Erdogan rival declared winner of vote in Istanbul

The AKP suffered defeats March 31 in several big cities, including Ankara, but Istanbul carried the biggest significance.
Wednesday 17/04/2019
In this March 30, 2019 file photo, Ekrem Imamoglu of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party mayoral candidate in Istanbul, poses for photos during a boat tour over Bosporus, a day before March 31 local elections, in Istanbul. (AP)
In this March 30, 2019 file photo, Ekrem Imamoglu of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party mayoral candidate in Istanbul, poses for photos during a boat tour over Bosporus, a day before March 31 local elections, in Istanbul. (AP)

ISTANBUL - In a severe political blow to Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council has declared an opposition politician the new mayor of Istanbul, the biggest and richest city in the country.

Ekrem Imamoglu, 48, the opposition mayoral candidate in Istanbul during countrywide local elections March 31, clinched his victory when election officials invited him to collect his official certificate as mayor of this metropolis of 15 million people.

The board’s decision came after the last of several recounts in Istanbul districts ended. Imamoglu won by a razor-thin margin, beating Binali Yildirim of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) by less than 14,000 votes of out more than 8.3 million cast.

The AKP suffered defeats March 31 in several big cities, including Ankara, but Istanbul carried the biggest significance. By losing its grip on Istanbul, the AKP loses opportunities to keep followers and pro-government companies happy with appointments and public contracts.

Even before the decision was announced, the AKP applied to the electoral council to have the election in Istanbul cancelled. The council, made up by 11 senior judges, was expected to soon rule on the AKP’s bid. Under Turkish law, a new election would be scheduled for June 2.

With the council’s decision April 17, the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) is at the helm in Turkey’s three biggest cities: Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. While Izmir is a CHP stronghold, Istanbul and Ankara had been ruled by politicians with roots in political Islam for 25 years.

Government supporters said the battle for Istanbul was not over, however.

“Even if they hand the certificate to you, you won’t be able to be a legitimate mayor,” Ibrahim Karagul, editor of the pro-Erdogan Yeni Safak newspaper, wrote on Twitter, addressing Imamoglu. Karagul compared the campaign against Imamoglu to the conquest of Christian Byzantine Constantinople -- today’s Istanbul -- by the Muslim Ottomans in 1453. “The march that started in 1453 will continue,” he wrote.

Observers said the Erdogan government could be expected to pressure the Supreme Electoral Council to allow a rerun of the election but calling for new poll is a political risk for the AKP. A fresh election campaign could lead to a postponement of promised economic reforms that analysts say are needed to steer Turkey out of recession. A rerun election could also result in a bigger win for the opposition.

“Good news: Political and institutional cost of overturning the election just went way up,” Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at Saint Lawrence University in New York and non-resident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington, wrote on Twitter. “Bad news: Common sense (and decency) may not prevail.”

New elections in Istanbul could sharpen divisions between Turkey and its partners in the West. Following the March 31 elections, EU Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans told the German Welt am Sonntag newspaper that EU accession candidate Turkey had been moving away from European values “with great speed” in recent years. “We hope that trend doesn’t get worse by the AKP not respecting the results of the local elections,” he said.