As new problems for Turkey pile up, Erdogan faces key challenge in Istanbul

Polls indicate that Ekrem Imamoglu, from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), could beat Binali Yildirim, the AKP candidate, by as much as 9%.
Sunday 23/06/2019
People watch a televised debate between Istanbul’s mayoral candidates Ekrem Imamoglu (L), of the Republican People’s Party, and Binali Yildirim, of the Justice and Development Party, at a cafe in Istanbul, June 16. (Reuters)
New face-off. People watch a televised debate between Istanbul’s mayoral candidates Ekrem Imamoglu (L), of the Republican People’s Party, and Binali Yildirim, of the Justice and Development Party, at a cafe in Istanbul, June 16. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces mounting challenges with polls predicting victory for the opposition in the rerun mayoral election in Istanbul and as economic as well as foreign policy problems loom.

Polls indicate that Ekrem Imamoglu, from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), could beat Binali Yildirim, the candidate of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), by as much as 9 percentage points.

Imamoglu narrowly defeated Yildirim in the regular election in March but the Turkish Supreme Electoral Council annulled the result following pressure by the AKP and ordered a rerun for June 23.

That decision brought international criticism and accusations from Turkey’s opposition of eroding democracy. It also unnerved financial markets and threw a spotlight on the AKP’s management of Turkey’s largest city and commercial hub during its long years in power.

Huseyin Cicek, a Turkey specialist at the University of Vienna, Austria, said the Istanbul election would be crucial. “The coming days will show how big the Turks’ trust in the president’s policies still is,” Cicek wrote in response to questions.

The AKP, which has won almost all elections in Turkey since 2002, appeared to be on the verge of defeat. “At this point, Imamoglu has a comfortable lead,” US-based Turkey expert Selim Sazak said via e-mail. “The AKP seems confused and clueless.”

A second defeat in Istanbul would shake Erdogan’s 16-year grip on the country and would deprive the AKP of financial resources. The AKP and its Islamist predecessors have controlled Istanbul for 25 years. Istanbul has a budget of close to $4 billion and accounts for one-third of the country’s economic output.

Losing Istanbul would weaken the government at a time of growing problems at home and abroad. Dissidents within the AKP are reportedly planning to split from the party and set up their own organisation.

The rerun election comes as Turkey’s economy struggles with recession, high unemployment and an inflation rate of almost 19%. Some economists predicted that the country will need outside help, either from the International Monetary Fund — a step Erdogan has rejected — or other means. “Turkey needs money,” one Western economist in Turkey said.

Turkey’s row with the United States over a plan by Ankara to buy a Russian air defence system could turn into a serious crisis soon with the first components of the Russian S-400 systems expected to arrive in Turkey within weeks.

The Istanbul election is also a test for Erdogan’s new presidential system. Critics said the president has sidelined parliament and turned government into a one-man show and accuse him of chasing fantasies of neo-Ottoman grandeur. Cicek said that the “‘Ottoman’ AKP castle in the air” could come crashing down.

Imamoglu and Yildirim faced off in a live television debate, the first such encounter in a major Turkish election campaign in almost 20 years. Yildirim, 63, failed to land a knock-out punch against Imamoglu, 49, who campaigned on a theme of change and has been leading in almost all opinion polls.

One survey, published by the Konda institute, predicted Imamoglu would win with 54% of the vote, with Yildirim trailing at 45%. A third candidate, Islamist Necdet Gokcinar, is expected to get around 1%.

Konda General Director Bekir Agirdir said on the Medyascope Internet television channel that the decision to annul the March election was the main reason for the AKP’s problems. Political pressure on the Supreme Electoral Council that led to the rerun election rattled people’s sense of justice, Agirdir said, adding: “That was the moment the AKP lost.”

Imamoglu enjoys the support of many non-CHP opposition voters determined to inflict a new defeat on Erdogan. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is also backing Imamoglu, a decision that could be decisive for the election results. An estimated 1.5 million out of 10 million registered voters in Istanbul are of Kurdish descent.

In a last-minute effort to weaken Kurdish support for Imamoglu, government media published an appeal from jailed Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan, an influential figure, who said the HDP should remain neutral in the election. Ocalan’s lawyers confirmed the statement.

Sazak said it was unlikely the Ocalan appeal would boost the AKP’s chances decisively. The AKP is in an alliance with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, which is strongly opposed to any concessions benefiting the Kurds. “They will not win many Kurds but they will potentially lose many nationalists,” Sazak said, referring to the AKP.

The AKP’s strategy to beat Imamoglu rests on motivating the party’s base to go to the polls. Around 1.7 million voters did not vote in the election in March.

In an unspoken admission that things were not going well for the AKP, Erdogan abandoned a hands-off approach to the Istanbul campaign that had kept him away from the city to give the limelight to Yildirim. Late in the campaign, Erdogan appeared at several rallies.

The president came out guns blazing, attacking Imamoglu harshly. Some AKP members expressed concern that Erdogan’s abrasive style could put voters off but Erdogan did not seem to be bothered by such warnings.

He compared Imamoglu to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whom the Turkish president accuses of having taken power in a coup against Muhammad Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Will we say Sisi or will we say Binali Yildirim on Sunday?” Erdogan asked in a speech.

In another effort to reach out to Islamist voters, Erdogan brought up Morsi’s death June 17 of an apparent heart attack in a Cairo courtroom. Erdogan accused Egyptian authorities of failing to act to save Morsi’s life. “Morsi was killed. He did not die of natural causes,” He said Egypt’s government rejected the Turkish leader’s comments as “irresponsible.”

Erdogan also said Imamoglu stood with supporters of Fethullah Gulen, an US-based Islamic preacher accused of masterminding a 2016 coup against Erdogan.

The president even suggested that Imamoglu could end up in court after the election. “A decision by the judiciary can block his way,” Erdogan said. Imamoglu has been accused of insulting a regional governor in Turkey’s Black Sea region by calling him a “dog.” Imamoglu denied the allegations. Erdogan said he told the governor to take Imamoglu to court after the election.

Imamoglu responded by saying the government could not go against the will of the electorate. “The person who can stand in the way of the people’s decision hasn’t been born yet,” he told an election rally.