down on freedom of speech and freedom of the press. 242 journalists are currently in prison for writing against the government.

Recently, despite the Istanbul mayoral election results, the Istanbul chief of the CHP, Canan Kaftancıoğlu has been handed a 10-year prison sentence in Turkey for tweets in 2012 and 2017 against the government of Erdogan. This shows the lengths to which Erdogan and his government are going, in order to crackdown on any political opponents.

Three Kurdish mayors of the left-wing HDP, have also been replaced with AKP mayors in their respective areas such as Adnan Selçuk Mızraklı of Diyarbakir, Ahmet Turk of Mardin and Bedia Özgökçe Ertan of Van. This is due to what Erdogan refers to as connections to the PKK. This is against the rule of law as these mayors were democratically elected and there is no proof of connections to the PKK.

All of these examples show that Turkey has pulled further and further away from the secular state that it was under Atatürk. There is no freedom of the press and no freedom of speech. Journalists are being locked up for writing articles against the government or even tweeting against the government and elections are held just for apperances.

The prospect of a secular democracy has been lost over the last decades. However, the Istanbul and Ankara elections give some hope to those hoping for change in Turkey with the success for the CHP in the biggest cities of the country.

This article was first published by EU United and repurposed for Euro Babble. Find the original publication here:

By Atakan Auzun

A young Irish based blogger who is studying BSc Government and Politics at UCC, Ireland.

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