Wielding İstanbul's clout, Kaftancıoğlu and the CHP take aim at 2023 elections
When it comes to success at the ballot box, Turkish Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan once said: "Whoever wins İstanbul, wins Turkey.”
Many see İstanbul as the foundation for Erdoğan's political rise and the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) success. Yet, in a June 2019 re-run election, Erdoğan’s party lost control of the city to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and its allies. With the next elections on the horizon, the opposition party has been focusing on another İstanbul win, this time to propel its presidential campaign to unseat Erdoğan.
To achieve that, Canan Kaftancıoğlu, the de-facto head of the CHP's İstanbul branch, is recalibrating party tactics to convince citizens the CHP can address national problems while appealing to women and young voters. Crucially, the CHP now has advantages it lacked during the last election cycle: the resources and reach of the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality (İBB).
Most political analysts agree that holding the İstanbul municipality has significant sway on voter behavior elsewhere, but they note an opposition victory in 2023 will depend on various factors, including the selection and appeal of a joint candidate. Still, in the run up to voting day, Kaftancıoğlu and her colleagues have been hard at work to peel voters away from the ruling party.
As of the first week of October, Kaftancıoğlu said party members had visited more than half of the 4.5 million households in İstanbul as part of their '80 Günde Devr-i Alem' campaign, named after the Jules Verne's book, Around the World in Eighty Days.
"We didn't re-discover America with our fieldwork," Kaftancıoğlu told Turkey recap during a meeting at a cafe in İstanbul's Karaköy district. "By starting our work early, we have applied what we have done so far more visibly and systematically. During our campaign, we saw again how ordinary citizens' agenda differed from what was discussed on TV and in the parliament. And we adjusted our direction accordingly."
Kaftancıoğlu cannot run as a candidate in the next elections after she was handed a political ban for charges including insulting the president, but she plays an essential role in CHP campaign strategy. Mentioning her dislike for speaking of the past, Kaftancıoğlu added the party took lessons from its previous mistakes.
"We, as the CHP, had not explained ourselves to citizens in the past," she said. "While we failed to do that, the AKP created a false perception of the CHP. Today, we try to compensate for those mistakes and become the narrator of our own stories. This is a major paradigm shift, and we're seeing a lot of ripple effects from it."
Among others, one target area has been İstanbul’s Black Sea district of Arnavutköy, which the AKP 2019 mayoral candidate, Binali Yıldırım, won by one his widest margins over the city’s current mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu. In past general elections, Arnavutköy’s more than 300,000 residents also delivered some of the CHP’s lowest voting rates on a district level.
In response, the İBB opened a recreational facility known as the Arnavutköy Yaşam Merkezi this September.
"This is one of the districts where we received the least votes,” Mayor İmamoğlu said during the facility’s opening ceremony. “But because of this, we try harder to show what we want to do and who we are in such regions.”
The center hosts sports and culture halls for children and students, a library, a disability center, and food venues offering affordable meals and drinks. It is often frequented by teenagers, children and their families. In the library, some students do their homework, and others choose books to take home or read magazines.
"With the help of the metropolitan municipality, we are trying to show the voters here that they deserve a better life," said Özlem Kutbay, the district head of CHP in Arnavutköy. "When they see what is possible, they turn their faces to us."
According to Kutbay, who joined the CHP only a few years ago, the ruling party sees Arnavutköy as its castle in terms of votes, but citizens are ready for a change and "we should also change the old Ce-Ha-Pe mentality,” she said, referring to her party’s long-standing elitist reputation of looking down on the people instead of listening to them.
"Our party head, Mr. [Kemal] Kılıçdaroğlu, advises us to embrace people, and we saw what happens when we do that during the election campaign of İmamoğlu,” Kutbay said. “That's what we’re trying to do here."
She added CHP's Arnavutköy branch members regularly visit women in their homes, distribute İBB newborn kits to new mothers, create cultural opportunities for the youth, and provide cleaning and painting services for schools and mosques.
Durbaba Kuruçay, CHP's education secretary in the district, told Turkey recap that in past years when they visited houses, the doors were closed to them, and the hostility against the CHP was palpable or worse, as trash was thrown at party members on at least one occasion.
The current situation looks quite different. As she walked through the recreational center, many people greeted Kutbay and other CHP officials, who politely turned down several tea offers and promised to come back later.
"It is still surprising to me to see how people's attitudes transformed when we changed our own," Kuruçay said.
Kaftancıoğlu attributes this change in approach to the party leader.
"With Kılıçdaroğlu's coming to power, the CHP entered a period in which politics were made not to create political consolidation but to reconcile with the society," she said.
According to Kaftancıoğlu, a common criticism she receives during field work is some form of “Why did you not come until now?” mixed with “You have condemned us to this poverty and this power,” in reference to AKP governance.
"Citizens know that this government failed to help them," Kaftancıoğlu said. "But they were also skeptical about the CHP's ability to rule. Yet, lately, people have started to see their problems can be solved with a CHP administration. In this sense, having the İBB is very valuable. Now it’s easier to show people how we'll solve their problems through concrete examples."
In the 2019 elections, about 10.5 million voters cast ballots in İstanbul, accounting for about 18.4 percent of national voters that year (57 million it total). The sheer size of İstanbul gives it added weight in presidential elections.
Berk Esen, an assistant professor of political science at Sabancı University, said the CHP’s "show, don't tell" approach could be more advantageous if the party picks İmamoğlu as the joint opposition candidate for upcoming presidential elections.
"İmamoğlu can use current projects like subway constructions or welfare work in İstanbul as examples of his plans for the country," Esen said.
Questions remain if Kılıçdaroğlu would benefit from the same effect as a candidate, with some analysts doubting whether successes in İstanbul management would translate to votes for Kılıçdaroğlu. Still, in Esen’s view, the CHP's strategy of focusing on low-income, women and youth voters is logical considering the polarized social structure of the country.
"There has been a freeze in voting behavior for a long time. Voters do not leave their parties no matter what," he said. "Factors such as the economic crisis and a joint candidate change the dynamics by a few points, and these points bring success.”
Esen continued, “The CHP got a first-time opportunity to reach AKP voters directly thanks to metropolitan municipalities. The fact that the CHP provides services such as social assistance may change the voting dynamics for low-income people."
Ulaş Tol, research director at the Social Impact Research Center (TEAM), echoed points about the electoral advantages carried by the İBB and İmamoğlu. He added the CHP also freed itself from the government’s tight control of mainstream media by providing social services through large metropolitan municipalities, like İstanbul and Ankara.
“The voters in İstanbul who are allergic to the opposition follow the İmamoğlu administration closely,” Tol said. “The AKP claimed the CHP would cancel aid or discriminate against conservatives. Those claims were invalidated in İstanbul.”
As a result, he said, “We witness more support for İmamoğlu in poor neighborhoods and districts."
TEAM conducted 4,280 face-to-face interviews in 20 İstanbul districts in January to better understand voting preferences. The organization concluded voters supporting the AKP and MHP changed their voting habits at higher rates in İstanbul than in the other parts of the country. The poll showed that the AKP-MHP People's Alliance had 50.7 percent of votes in 2018 and it decreased to 41.2 percent as of January.
Tol noted that while there has been a slight recovery showing a notable momentum shift to the AKP and MHP’s benefit, "support for the government has been on a steady decline for the last five years," he said.
Tol added, "After hitting its lowest level in the early summer months, support for the AKP and MHP has started a recovery process in recent months but is still below the same period last year."
Regarding Kurdish voters, İstanbul pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) co-chair Ferhat Encü told Turkey recap in September that Kurds would not vote for İmamoğlu. When we asked Tol about the statement, he said his data did not support it.
According to Tol, İmamoğlu is perceived positively among Kurdish voters in İstanbul as well as in Turkey’s eastern and southeastern regions.
"The collective behavior tendencies of the Kurdish voters are strong,” Tol said. “But when we look at how individual voters feel, their main motivation is a change of government."
Several polls show the CHP most increased its voter support among Kurds, though Tol said one of the reasons for this was the low voting rates for the CHP in the past. He also said that according to TEAM data, the CHP is currently the second-most favored party among Kurdish youth. The HDP is the most favored.
Back at the café with Kaftancıoğlu, she confirmed the CHP was seeing more support from young Kurdish voters. When asked if she expects any intervention in the democratic election process, Kaftancıoğlu responded with a hopeful but also cautious smile.
"Anything can happen under men who don't believe in democracy," Kaftancıoğlu said. "But regardless of what they do or don't do, nothing will change. We took İstanbul. Now it's our turn to take Turkey."
Diego Cupolo, co-founder + editor @diegocupolo
Verda Uyar, freelance journalist @verdauyar
Ingrid Woudwijk, freelance journalist @deingrid
Gonca Tokyol, freelance journalist @goncatokyol
Batuhan Üsküp, editorial intern @batuskup