In major setback for Erdogan, Turkish opposition wins Istanbul election

Some observers say the result could shake Erdogan’s 16-year grip on power.
Monday 24/06/2019
Ekrem Imamoglu, mayoral candidate of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), holds a rally in Beylikduzu district, in Istanbul, Turkey, June 23, 2019. (Reuters)
Ekrem Imamoglu, mayoral candidate of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), holds a rally in Beylikduzu district, in Istanbul, Turkey, June 23, 2019. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suffered the most stinging defeat in his career as the opposition defeated his party in a landslide election in the metropolis Istanbul.

Kadri Gursel, a prominent opposition journalist, called the result of the June 23rd election a “political tectonic shift.”

Some observers say the result could shake Erdogan’s 16-year grip on power. At least one lawmaker from Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) demanded “self-criticism” and called for a return to democratic principles, in reference to Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies.

As the results became clear, parts of Istanbul erupted in celebrations, with people dancing in the streets or honking the horns of their cars.

Opposition politician Ekrem Imamoglu, a 49-year-old former businessman and mayor of the Istanbul district of Beylikduzu, won 54% of the vote in the election for mayor of Istanbul, nine percentage points ahead of the AKP’s Binali Yildirim, who reached 45%.

Imamoglu’s victory means that Istanbul, a city of 16 million people that is home to a third of Turkey’s economy, will have its first non-Islamist mayor since 1994.

The election was a re-run vote after the electoral commission, under pressure from Erdogan’s government, annulled the regular poll of March 31, which Imamoglu had won with a narrow margin. Critics accused the 65-year-old Erdogan, who started his career in Istanbul when he became mayor 25 years ago, of refusing to give up control of the city, a crucial source of patronage for the AKP.

The decision to repeat the election upset many AKP members as well. Provisional results on June 23 showed that Imamoglu received majorities even in districts of Istanbul known to be AKP strongholds.

Even though Erdogan did not run in the election he was a central figure because he pushed for the annulment decision and took part in the AKP campaign with a last-minute decision to hold rallies in Istanbul when opinion polls started to show Imamoglu’s solid lead in the days before the vote.

The president, who has won almost all elections in Turkey for more than a decade, appeared to be stunned by the result. For the first time since his AKP came to power in 2002, Erdogan did not face the cameras after an election, congratulating Imamoglu via Twitter instead.

Karabekir Akkoyunlu, a Turkish academic, commented on Twitter that Erdogan had suffered a massive setback. “After 31 March, I said Erdogan would either lose Istanbul or legitimacy,” he wrote. “He managed to lose both. Incredible.”

Analysts say the loss could set off a cabinet reshuffle in Ankara and adjustments to foreign policy. It could even trigger a national election earlier than 2023 as scheduled, though the leader of the AKP’s nationalist ally played down that prospect.

“Turkey should now return to its real agenda; the election process should close,” (Nationalist Movment Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli said. “In this context, talking of an early election would be among the worst things that can be done to our country.”

Turkey’s economy is now in recession and the United States, its NATO ally, has threatened sanctions if Erdogan goes ahead with plans to install a Russian missile defence system.

Imamoglu told his supporters that he would work for all people in Istanbul, regardless of their political preferences.

“Today, 16 million Istanbul residents have renewed our faith in democracy and refreshed our trust in justice,” Imamoglu told supporters.

Imamoglu, who waged an inclusive campaign and avoided criticising Erdogan, said he was ready to work with the AKP to tackle Istanbul’s problems, including its transport gridlock and the needs of its more than 500,000 Syrian refugees.

“In this new page in Istanbul, there will from now on be justice, equality, love, tolerance, while misspending (of public funds), pomp, arrogance and the alienation of the other will end,” Imamoglu said.

The handover of power in the mayor’s office could shed further light on what Imamoglu, a politician from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said was the misspending of billions of lira at the Istanbul municipality, which has a budget of around $4 billion. CHP officials say the AKP’s city administration of Istanbul handed millions of dollars’ worth of subsidies to organisations that are close to Erdogan.

The AKP’s defeat came almost exactly one year after Erdogan and his party scored major victories, winning parliamentary and presidential elections on June 24, 2018. That election ushered in a presidential system that critics say has led to a one-man-rule under Erdogan and could be part of the reason the AKP lost on June 23.

The result could increase tensions within the AKP. Bulent Turan, an AKP lawmaker from Canakkale in western Turkey, said on Twitter those responsible for the defeat should be held to account. Mustafa Yeneroglu, another AKP member of parliament, called for “self-criticism” and a return to policies concentrating on “rationality, the rule of law, the separation of powers and basic rights.”