Turkish local elections 2024: A seismic shift in power dynamics

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Two women sit near a campaign banner of Turkish President and leader of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, Recep Tayyip in Istanbul, Turkiye, Monday, March 11, 2024. (AP Photo)
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Turkish President and leader of Justice and Development (AK) Party Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech after the country's local municipal elections at AK Party HQ, Ankara, Apr. 1, 2024. (AFP)
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Supporters of the Justice and Development (AK) Party cheer as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech in Ankara after the Turkish local municipal elections on April 1, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 01 April 2024
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Turkish local elections 2024: A seismic shift in power dynamics

  • Ruling AKP suffers major blow as main opposition CHP scores victories across the country
  • Sunday’s results could be step toward a presidential bid, analyst tells Arab News 

ANKARA: After millions of Turkish voters went to the polls on Sunday to elect local authorities in 81 provinces, the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, suffered a major blow as the main opposition CHP scored victories across the country, consolidating its control in conservative strongholds with its biggest victory since 1977.

Experts suggested Sunday’s vote was a barometer of the national feeling among voters who have long struggled with a severe cost of living crisis.

The main question of the mayoral election was whether incumbent Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, 52, an arch-rival of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a charismatic leader in his own right, could secure re-election in the city of 15.7 million people, against rival Murat Kurum, 47, the AKP candidate and the country’s former urbanization minister.

Erdogan, who was mayor of Istanbul himself between 1994 and 1997, once claimed that whoever wins the city will be able to dominate the whole country in a general election.

With a third of Turkiye’s economic output and 18 percent of the country’s population, Istanbul’s annual budget is $16 billion.

In the last local elections in 2019, Turkiye’s united opposition won the main cities of Ankara, the capital, and Istanbul, the commercial hub, ending the ruling party’s 25-year reign.

After Sunday’s vote, the main opposition CHP became the leading party, controlling 36 of the country’s 81 provinces.

Erdogan, 70, conceded defeat, saying: “March 31 is not an end for us, but a turning point.”

The president’s current term of office expires in four years. The AKP’s loss of votes nationally and defeats in major cities are expected to prevent it from initiating new constitutional changes that would allow Erdogan to rule beyond 2028.

Turkiye’s next elections will be held then, barring a snap election or referendum.

Imamoglu’s re-election is also expected to unite the Turkish opposition, as he is seen as a possible future challenger to Erdogan and the opposition’s best chance of regaining the presidency.

The incumbent mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavas, also retained his position by a large margin.

Murat Somer, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Ozyegin University, said Turkish voters had given a big red card to the Erdogan government’s “authoritarianism and economic policies,” while rewarding opposition politicians who have been willing to reform since the May elections, punishing those who have been caught up in infighting.

“In return, Turkiye’s opposition parties have shown remarkable resilience and ability to regenerate despite a very uneven playing field in favour of the government. Ekrem Imamoglu has emerged as the new leader of the opposition and an agent of change for the next decade,” he told Arab News.

Turnout was around 76 percent, with some 61 million people eligible to vote, a significant drop from last year when 87 percent of voters cast their ballots. The decline in votes for the AKP is also partly explained by the emergence of several right-wing and Islamist parties to compete with it.

According to Somer, if Imamoglu can turn the broad coalition he has formed in Istanbul into a Turkiye-wide coalition, he may just be able to steer Turkiye onto a new and more inclusive course of economic development, peace and secular democracy.

“The most important aspect of this process is that it is a bottom-up rather than a top-down process. Large parts of the electorate of the ruling AKP, the right-wing IYI party and the pro-Kurdish Dem Parti seem to have voted against their party’s preferences and in favour of an ethnically, culturally and ideologically inclusive national alliance for democracy and change,” he said.

Somer also believes that the impact of this new local fault line on Turkiye’s political future will depend on how Erdogan and his party interpret the electorate’s message.

“It is less likely that he will go against the will of the people, because despite all the authoritarianism, the principle of popular sovereignty is well established in Turkiye. These results suggest that opposition parties should follow the lead of the electorate in forming coalitions rather than the other way around,” he said.

Berk Esen, a political scientist at Sabanci University in Istanbul, agrees that this is a historic victory for the country’s main opposition camp.

“Much of the media was under government control, and 17 government ministers used taxpayers’ money to campaign for the government candidates in Istanbul,” he told Arab News.

“And so, the CHP candidates, who were fighting an uphill battle, ended up winning all over the country, even in some conservative strongholds, like Adiyaman, almost doubling the number of provinces it controls and increasing its share of major municipalities from 11 to 15. This is truly historic,” he told Arab News.

Esen believes it will be very difficult for Erdogan to stabilize Turkiye’s competitive authoritarian regime in the future.

“I don’t expect him to go for early elections, even if the opposition asks him to do so. He may try to stabilize Turkiye’s economy, but given how much the current economic policies have minimized the AKP’s base in this election, it is difficult to really see how much longer such policies can continue. And even if the economy is managed, the Turkish economy will not necessarily see the phenomenal growth rates we saw in the 2000s,” he said.

The Turkish economy grew by 4.5 percent last year, according to official statistics, and inflation is soaring to almost 70 percent.

With Turkiye’s main local governments now controlled by opposition mayors, many of whom have increased their margins of victory, Esen believes it will be difficult for Erdogan to disrupt their municipal services.

“It will also be very difficult for Erdogan to impose his will and for civil servants, judges and journalists to act in a partisan manner,” he said.

The CHP “will also speak out against violations of freedoms, political rights and probably on the Kurdish question. I don’t think the election results will push Turkiye in a more authoritarian direction,” he added.

Esen also expects some power struggles within the AKP with Erdogan, which could see many people purged from the party.

Esen believes that the election results have highlighted several key points.

“First of all, the candidates matter. The opposition ended up with some really credible candidates in Istanbul and Ankara at the district level, who reflect the electorate they want to represent,” he added.

“On their side, the government has pursued a tight monetary policy, as opposed to pushing for an expansionary fiscal policy as we saw in the run-up to the presidential and parliamentary elections last year. I think that played a really big role as well,” Esen said.

Meanwhile, experts stress that the drop in turnout could be explained by the disillusionment of many pro-government voters over the ongoing economic downturn.

For Esen, Sunday’s election results could also be a new step toward a presidential bid.

Yavas and Imamoglu may consider running for president as of today, he said.

They both have “different political profiles and appeal to different segments of the Turkish electorate. I think they will start building a nationwide campaign,” he said.

Esen expects this to be Erdogan’s last election.

“Because I am not sure if he will be able to run such an effective campaign against these two formidable politicians. But we will also see a transition to a parliamentary system at some point, because Erdogan does not want to hand over so much power to the opposition. It is also an interesting question to explore,” he said.

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Fierce fighting in northern Gaza as aid starts to roll off US-built pier

Updated 18 May 2024
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Fierce fighting in northern Gaza as aid starts to roll off US-built pier

  • Residents said Israeli bulldozers were demolishing homes and shops in Jabalia in the path of the advance
  • In the south, Palestinian militants put up a fierce resistance, attacking tanks massing around Rafah
  • Hamas says US floating aid pier is no substitute for end of Israeli siege of Gaza

CAIRO: Israeli forces battled Hamas fighters in the narrow alleyways of Jabalia in northern Gaza on Friday in some of the fiercest engagements since they returned to the area a week ago, while in the south militants attacked tanks massing around Rafah.

Residents said Israeli armor had thrust as far as the market at the heart of Jabalia, the largest of Gaza’s eight historic refugee camps, and that bulldozers were demolishing homes and shops in the path of the advance.
“Tanks and planes are wiping out residential districts and markets, shops, restaurants, everything. It is all happening before the one-eyed world,” Ayman Rajab, a resident of western Jabalia, said via a chat app.
Israel had said its forces cleared Jabalia months earlier in the Gaza war, triggered by the deadly Hamas-led attacks on southern Israel on Oct. 7, but said last week it was returning to prevent Islamist militants re-grouping there.
In southern Gaza bordering Egypt, thick smoke rose over Rafah, where an escalating Israeli assault has sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing from what was one of the few remaining places of refuge.
“People are terrified and they’re trying to get away,” Jens Laerke, UN humanitarian office spokesperson, said in Geneva, adding that most were following orders to move north toward the coast but that there were no safe routes or destinations.
As the fighting raged, the US military said trucks started moving aid ashore from a temporary pier, the first to reach the besieged enclave by sea in weeks.
The World Food Programme, which expects food, water, shelter and medical supplies to arrive through the floating dock, said the aid was transported to its warehouses in Deir Al Balah in central Gaza and told partners it was ready for distribution.

Ships are seen near a temporary floating pier built to receive humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip in Gaza Beach on May 18, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces/Handout via REUTERS)

The United Nations earlier reiterated that truck convoys by land — disrupted this month by the assault on Rafah — were still the most efficient way of getting aid in.
“To stave off the horrors of famine, we must use the fastest and most obvious route to reach the people of Gaza – and for that, we need access by land now,” deputy UN spokesperson Farhan Haq said.
US aid was arriving in Cyprus for delivery to Gaza via the new pier, Washington said.
Hamas demanded an end to Israel’s siege and accused Washington of complicity with an Israeli policy of “starvation and blockade.”
The White House said US national security adviser Jake Sullivan would visit Israel on Sunday and stress the need for a targeted offensive against Hamas militants rather than a full-scale assault on Rafah.
A group of US medical workers left the Gaza Strip after getting stuck at the hospital where they were providing care, the White House said.

Ships are seen near a temporary floating pier built to receive humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip in Gaza Beach on May 18, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces/Handout via REUTERS)

Humanitarian fears
The Israel Defense Forces said troops killed more than 60 militants in Jabalia in recent days and located a weapons warehouse in a “divisional-level offensive.”
A divisional operation would typically involve several brigades of thousands of troops each, making it one of the biggest of the war.
“The 7th Brigade’s fire control center directed dozens of airstrikes, eliminated terrorists and destroyed terrorist infrastructure,” the IDF said.
At least 35,303 Palestinians have now been killed, according to figures from the enclave’s health ministry, while aid agencies have warned repeatedly of widespread hunger and dire shortages of fuel and medical supplies.
Israel says it must capture Rafah to destroy Hamas and ensure the country’s safety. In the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, 1,200 people died in Israel and 253 were taken hostage, according to Israeli tallies. About 128 hostages are still being held in Gaza.
Israel said on Friday that its forces retrieved the bodies of three people killed at the Nova music festival in Israel on Oct. 7 and taken into Gaza.
In response, Hamas said negotiations were the only way for Israel to retrieve hostages alive: “The enemy will not get its prisoners except as lifeless corpses or through an honorable exchange deal for our people and our resistance.”
Talks on a ceasefire have been at an impasse.

’Tragic war’
Israeli tanks and warplanes bombarded parts of Rafah on Friday, while the armed wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad said they fired anti-tank missiles and mortars at forces massing to the east, southeast and inside the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.
UNRWA, the main UN aid agency for Palestinians, said more than 630,000 people had fled Rafah since the offensive began on May 6.
“They’re moving to areas where there is no water — we’ve got to truck it in — and people aren’t getting enough food,” Sam Rose, director of planning at UNRWA, told Reuters on Friday by telephone from Rafah, where he said it was eerily quiet.
At the International Court of Justice, or World Court, in The Hague, where South Africa has accused Israel of violating the Genocide Convention, Israeli Justice Ministry official Gilad Noam defended the operation.
The South African legal team, which set out its case for fresh emergency measures the previous day, framed the Israeli military operation as part of a genocidal plan aimed at bringing about the destruction of the Palestinian people.


WHO says no medical supplies received in Gaza for 10 days

Updated 18 May 2024
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WHO says no medical supplies received in Gaza for 10 days

GENEVA: The World Health Organization said Friday that it has received no medical supplies in the Gaza Strip for 10 days as Israel pursues a new offensive against Hamas.
Israel’s closure of the Rafah crossing into Gaza has caused “a difficult situation,” WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said. “The last medical supplies that we got in Gaza was before May 6.”
Israeli troops entered the city of Rafah on May 7 to extend their offensive against Hamas over the militant group’s attacks seven months earlier. They closed the Rafah crossing into Egypt that is crucial for humanitarian supplies.
With UN agencies warning of a growing risk of famine in Gaza, the Kerem Shalom and Erez crossings from Israel are also virtually shut down.
Jasarevic said the biggest concern was over fuel needed to keep clinics and hospitals running. Gaza’s health facilities need up to 1.8 million liters of fuel a month to keep operating.
The spokesman said only 159,000 liters had entered Rafah since the border closure. “This is clearly not sufficient,” he added, highlighting how only 13 out of 36 hospitals across the Palestinian territory were now “partially” operating.
“Hospitals still functioning are running out of fuel, and that puts so many lives at danger,” said Jasarevic. “Current military operations in Rafah are putting countless lives at risk.”
The Hamas attack on October 7 resulted in the death of more than 1,170 people in Israel, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures. Out of 252 people taken hostage, 128 are still held inside Gaza, but the army says 38 have died.
More than 35,300 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the Palestinian territory since the war broke out, according to data provided by the health ministry of Hamas-run Gaza.


Hezbollah uses new weapons in Israel attacks

Updated 18 May 2024
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Hezbollah uses new weapons in Israel attacks

  • The Israeli army said three soldiers were wounded in an attack on Thursday
  • Hezbollah has a large arsenal of weapons, that it has expanded significantly in recent years

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s powerful armed group Hezbollah announced on Thursday it had used a drone capable of firing rockets at a military position in one of its latest attacks in northern Israel.
Israel and Hezbollah have been involved in near-daily exchanges of fire since the war between Israel and Hamas broke out on October 7.
Hezbollah announced it had used an “armed attack drone” equipped with two S-5 rockets on a military position in Metula in northern Israel.
The Iran-backed group published a video showing the drone heading toward the position, where tanks were stationed, with the footage showing the moment the two rockets were released followed by the drone exploding.
It was the first time they had announced the use of this type of weapon since the cross-border exchanges with Israel erupted in October.
The Israeli army said three soldiers were wounded in Thursday’s attack.
Hezbollah-affiliated media said that the drone’s warhead consisted of between 25 and 30 kilogrammes (55 and 66 pounds) of high explosive.
Military analyst Khalil Helou told AFP that the use of drones offers Hezbollah the ability to launch the attack from within Israeli territory, as they can fly at low altitudes, evading detection by radar.
Hezbollah also announced on Wednesday that it had launched a strike using “attack drones” on a base west of the northern Israeli town of Tiberias.
That attack was the group’s deepest into Israeli territory since fighting flared, analysts said.
In recent weeks, the Lebanese militant group has announced attacks that it has described as “complex,” using attack drones and missiles to hit military positions, as well as troops and vehicles.
It has also used guided and heavy missiles, such as Iran’s Burkan and Almas missiles, as well as the Jihad Mughniyeh missile, named after a Hezbollah leader killed by Israeli fire in Syria in 2015.
Helou, a retired general, said that depite its new weaponry, Hezbollah still relied primarily on Kornet anti-tank missiles with a range of just five to eight kilometers.
They also use the Konkurs anti-tank missile, which can penetrate Israel’s Iron Dome defense system.
Hezbollah has a large arsenal of weapons, that it has expanded significantly in recent years.
The group has said repeatedly that it has advanced weapons capable of striking deep inside Israeli territory.
Analysts have described the skirmishes between Israel and Hamas as a war of “attrition,” in which each side is testing the other, as well as their own tactics.
Hezbollah has expanded the range of its attacks in response to strikes targeting its munitions and infrastructure, or its military commanders.
One such Israeli strike on Wednesday targeted the village of Brital in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley, with the Israeli army later announcing it had hit a “terror target related to Hezbollah’s precision missile project.”
Helou said Hezbollah’s targeting of the base near Tiberias and its use of the rocket-equipped drone “can be interpreted as a response to the attack on Brital, but it remains a shy response compared to the group’s capabilities.”
He suggested that the Israeli strike likely hit a depot for Iranian missiles that had not yet been used by Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah does not wish to expand the circle of the conflict,” Helou said.
“What is happening is a war of attrition through which it is trying to distract the Israeli army” from Gaza and seeking to prevent it from “launching a wide-ranging attack on Lebanon.”


US officials held indirect talks with Iran on avoiding regional escalation: report

Updated 18 May 2024
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US officials held indirect talks with Iran on avoiding regional escalation: report

Two top Biden administration officials held indirect talks with Iranian counterparts this week in an effort to avoid escalating regional attacks, Axios reported on Friday.
The conversations marked the first round of discussions between the US and Iran since January, according to Axios.


One Palestinian killed, eight wounded in Israeli strike on West Bank refugee camp

Updated 18 May 2024
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One Palestinian killed, eight wounded in Israeli strike on West Bank refugee camp

  • Israel has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry

RAMALLAH, West Bank: At least one person was killed and eight wounded on Friday in an Israeli air strike on the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian health ministry and Israeli military said.
The Palestinian health ministry said the eight wounded people were in stable condition and receiving treatment at hospitals. Reuters could not immediately confirm their identities.
The Israeli military said a fighter jet conducted the strike, a rarity in the West Bank, where violence had been surging long before the Gaza war.
Residents of the refugee camp said a house was targeted.
The West Bank is among territories Israel occupied in a 1967 Middle East war. Palestinians want it to be the core of an independent Palestinian state.