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From Historical Controversies to Modern Politics: A Comprehensive Look at Turkey’s Local Elections

After the presidential elections in 2023, Turkey is gearing up for local elections at the end of March. The first multi-party local elections in the Republic era, held in 1930, sparked significant controversies due to allegations of “fraud,” leading to the “guided opposition SCF” surviving only 99 days.

The Ordeal of the Free Republican Party

The Republican regime began under the single-party rule of the CHP, the founding party of the regime. However, a few months later, the first opposition party, the Progressive Republican Party (TCF), was established by leaders of the National Struggle such as Kazım Karabekir, Rauf Bey (Orbay), A. Fuat (Cebesoy), and Refet Paşa (Bele). The party, after being active for a few months, was closed following the Sheikh Said Rebellion that began on February 13, 1925.

Following the rebellion, the Law of Maintenance of Order was in effect in Turkey from 1925 to 1929. The single-party administration was now the sole authority in the country, and politics was designed accordingly. However, when the 1929 World Economic Crisis impacted Turkey, “Gazi Hazretleri” demanded the formation of an opposition party to supervise the government.

For this purpose, Paşa deemed his long-time comrade “former Unionist” Fethi Bey (Okyar) suitable, thus establishing the Free Republican Party (SCF). This move also helped Gazi counteract the “dictator” accusations made against him abroad.

The TCF was short-lived and never had the chance to participate in any election. In contrast, Fethi Bey’s party entered the elections in 1930, marking the first multi-party elections of the Republic era. Given that the party was established on August 12, 1930, it was impossible for it to organize nationwide, hence it could not participate everywhere.

A significant feature of the 1930 elections was that it would be the first time “single-tier elections” were held in Turkey. Whereas “two-tier elections” had been conducted from the proclamation of the constitution in 1876 until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the 1930 elections allowed the public to vote directly for the first time. Additionally, women also voted for the first time in these municipal elections.

Although the elections were for municipalities, the Single-Party administration had not amended the Municipal Law No. 1580; thus, the clause stating that mayors would be appointed by the Ministry of the Interior was still in effect, posing an obstacle to SCF candidates who won the elections.

The Municipal Law No. 1580, published in the Official Gazette on April 14, 1930, stated, “The election of the mayor in places that are not provincial centers shall be finalized with the approval of the governor and in provincial center municipalities with the appointment by the Minister of Interior and the approval of the President.”

While Fethi Bey announced their participation in the elections, M. Kemal Paşa stated that the elections would be conducted under fair conditions. The Minister of Interior, Şükrü Bey (Kaya), also assured that the elections would be free from any interference, providing guarantees to the opposition party.

The biggest incident before the elections occurred during the party chairman Fethi Bey’s tour of Western Anatolia. The Aegean region, especially İzmir, was where the Free Party received the most interest. However, the tour took on a different aspect due to the incidents that occurred.

The ruling party had been against Fethi Bey’s tour from the beginning, even suggesting that it be canceled. The governor and mayor of İzmir did not want to meet with Fethi Bey, and Governor Kazım Bey (Dirik) had requested the cancellation of the rally. The telegram Fethi Bey sent to explain the situation to the president was reluctantly accepted by the post office.

The CHP organized a counter-rally in İzmir against the SCF, but it was lackluster. Despite Mustafa Kemal’s approval, a large crowd gathered in front of the hotel where Fethi Bey had canceled the rally. The SCF supporters turned against the Anadolu newspaper, which had described the crowd that welcomed Fethi Bey the day before as “a group of sellouts, drunkards, and bare-legged individuals,” leading to the incidents.

During the incidents, gunfire opened by the gendarmerie resulted in the death of a fourteen-year-old child and fifteen people were injured. Fethi Bey later recounted the events in his memoirs: “… The father brought his son’s bloody corpse to me, saying – he is a martyr for freedom. Save

us – It was not a personal request. It was a tragic expression of the heavy economic conditions and the struggle for a free, comfortable, and prosperous life that the people were enduring.”

The next day, Fethi Bey addressed a crowd of 50,000 people at Alsancak Stadium. The events in İzmir had greatly disturbed M. Kemal Paşa, who had an article published by Yunus Nadi to clarify his connection with the CHP. Fethi Bey then continued his tour to Menemen, Manisa, Aydın, and Balıkesir. In all these provinces, SCF leaders were met with significant enthusiasm, even to the extent that the crowd formed in Menemen was dispersed by the gendarmerie at the request of the district governor.

The incidents during Fethi Bey’s tour provided the ruling party with a significant advantage in the local elections. The CHP launched a propaganda campaign portraying the SCF as a “reactionary and anti-revolutionary party,” claiming that those who supported the opposition were “reactionaries, communists, infidels, and from the lower class.”

The SCF had nominated Greeks, Armenians, and Jews as candidates for council memberships. While Fethi Bey stated that his party was open to all Turkish citizens regardless of race and religion, according to the CHP, “non-Muslims voted for the SCF, while Turks voted for the CHP.”

The 1930 elections were conducted under the shadow of single-party rule and under significant pressure. While it is not possible to verify the election results accurately, it is understood that SCF candidates came in first in 40 out of 502 electoral districts, though some sources report this number as 32.

When looking at the areas where the SCF won, it included eleven districts in İzmir, including Menemen, seven districts in Aydın, Tekirdağ-Keşan, Kırklareli-Üsküp and Pınarhisar, İstanbul-Maltepe and Burgaz, Amasya-Merzifon, İçel-Silifke, Çanakkale-Biga, Armutlu-Bursa, and the city center of Samsun. In Samsun, the SCF candidate received 3312 votes, while the CHP candidate only received 412 votes.

These results were a significant achievement for a party that had not completed its organization just a month after its establishment. It also reflected the public’s dissatisfaction with the ruling CHP party.

After the elections, Fethi Bey would claim, “In fact, we had won the elections.” The SCF leadership would allege that the elections were conducted under pressure, that the public could not express their free will at the polls, that local administrators and security forces interfered in the elections, and that there was fraud in the counting of votes. As Ağaoğlu Ahmet put it, “The People’s Party was to be made to win at any cost,” and so it was.

SCF deputies later brought the issue of “fraudulent elections” to the agenda of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM). The reaction of the Minister of Interior, Şükrü Kaya, to these allegations was predictably that the opposition party had been taken over by “reactionaries, monarchists, and common criminals.”

The SCF escalated its claim by filing a motion of censure against Şükrü Kaya. In the parliamentary session on November 15, 1930, Fethi Bey stated that local administrators had exerted various pressures on party candidates and that his party’s votes had been undercounted.

In response, eighteen MPs from the CHP spoke, accusing the SCF of supporting reactionary forces and inciting the public against the government.

When Mustafa Kemal Paşa asked the general secretary, “Which party is winning the elections?” and received the reply, “Our party, Paşam, of course!” Paşa responded, “No, sir; that is not the case! Let me tell you which party is winning; it is the Administration Party, child… That is, the gendarmerie, police, district directors, district governors, and governors… You should know this!”

The solution found by the President to these allegations also hints at the future direction of political life in Turkey. Paşa visited Fethi Bey, suggesting a solution that would satisfy both parties, stating that he would lead both parties in new elections, and that he would determine the candidates for both parties, thus conducting single-tier elections. In this way, Gazi would control the opposition party in every respect.

Fethi Okyar From Mayoralty to Political Party Leadership

The 1930 elections did not allow voters to directly elect the mayor according to the Municipal Law. Voters could only cast their votes for council members, and the mayor was appointed by the Minister of Interior. Despite this, the interest

shown in the SCF greatly disturbed the ruling party. Eventually, the Single-Party administration would go on to combine the roles of governor and mayor into a single position.

On November 17, 1930, Fethi Bey submitted a petition announcing the dissolution of his party to the Ministry of Interior, thus marking the end of the “only 99 days long” second multi-party experiment of the Republic.

A month later, the tragedy that resulted in the death of Lieutenant Kubilay occurred in Menemen, a municipality where the SCF had won the election. Boşnakzade Ahmet Resai Bey, who was elected as the mayor of Samsun by the municipal council, would not accept a proposal to resign during a visit by the president; however, his presidency was terminated on the pretext of the party’s closure. Furthermore, Governor Kazım Paşa (Inanç) was also dismissed from his position.

Fethi Okyar is seen with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk… The legacy of the 1930 elections for Turkey was Adnan Menderes. Menderes took on the role of provincial chairman of Fethi Bey’s party in Aydın, establishing the party’s organization in Aydın and surrounding provinces, leading to the SCF surpassing the CHP in seven districts of Aydın in the local elections. Shortly after, during a visit, Menderes’s meeting with M. Kemal Paşa would start his political journey, leading to his election as a CHP deputy in the 1931 elections and eventually to his becoming prime minister.

Years later, elections for mayoral positions were reintroduced, and in 1963, a regulation allowed voters to directly elect mayors. However, following the September 12 Coup, mayoral positions were for a few years filled by active or retired military officers.

In the 1970s, with the resurgence of the CHP under Ecevit’s leadership, especially the major cities’ mayoral seats shifted to this party. In the 1984 local elections, Özal’s Motherland Party managed to win Istanbul, Ankara, and İzmir. In these elections, Bedrettin Dalan in Istanbul, Burhan Özfatura in İzmir, and Mehmet Altınsoy in Ankara were elected as mayors, holding these positions for five years.

Among them, Bedrettin Dalan, with the media’s support and possibly seeing himself as ANAP’s leader after Özal, faced a significant defeat against SHP’s relatively unknown candidate, medical doctor Prof. Nurettin Sözen, in the 1989 elections, despite not using his party’s name in his election campaign.

Although Dalan lost the election by ten percentage points, he later founded his own party (DTP), but joined DYP before participating in any election and ran as a DYP candidate again in 1994.

Another figure introduced to Turkish politics through local elections was Murat Karayalçın, elected as Ankara’s mayor from SHP in 1989. Previously involved in the “New National Struggle” movement, Karayalçın was elected SHP general chairman after Erdal İnönü’s withdrawal from politics and served as deputy prime minister.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who achieved significant success following his local election victory and later became president, was elected mayor in the 1994 elections. In Istanbul, ANAP candidate İlhan Kesici received 22%, SHP candidate Zülfü Livaneli 20%, DYP candidate Bedrettin Dalan 15% of the votes, while Erdoğan’s vote was 25%.

After the 1994 elections, RP and its successors FP and then AKP managed these cities for five terms until 2019, when both Istanbul and Ankara shifted to CHP. Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, winning Istanbul and Ankara, gained significant prestige and became prominent figures in the 2023 presidential elections.

Particularly interesting was the annulment of İmamoğlu’s election victory. In the initial election, İmamoğlu achieved 48.8% of the votes, while AKP candidate Binali Yıldırım had 48.5%. In the rerun, İmamoğlu increased his share to 54.2%, becoming the highest-voted mayor of Istanbul since the 1983 elections and emerging as a significant challenger to Erdoğan.

Concerning Trustees!

Another aspect of local politics was the limitations imposed on Kurdish politics. Shortly after the 2019 elections, the mayors of Diyarbakır, Van, and Mardin, elected from Kurdish parties, were dismissed, and trustees were appointed.

The figures following the 2019 elections provide an interesting example of how the will of the people was undermined in Turkey. Just a few months after the elections, the mayors

of Diyarbakır, Van, and Mardin, who were elected from Kurdish parties, were removed from their positions and replaced by trustees.

In the 2019 elections, the HDP won three metropolitan municipalities and five provinces among 65 mayoralties. According to a report from 2022, trustees were appointed to 48 of these mayoralties, and many of the elected mayors were arrested.

The implementation of these practices under Erdoğan’s administration, who himself had been removed from office and imprisoned due to reciting a poem, presents an intriguing case for Turkish politics.

The application of these measures has no distinction from the removal of Boşnakzade Ahmet Resai Bey, who was elected as the mayor of Samsun in the 1930 elections, and the appointment of military officers as mayors following the September 12 coup. This situation demonstrates that Turkey has struggled to normalize as a country for over a century.

Sources: Özcan, N. (1988), The Free Republican Party, Marmara University SBE Doctoral Thesis, Istanbul; Yıldız Taşdemir, Z. (2021), “The Free Republican Party,” Democratization in the Atatürk Era, Ankara, İksad, pp. 241-308; Bali, R. N. (1997), “The 1930 Municipal Elections and The Free Republican Party,” History and Society, No. 167, pp. 281-290; Tiryakioğlu, S. (1977), “The Free Party Won the Election in Samsun Thanks to Taxi Drivers,” Life History, No. 2, pp. 45-47; https://www.bbc.com/turkce/articles/cy9851xl7d5o (accessed on 23.4.2024).

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Dr. Yüksel Nizamoğlu is an Historian focuses on Ottoman Balkans, Middle East Studies, and Military History. PhD. 2010. Istanbul University.

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