It is now 25 years since Turkey’s current president, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, first arrived on the country’s national political stage, confounding many to win the 1994 Istanbul mayoral elections.
Now, however, with his Justice and Development Party (AKP) finally losing that office last Sunday, there are many Turks who hope that Istanbul will play a key role in Erdogan’s eventual exit from that self-same stage.
“This was more than just a local election – it was a test, a referendum on the AKP itself,” Kader Sevinc, the European Union representative of the victorious opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP), told Asia Times. “For Erdogan, this is the beginning of the end.”
Yet, with no further national or local elections set for the next four to five years – and the country experiencing a range of economic, political and security challenges – it may be premature to call time on the highly experienced Turkish president.
“Of course, President Erdogan’s position has been weakened by this result,” says Can Selcuki, General Manager of Istanbul Economic Research, “but I don’t think he will let this impact much, up at the national level.”
Sunday’s voting saw the secular, center-left CHP’s Ekrem Imamoglu succeed in pulling a broad coalition of supporters around him to defeat the conservative, pro-Islamist AKP’s Binali Yildirim in a re-run of elections first held back in March.
The re-run had been declared after the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) had invalidated the earlier result, which had given Imamoglu a narrow lead of about 13,000 votes.
The Council’s decision followed AKP complaints of irregularities – albeit made after the legal time limit for appeals had expired, and after many local recounts had continued to suggest an Imamoglu victory.
“The decision of the YSK created a feeling of injustice across the board,” says Selcuki.
As a result, there was significant growth in support for Imamoglu, even amongst many non-traditional CHP voters.
“There was a major shift of about 250,000 votes from Yildirim to Imamoglu between the March election and last Sunday,” says Davide Luca, a Turkey research expert from Cambridge University and the London School of Economics. “This happened even in AKP strongholds in the city.”
Meanwhile, problems with the economy also continued to bite at many voters’ heals.
Inflation is now about 19%, unemployment officially at 14%, but probably much higher, and economic growth is sluggish.
“Even before the March election, AKP voters had been giving their representatives clear signals that they were very concerned about high inflation and unemployment,” says Selcuki, “but it appears the AKP didn’t take much notice.”
Instead, the AKP’s campaign was dominated by highly nationalistic mass rallies given by Erdogan himself, often side-lining Yildirim and blaming foreign powers and domestic ‘terrorists’ for Turkey’s problems.
In contrast, the quiet-spoken and often humble Imamoglu was able to bring together a wide range of different groups.
This included supporters of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) – the main party of Turkey’s ethnic Kurds – who represent 12% to 14% of Istanbul’s population.
“If a candidate doesn’t get the support of the Kurds and the HDP, they can’t win,” Hisyar Ozsoy, an HDP deputy in Turkey’s national assembly and deputy chair of the party for foreign relations, told Asia Times. “In Istanbul and in many other cities, this is the reality Erdogan has to face up to.”
The HDP leader, Selahattin Demirtas, who has been imprisoned since 2016, publicly backed Imamoglu.
Meanwhile, conservative Kurds – who had in the past supported the AKP – have become increasingly alienated by the AKP’s current parliamentary alliance with the fiercely Turkish nationalist National Action Movement (MHP).
“These Kurds may well have constituted some of the people who switched to Imamoglu in Istanbul’s more traditional, conservative areas,” says Luca.
At the same time, the right-wing Iyi Party, which split from the MHP over its support for the AKP, also backed Imamoglu, giving him credence across ideological lines.
“Imamoglu also managed to unite religious and secular people,” says Luca. “During Ramadan, he went to iftar – the meal held at the end of the fast – and came over as a humble, respectful person. He emerged as the candidate for everyone, while Yildirim was the candidate of division.”
Making a difference
The new mayor now faces a number of major challenges, however.
“He will have to show he is making a difference after 25 years of rule by the AKP and its predecessor parties,” says Gursoy. “People are going to expect something major.”
Yet Imamoglu will be severely constrained in what he can do by the fact that while he is mayor, the Istanbul municipal government continues to have an AKP majority.
At the same time, “the AKP national government in the capital, Ankara, controls 65% of the public budget,” says Luca. “Istanbul may represent a major part of Turkey’s GDP, but its resources go to the center in Ankara and then get distributed back out. The central state can thus very easily manipulate local authorities.”
“Some of those who supported Imamoglu may now be expecting some kind of opportunity to get their own back at the AKP, now they are out and the CHP and its supporters are in,” says Gursoy. “Imamoglu will have to manage this while also balancing all the different groups in the coalition that brought him to office. This may be difficult.”
“There are still major risks on the horizon for Turkey’s economy,” says Jason Tuvey of Capital Economics. Turkey’s upcoming purchase of a missile system from Russia has led to US threats of sanctions. “The mere risk of further action is likely to spook investors,” Tuvey warns. This will make major economic improvements – in Istanbul or anywhere else – extra difficult.
Yet, Imamoglu’s victory does also present some key opportunities.
After 25 years of rule in Istanbul and 17 years nationally, “the AKP have been able to campaign on the basis of what they have achieved, while the opposition have had to campaign only on what they would do, if,” says Selcuki.
Indeed, even in the 18 days that Imamoglu was in office before the YSK annulled the March election, his administration lowered water and transport charges in the city and began live-streaming municipal council meetings to create openness and battle corruption.
At the same time, Turkey’s media is almost entirely AKP controlled, while emergency rule introduced after an attempted coup in 2016 has led to mass arrests and detentions.
Journalists, opposition activists, writers and intellectuals have been jailed – indeed, even as the mayoral election campaign was being held, in Istanbul’s outskirts, state courts had begun the trial of 16 leading civil society figures, accused of organizing mass protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, back in 2013.
Yet despite all this, Imamoglu won – a factor that may have far-reaching psychological, as well as political, consequences.
“Hope replaces fear when people come together,” says Ozsoy. “Now, people are seeing what can be done, as everybody knows an election in Istanbul will have consequences. It’s not about who will rule the city for five years, but about all the other questions this puts on the table, for all of Turkey today.”