Istanbul setback dents Erdogan’s credibility

Perceived corruption by AKP members as well as a downturn that has left Turkey’s economy in recession and increased unemployment contributed to the defeat of the governing party.
Saturday 20/04/2019
Ekrem Imamoglu, the new Mayor of Istanbul from Turkey's main opposition opposition Republican People's Party, addresses his supporters after he took over the office, April 17. (AP) 
New dynamics. Ekrem Imamoglu, the new Mayor of Istanbul from Turkey's main opposition opposition Republican People's Party, addresses his supporters after he took over the office, April 17. (AP) 

ISTANBUL - The victory of a secular opposition politician in Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest and richest city, has dented the power of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Ekrem Imamoglu, 48, the opposition mayoral candidate in Istanbul during local elections March 31, clinched victory when the Supreme Electoral Council allowed him to collect his official certificate as mayor on April 17. The moment ended 25 years of rule by politicians with roots in political Islam in the metropolis of 15 million people, starting with Erdogan becoming mayor in 1994.

The council’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 out of more than 8 million votes cast.

The AKP is asking the Supreme Electoral Council to annul the Istanbul election and order a rerun for June 2.

Observers said Imamoglu’s success, which came as Erdogan’s party also lost control of Ankara and other cities, marked the start of a new era. “A new political page has been opened in Turkey,” Murat Yetkin, a respected independent journalist, wrote on his blog.

Imamoglu, a former district mayor in Istanbul, reinvigorated a Turkish opposition that suffered numerous defeats against Erdogan and the AKP in recent years. The new mayor’s performance in administration of the metropolis will be crucial for the opposition’s standing in parliamentary and presidential elections in 2023.

Imamoglu promised Istanbulites a more transparent administration, cleaner tap water and a 200% increase in the city’s budget for social affairs to pay for cheaper public transport tickets for students and families with children, among other things. He wants to end municipal funding for associations close to the Erdogan government.

Erdogan, in his first statement after Imamoglu took office, suggested that he had accepted the defeat. An election was a “heavy load” for the economy, the 65-year-old president said in a speech. “With the closing of the polls, our nation has left this phase behind,” Erdogan said. “Everyone has gone back to their daily lives.”

The president defended the AKP’s bid to have the election in Istanbul cancelled but he also stated that the “matter will be over” with the council’s decision. “This is an era of cooling down the hot iron, of strengthening unity and togetherness,” Erdogan said.

Imamoglu, in the glow of victory, struck a similar conciliatory tone.

Addressing thousands of supporters after officially becoming mayor, Imamoglu pledged to serve all people, regardless of political beliefs, religion or ethnicity. The mayor, who is a pious Muslim but embraces secular principles, explicitly addressed “this city’s Muslims, Sunnis, Alevis” as well as “Christians, Armenians and Greeks.”

Imamoglu’s secularist Republican People’s Party rules Turkey’s three biggest cities: Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. For the AKP, the defeat in Istanbul carried the biggest significance because it loses opportunities to keep followers and pro-government companies happy with appointments and public contracts.

Voters in the city said perceived corruption by AKP members as well as a downturn that has left Turkey’s economy in recession and increased unemployment contributed to the defeat of the governing party. “People have had enough of them stuffing their own pockets,” said a textile merchant.

Observers and Istanbul voters said they doubted that an effort by the AKP to push for a rerun election in the city offered an easy way out for Erdogan’s party.

“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.”

Mehmet, a greengrocer near Istanbul’s Taksim Square, said he voted for Imamoglu even though he was a member of the AKP. “The man has won,” Mehmet said with a smile, referring to Imamoglu. “If they push for a new election, they will fare even worse,” he said of the AKP. Imamoglu would be good for the city, he said, adding: “We may even be looking at a future president.”

The AKP’s election losses encouraged Erdogan’s critics from within the Islamist-conservative movement to come forward. Reports said AKP dissidents were preparing to form a new conservative party.

Abdullah Gul, a former president, AKP co-founder and long-term political ally of Erdogan who has fallen out with the Turkish leader, used a rare interview to suggest that Erdogan had become an autocrat.

“Am I the one who has moved away from the AK Party’s founding principles?” Gul asked in the interview with Ocak Medya, a news website founded by Fehmi Koru, a commentator close to Gul. The former president was referring to the AKP’s goals of securing democracy and the rule of law in Turkey.

Veysi Dundar, the author of the interview, noted that Gul, while not openly saying he was going to establish a new party, gave the impression that he was moving in that direction.