What lessons will Erdogan learn from Istanbul vote?
The monumental defeat of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in a rerun election for the mayorship of Istanbul represents a major setback for the Turkish leader. What is worse for Erdogan is that this event could snowball and lead to the breakup of the AKP, curtailing a 25-year run for Erdogan and his pro-Islamist party.
Hoping to reverse the initial results in March, which favoured his opponent, Erdogan called for a revote, but that only made matters worse.
The renewed polls gave main opposition party candidate Ekrem Imamoglu a huge increase of more than 775,000 votes from his initial margin of 13,000. The earlier victory was annulled after the AKP alleged irregularities. The result ends 25 years of AKP rule in Istanbul as its candidate, former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, conceded to his opponent.
Erdogan wrote on Twitter: “I congratulate Ekrem Imamoglu, who has won the election based on preliminary results.”
Erdogan had previously said, “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey.” He has ruled the country since 2003 both as prime minister and now president, becoming the most powerful leader since Mustafa Kemal, better known as Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic.
In his victory speech, Imamoglu, of the Republican People’s Party, said the result marked a “new beginning” for both the city and the country. He said his supporters had “fixed democracy.”
“We are opening up a new page in Istanbul,” he said. “On this new page, there will be justice, equality, love.”
Imamoglu added that he was willing to work with Erdogan, saying: “Mr President, I am ready to work in harmony with you.”
Imamoglu had a little more than 54% of the vote while Yildirim, Erdogan’s candidate, took 45%.
It did not take long for the effect of his party losing Istanbul to be felt by Erdogan. Like rats leaving a sinking ship, key figures in Erdogan’s AKP are already talking about forming a new party. Among those is the prominent Abdullah Gul.
The authoritarianism espoused by Erdogan has meant keeping much of the power of government close to his chest. As is often the case with leaders who tend to fall into the same category as Erdogan, the more authoritarian they become, the less they trust other people and the less they have political heirs. So when they crash, they crash without a parachute. The only political confidant Erdogan can call on today, following the departure from the AKP of Gul and one or two other party heavyweights, is his son-in-law, the current finance minister, but he has little of his charisma.
Already rumours in the political world across Turkey are starting to gather momentum with talk of this being the beginning of the end for Erdogan. As we pointed out in these very pages in April: “It would be more appropriate to call it a milestone on the road to the end.”
Still, others are saying they do not underestimate Erdogan’s ability to bounce back and to reclaim what he perceives to be rightfully his.
Imamoglu, 49, currently the mayor of Istanbul’s Beylikduzu district, is a relatively late comer to national politics. He was unknown to the vast majority of the country’s 80.8 million people.
Then there is also the symbolic and the emotional attachment that goes with Istanbul. The city, Turkey’s largest, with a population of some 13 million people, is also close to Erdogan’s heart. His political career rose from there as his AKP took power in the city a quarter of a century ago and he served as mayor from 1994 to 1998.
Istanbul accounts for just short of a third of Turkey’s GDP. It has a $4 billion municipal budget that spawns lucrative contacts. The AKP has now lost control of it. Imamoglu campaigned partially on the allegations that the AKP squandered the public’s money.
With Istanbul now in the control of the opposition, it joins other major Turkish cities such as Izmir and the capital, Ankara, now all in its hands. Hopefully, this much-needed political change could see Turkey swing back from the dark side to join once again the difficult march towards democracy.
Or it could be just a tactical concession by Erdogan as circumstances offered no other way out until he manages to put his grand old authoritarian strategy back on track. From now until the 2023 presidential elections, it is likely to be a bumpy ride.