Mobilising the masses: Huge crowds show up for Turkey's election rallies

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Political mass rallies are a striking feature of Turkish election campaigning, and hardly a day has passed in the run-up period to Turkey's parliamentary and presidential elections on Sunday 14 May, without mass rallies being held in parks and public spaces in cities across the country.

The mass rallies held in public squares, parks and other large spaces give political parties a chance to mobilise their supporters, attract potential new voters, and demonstrate their popularity and clout to their rivals. They are also used by observers as a more accurate yardstick than the constant stream of opinion polls to show the strength of support for the parties.

There are three main candidates: current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from the Republican Alliance, Kemal Kilicdaroglu from the Nation Alliance, and Sinan Ogan, the candidate for the ATA Alliance. Since neither Erdogan nor Kilicdaroglu received 50% in the first round of voting on Sunday 14 May, they contest a run-off. 

"Political mass rallies are a striking feature of Turkish election campaigning"

Battle of the rallies

Turkish journalist Yusuf Seyidoglu said to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister edition: "The battle of the rallies is a vital part of the election campaigns, in which the candidate presents themselves and their abilities in their best light and makes promises, and their performance in them is judged".

Certain cities and regions of Turkey are also associated with specific parties, and have special importance to them, for instance being traditional strongholds for these parties and containing their main support bases.   

Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) regards Istanbul and the cities of Central Anatolia and the Black Sea region as its traditional support bases, and so pays particular attention to rallies in these areas and encourages the largest possible attendance by its supporters in them.

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The opposition bloc, represented by the Nation Alliance, and whose largest party is the Republican People's Party (CHP), draws its support predominantly from the western and southern regions and especially Izmir, Turkey's third largest city, which lies on the west coast. Therefore, rallies in these areas are fiercely promoted by the Nation Alliance.

Turkey's Kurdish parties in turn tend to focus on the southeast, in towns and cities where Turkey's Kurdish population has traditionally been concentrated.

Seyidoglu explains that while the opposition repeatedly accuses the government of pouring state resources into their campaigns for instance by hiring buses to bring supporters from all over Turkey to attend their rallies, the government in turn claims that major Turkish municipalities which are controlled by the opposition, like Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, are doing the same.

Rallies measure the public mood

Eyes have been on Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara, as well as the major cities of Anatolia, in order to gauge the mood on the street. Mass rallies are viewed as a more accurate reflection of popularity than opinion polls, the political affiliation of which is sometimes questioned, as well as the methodology by which they reach their results.

Likewise, comparisons are being drawn between the electoral rallies happening now and those during the last Turkish presidential elections in 2018. At that time the opposition was not united as it is now, and candidates stood for many of the parties (like the Good Party and the Felicity Party) which have united this time in the "Table of Six" (the Nation Alliance) and are only fielding one candidate: Kilicdaroglu.

"With regards to the elections on Sunday, eyes have been on Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara, as well as the major cities of Anatolia, in order to gage the mood on the street"

Support for Erdogan and the Republican Alliance

Despite the unity of the Nation Alliance opposition bloc and their lead in the polls, Erdogan's Republican Alliance has seen massive numbers turn out for their election campaign rallies, despite the decline in the AKP's popularity in recent years.

On 6 May in the city of Kayseri in central Turkey, Erdogan claimed that over 130,000 people had attended an election rally where he addressed the crowds, a number which would amount to around 10 percent of the population of Kayseri province. At a campaign rally in Ankara a week prior, hundreds of thousands reportedly took part. Observers described a mass rally in Izmir as the first of its kind for Erdogan: Izmir has long been considered an opposition stronghold and a bastion of Kemalist politics and secularism.

But the crowning glory for Erdogan's campaign trail took place in Istanbul's Ataturk Airport on May 7, where an estimated 1.7 million-strong mass gathering attended to support the Republican Alliance and hear his address, which would be the largest ever rally for Erdogan during his 20-year rule.

Imamoglu and Yavas boost the Opposition

The Nation Alliance has also been welcomed by a sea of supporters at rallies across the country, and has sought to capitalise on the regional popularity of certain individuals including Istanbul's mayor Ekram Imamoglu (CHP), who hails from Trabzon city on the Black Sea coast and Ankara's mayor Mansur Yavas (CHP), who wrested Istanbul and Ankara municipalities respectively from the AKP in 2019 – both having long been AKP strongholds.

Leaders from the parties making up the Nation Alliance also held joint mass rallies in Izmir and Istanbul at which multiple party leaders took to the stage to encourage voters to vote for the opposition.

The Nation Alliance includes the CHP, the Good Party (led by Meral Aksener), the Democrat Party (DP) led by Gultekin Uysal, the Future Party under Ahmet Davutoglu, the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) under Ali Babacan and the Felicity Party (Saadet) headed by Temel Karamollaoglu.

Supporters wave flags as Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds a rally ahead of the presidential elections in Istanbul's Sultangazi district on May 12, 2023 [Jeff J Mitchell/Getty]

In general, Nation Alliance rallies have been smaller than pro-Erdogan rallies, although in Izmir the National Alliance rally was bigger than its Republican counterpart. However, the opposition believes that regions formerly regarded as Erdogan bastions have been penetrated by the opposition due in part to the support which Imamoglu and Yavash have amassed in parts of the Black Sea and Central Anatolia.

Seyidoglu explained that every political party sees the street as their base of legitimacy, popularity and credibility which will be reflected in the ballot box, and the rallies "as one of the most important ways to calculate their supporters".

Both blocs will pull out all the stops when it comes to packing the mass rallies with their supporters to grab [media and public] attention, as well as casting doubts on the numbers claimed by the other side, he said.

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Motivating the hesitant

Turkish writer and political analyst Firas Ridwanoglu said the mass gatherings "are among the most important elements of the election period in addition to the electoral manifestos, and also act to motivate the hesitant, those who are not ideologically aligned to any party, nor affiliated to any side".

Pointing out the rival rallies in Istanbul and elsewhere, Ridwanoglu said these showed the challenge that lay ahead for the two competing blocs, concluding that ultimately the mass rallies were "an important indicator as to each party's strength of support", "ability to mobilise the masses" and "one of the forms of election propaganda in this field".   

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

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