After Istanbul’s elections

For the first time in more than two decades of rule by Islamists, the mayors of both Istanbul and Ankara will be from the secular opposition.
Saturday 29/06/2019
Mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) gestures as he addresses his supporters from the top of a bus outside the City Hall in Istanbul, Turkey, June 27, 2019. (Reuters)
Mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) gestures as he addresses his supporters from the top of a bus outside the City Hall in Istanbul, Turkey, June 27, 2019. (Reuters)

The June 23 vote for mayor in Istanbul could be a game changer in Turkey and beyond.

Ekrem Imamoglu, the candidate of the opposition Republican People’s Party, won the election rerun with 54.21% of the cast ballots. He defeated the candidate of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister and close protege of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, by more than 800,000 votes, compared with 13,000 votes in the regular election in March.

In an electoral contest described by Erdogan himself as an existential challenge, the voter turnout was close to 85%. A clear measure of the blowback he brought about since cancelling the results of the first elections in April.

For the first time in more than two decades of rule by Islamists, the mayors of both Istanbul and Ankara will be from the secular opposition.

The ruling party’s reluctance to accept the results of the initial vote was a reflection of the high stakes of the election. With the economy of the city of 16 million inhabitants accounting for a third of the country’s GDP, Istanbul is crucial for the AKP’s clientelist networks.

Dissatisfaction of Istanbul voters, including those in conservative districts, was also a reflection of Turkey’s mounting economic woes, including high unemployment and inflation rates. The economic prosperity argument used to offer Erdogan both a means of power consolidation and the potential for electoral coattails. Now the economy has become a political liability instead.

At home, things are likely not to be the same anymore. Imamoglu’s victory is likely to weaken the standing of Erdogan with Turkish citizens or even with AKP members as he has to manage four more years, till the 2023 elections.  With the results of the election rerun, his political acumen is more than ever questioned.

“It’s a colossal defeat for Yildirim but also Erdogan. His gamble (in calling for a replay of the election) backfired,” Berk Esen, assistant professor of international relations at Ankara’s Bilkent University, told Agence France-Presse.

The Turkish leader’s authoritarian hold on power will be increasingly challenged. Erdogan, who won virtually all elections for more than a decade, has to deal with a stunning defeat in his own turf.

Erdogan will also have to reckon more with the Kurdish factor in Turkish politics. Resentful of the government’s iron-fisted tactics against Kurdish activists and elected mayors, Kurds are widely seen to have played an important role in the Istanbul race.

Soner Cagaptay, director for Turkey at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the election defeat will dent Erdogan’s ability to mobilise state resources and “his control of many institutions, from media to courts to election board.”

Erdogan could be tempted to make life difficult for opposition mayors, including the one in Istanbul by new lawsuits, legal measures or presidential decrees and by restricting the new mayors’ ability to disburse budgets or to investigate the financial records of the defeated AKP city administrations.

Repercussions are expected within the AKP itself with more internal fissures appearing and previously low-profile challengers coming to the fore.

“Erdogan is likely to face not only an emboldened opposition but also more open dissent within the AKP itself,” said Wolf Piccoli of the New York-based risk analysis firm Teneo Intelligence.

“The victory of Ekrem Imamoglu… is the most serious setback for Erdogan since his Justice and Development Party first took office in November 2002 and will further fuel the already growing sense amongst both his opponents and many members of his own party that his career is now in irreversible decline.”

“This is definitely going to have an impact on the future of Turkish politics given the margin of victory. It’s an alarming sign for the AKP establishment,” said Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels and former Turkish diplomat.

The contest is likely to carry ripple effects all across the Middle East and North Africa. It is a blow to Erdogan’s cultivated regional reputation as a larger than life figure and aspiring leader of Islamist movements (that are themselves on the wane all across the region).

The election’s main takeaway for other secularists in MENA is that unifying their ranks is the way to win electoral office when faced by daunting Islamist electoral machines.

6