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Breaking barriers: Turkish women mayors and the triumph of the opposition

Demir Murat Seyrek , Ayşe Yürekli

Date: 07/05/2024

A seismic shift occurred in Turkish politics during the local elections on 31 March when the main opposition, Republican People’s Party (CHP) secured its first victory in decades, with an unprecedented surge in the number of women taking centre stage in local politics. These results offer the EU a rare opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to supporting democracy and European values in Türkiye.

The Turkish opposition’s victory over President Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey’s recent local elections signifies a remarkable achievement and also underscores a decisive win for Turkish democracy. Despite facing unfair conditions during the election campaign, including limited access to mainstream media and financial resources, and with significant challenges to fundamental rights, freedoms, and the rule of law, Türkiye stands apart from countries like Russia or Belarus. Its long-standing struggle for democracy, bolstered by strong political parties and a resilient civil society, reaffirms its unique political identity and resilience.


The Victory of the Main Opposition

 Türkiye's unitary system gives the central government significant control nationwide. Still, mayors remain essential in local governance, managing municipalities and meeting local needs, including some social and cultural projects. While the central government oversees key areas like national security, mayors have the power to implement local policies and manage municipal affairs and services. Following the defeat of opposition parties in the presidential elections ten months prior, the local elections transformed into a confirmation vote. The result reshaped Türkiye's political landscape and underscored engagement in the democratic process, with a notable 78% turnout. CHP emerged victorious in 36 out of 81 provinces, including Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, collectively representing a significant portion of the population (62%) and GDP (over 73%). The party also took 37.8% of the overall vote, surpassing the ruling AKP’s 35.5%, and marking a milestone for the party unseen since the 1977 elections.

 The full impact of the result on Türkiye's broader political trajectory remains to be seen, but a striking outcome is the emergence of women as key players. Notably, 11 provinces (6 from CHP, 4 from the pro-Kurdish DEM Party, and one from AKP) and 64 districts are now governed by women mayors, signalling an important leap towards achieving gender parity in governance in a heavily patriarchal society. While they still fall short of accurate representation, women in Türkiye are inspiring by demonstrating remarkable resilience.


 Rockstar Mayors

 Understanding the profiles of some of these mayors and delving into the dynamics behind their success offers valuable insights into the significance of these elections for women.

  • Sinem Dedetaş (CHP) made history as mayor of Üsküdar, a historically significant and traditionally conservative district of Istanbul. Previously known as one of the strongholds of the AKP, and home to President Erdoğan's residence in Istanbul her campaign focused on a concrete catalogue of people-oriented and community-based projects. An experienced marine engineer, Dedetaş achieved notable success as the head of Istanbul's public ferry service, including a 295 % increase in female employment in a male-dominated workplace.


  • Gülistan Sönük (DEM) achieved a ground-breaking victory by winning the mayoral seat in Batman, a conservative city in Southeast Türkiye, with an unprecedented 64.5% of the vote—the highest percentage among all 81 provinces in the country. Running against Hüda-Par, a hardline Kurdish Islamist party notorious for its stance against women's rights and gender equality, Sönük's victory is particularly symbolic. She secured nearly 50% more votes than Hüda-Par, signifying an important achievement for women and advancing their rights in the region.


  • Ayşe Ünlüce (CHP) reached a significant milestone by becoming the first female mayor of Eskişehir, one of Türkiye's major cities renowned for its significance in education and culture. The city had been under the leadership of the veteran mayor Yılmaz Büyükerşen since 1999, raising concerns that CHP might lose the election without him. However, Ünlüce secured an impressive victory with 51% of the vote. A former lawyer and judge, she has served as the municipality's secretary-general since 2018.


Persisting Challenges

 The success of women is promising for the future. However, challenges persist. Türkiye ranks 129 out of 146 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report. As the country embarks on its second centenary, women's rights remain a contentious political issue. Türkiye’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention in March 2021, amidst escalating femicide and violence against women, underscores the urgent need to address gender inequality and the government’s approach. Grim statistics paint a dark reality, with 2534 women killed between 2010-2020 and with a further 1053 from 2021 to date, according to the We Will Stop Femicides Platform, which has been collecting data since 2008.

Moving forward, it is imperative to prioritise women's rights and advance their economic, social, and political empowerment, laying the groundwork for a more inclusive future. Every woman who ascends to leadership serves as a beacon of hope, inspiring others to strive for equality and contribute to a more equitable society.

 The success of the opposition and the new women mayors sparks hope for Turkish democracy, inspiring global pro-democracy movements. The ongoing struggle is evident worldwide, with even fully democratic countries facing the rise of extremist and populist movements. Women play and will continue to play a key role in this struggle for democracy and fundamental rights and freedoms.

 For years, Turkish grassroots women's organisations have fearlessly raised their voices against the erosion of democracy and the ascent of authoritarianism. With the opposition's victory and the emergence of new female leaders, they may garner further political support. This rekindles hopes for the future of democracy in the country, and globally. Additionally, it provides an opportunity for the EU to double down on its engagement in this part of society.


How should the EU respond?

 At a time when several EU member states are struggling with extremist political movements and populism, the success of democrats in Türkiye, particularly the increased representation of women, deserves acknowledgment. The EU has long contemplated how to better engage with Turkish democrats. The outcomes of the elections present an important opportunity for the EU to demonstrate its sincerity in supporting democracy and European values in Türkiye.

 However, the victory of Turkish democrats was not due to the EU, but despite the EU's ignorance, and lack of a clear strategy and vision for Türkiye and Türkiye-EU relations. The resilience of Turkish democracy owes much to its own internal dynamics and it's important to acknowledge this fact. However, this does not diminish the need for future support from the EU.

 Local authorities have significant potential to drive democratisation efforts, and women mayors' impact goes beyond symbolism - they actively shape the country’s future. Their contribution to Türkiye's quest for democracy is undeniable. This emerging trend at the local level could have significant implications at the national level in the future. The merits of local democracy lie in its ability to bring decision-making closer to the people, fostering greater accountability, transparency, and responsiveness to local needs. However, to fully realise their potential, these mayors require more support, including financial assistance and access to loans for their projects.


The way forward

 The EU has a prime opportunity to play an active role in supporting women mayors. Doing so would be a wise use of EU funds, and a chance for the EU to regain relevance in Türkiye. This effort should complement other initiatives and projects aimed at democracy building. As democracy continues to thrive, the EU must take proactive measures to foster women's empowerment in enlargement countries like Türkiye. This includes supporting women's endeavours to drive societal and political change and integrating gender mainstreaming, which are vital not only for empowering women but also for fostering equitable societies and enhancing democracy in the continent.

 Türkiye’s recent local elections have showcased the country’s diverse and dynamic political landscape, extending beyond the ruling AKP and President Erdoğan. Regrettably, the European Council of 17-18 April failed to produce a tangible strategy for revitalising Türkiye-EU relations. In light of this, the EU should reassess its short-sighted transactional approaches. The true potential of Türkiye-EU relations lies in rekindling a values-based relationship focused on a shared vision for the future. A strong and democratic Türkiye can play a pivotal role in Europe's future, making it imperative not to jeopardise this broader perspective for short-term considerations.

 Embracing women's empowerment in this partnership can bolster ties between Türkiye and the EU, fostering a future of equality, prosperity, and progress, with newly elected women mayors serving as catalysts for positive change.

Dr. Demir Murat Seyrek is an Adjunct Professor at VUB and the Brussels School of Governance and an Academic Fellow at the European Policy Centre.

Ayşe Yürekli, MA, MSc. is a Consultant, Analyst, and Commentator, specialised in the EU, and DEI. Formerly, she was a senior expert at TUSIAD’s Berlin Office. Presently, she consults KAGIDER on EU affairs and co-leads Partnerships and Fundraising Working Group of the Brussels Binder.

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