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Turkey gains new wave of female mayors after opposition's poll success

By Burcu Karakas

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Gulistan Sonuk, 31, sailed to election victory in Turkey's conservative heartland at the weekend, part of a wave of new women mayors who dealt President Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AK Party and its allies a watershed defeat.

The nationwide local elections nearly tripled the number of female mayors to 11 out of the 81 provinces, and included five women taking charge of major urban centres.

Sonuk, of the pro-Kurdish DEM party, said the vote was a statement on gender equality and male chauvinism.

"The election took place between two sharp lines. One was the mentality that saw women as second-class, and the other defended women's freedom. The public chose the latter," Sonuk said in a phone interview.

She took nearly 65% of the vote in the eastern province of Batman, eclipsing the second-place candidate Serkan Ramanli of the Kurdish-Islamist Huda-Par, an Erdogan government ally in the nation's parliament.

After her victory on Sunday evening, supporters chanted the Kurdish revolutionary slogan: "Woman, Life, Freedom".

"Huda-Par did not see me as a competitor because I was a woman," Sonuk said. "The last thing they wanted was to lose to a young woman. That makes me incredibly proud."

The vote marked Erdogan and his ruling AKP's worst defeat in their more than two decades in power, with the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) claiming mayoralities in most of the major cities and winning over several central provinces.

Ten of the 11 female mayors were from opposition parties, and of those, they won nearly 53% of the vote on average, Women's Platform for Equality (ESIK) data shows. Only four female mayors were elected in the last local vote in 2019.

Of Turkey's 922 districts, women won 64 according to unofficial results - with most from the CHP or DEM.

GENDER GAP

The rising female political representation comes as government critics say women's rights have regressed in recent years under Erdogan's rule, charges Ankara denies.

Turkey in 2021 pulled out of the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty combating gender-based violence, on grounds that it threatens family values and that local laws were sufficient.

"Although the gender gap is still a major issue, the latest local elections show an important increase in the number of female candidates, which in turn resulted in a higher number of women winning," said Gulnur Kocapinar, assistant professor at Yeditepe University in Istanbul.

"Once parties nominate female candidates more, and provide them with similar opportunities as male candidates, they may also have significant public support," she said.

Analysts said voters punished the AKP primarily over the cost of living with inflation nearing 70%.

One surprise result was in Istanbul's Uskudar, Erdogan's mostly conservative home district, which ditched its AKP leader and elected the CHP's Sinem Dedetas, 43, a marine engineer who becomes its first female mayor.

Feyza Akinerdem, a sociologist and the founder of ZFA Research and Consultancy, who studied Uskudar on the city's Asian side, said it was ready for a "female mayor who embraces its unique values".

"Contrary to general opinion, Uskudar is not the capital of strict conservatism, but rather of inclusive spirituality and shared cultural belonging," she said.

(Reporting by Burcu Karakas; Editing by Jonathan Spicer, Alexandra Hudson)