Why an opposition win in Istanbul weakens Erdoğan’s grip

Why We Wrote This

A loss at the mayoral level by Turkey’s ruling party hardly heralds the end of President Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule. What it does mean: The opposition is learning how to win.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Ekrem İmamoğlu (c.), mayoral candidate of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), waves to supporters outside a polling station in Istanbul June 23. Mr. İmamoğlu's win is a blow to the ruling AKP party and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

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For 25 years, the AKP has run Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city. After its candidate lost a close mayoral race in March, the result was annulled. On Sunday, the opposition won again in Istanbul, this time with a margin of victory that could spell trouble for the AKP, which has dominated Turkish politics for two decades. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had warned voters in Istanbul not to support the opposition CHP, which he calls fascists who work with terrorists. His campaign fell on deaf ears: Mayor-Elect Ekrem İmamoğlu increased his share of the vote to 54% in Turkey’s largest city, of which Mr. Erdoğan was previously mayor. The AKP still has the presidency and a majority in parliament, but nine of Turkey’s 10 largest cities are now in opposition hands, a stark reversal of fortune for the Islam-rooted AKP. 

“The days of Erdoğan comfortably winning elections, like a piece of cake, are over. It’s getting much trickier for him,” says Ms. Asli Aydintaşbaş at the European Council on Foreign Relations. 

For the CHP, its challenge is to build on the momentum from victory in Istanbul, where nearly 1 in 5 Turks live. The city is a financial prize, too, and one that the AKP was reluctant to surrender. But its campaign showed the limits of the ruling party’s machine and the renewed vigor of Turkey’s opposition. 

For the true believers of Turkey’s ruling party, the opposition’s victory Sunday in Istanbul mayor’s race was inconceivable.

“It’s impossible, absolutely impossible,” that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) could lose, predicted Ertuğrul, a volunteer at a party kiosk on the eve of the vote.

And yet the AKP did lose control of Turkey’s commercial capital, decisively, in a blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that marks the further erosion of power of the Islam-rooted AKP, which has dominated Turkish politics for nearly two decades.

Istanbul’s new mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu – who ruled for 18 days in April, before his victory was annulled – declared that authoritarian rule has been dented in Turkey.

“We are starting a new page in Istanbul. On this new page there will be justice, equality, love,” Mr. İmamoğlu told supporters, as street celebrations erupted across the city. The people of Istanbul, he said, “have refreshed our belief in democracy [and] showed the world that Turkey still protects its democracy.”

Indeed, Mr. İmamoğlu, of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), not only repeated his victory of March 31, when Turkey held national and local elections. He widened the margin of defeat for the AKP from 13,000 votes to some 775,000, in a city that was the launch pad of the AKP’s transformative political movement.

“A lot of folks I know were always wondering whether even their grandkids would ever see the end of the AKP,” said Azize, a Ph.D. student, on election night. “But now, they lost Ankara, Antalya, and today Istanbul,” she said, referring to other opposition-run municipalities. “Now we’re thinking that we might see the AKP fall from power even in our own lifetimes.”

During relentless campaigning this spring, Mr. Erdoğan had cast the elections as one of national “survival,” and said: “If we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey.” Mr. Erdoğan, himself a former mayor of Istanbul, blasted Mr. İmamoğlu as leading “CHP fascists” who worked with “terrorists.”

Days before the vote, Mr. Erdoğan declared, “The worst thing that could happen to Istanbul would be for CHP fascism, which we saw in the Gezi [2013 anti-Erdoğan protests] and many other cases, to once again descend like a nightmare upon the city.”

But on Sunday, the AKP candidate Binali Yildirim – a founder of the AKP, and a former prime minister and speaker of parliament – had to concede defeat in a city that is home to 18% of Turkey’s population and produces 32% of its economic output. Mr. İmamoğlu won 54% of the vote, and Mr. Yildirim 45%.

A ‘formula to win’

“There is no doubt that [the] AKP has hit a glass ceiling and is in decline, in terms of its electoral power,” says Asli Aydıntaşbaş, a Turkey expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“This is mathematically evident that they are in decline. That doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the Erdoğan era,” she says.

“The country is undergoing a recession, and their votes have fallen significantly since 2015 levels,” she says. She notes that the AKP majority in parliament depends on an alliance with an ultra-nationalist party and that splinter groups have formed within the AKP.

Moreover, the opposition, “finally after two decades, understand the formula to win.”

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Supporters of Ekrem İmamoğlu, the mayoral candidate of the Republican People's Party (CHP), celebrate in central Istanbul June 23.

That formula included support from disenfranchised ethnic Kurds, who have felt the brunt of the AKP’s military-led crackdown on separatism and militants. Around 15% of Istanbul’s population is Kurdish.

Turkey’s shriveled economy has also been a factor in handing the opposition control of nine of Turkey’s 10 largest metropolitan areas. Mr. Yildirim promised voters in Istanbul a host of financial benefits, from free data roaming for mobile phones to cheaper public transport.

The election result is a “blow to the political prestige of Erdoğan” as well as the AKP, which used Istanbul’s wealth and control of large contracts to finance the spread of its movement, says Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat and head of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, a think tank in Istanbul.

“The importance of Istanbul, for any political movement, just cannot be overstated,” says Mr. Ülgen.

“I would see this as a bit of rebalancing of the Turkish political landscape, [because] 65% of Turkey’s GDP would fall under the control of the opposition, in terms of local government,” he says.

But he cautions against “exaggerating the impact” on national politics, since Erdoğan remains at the helm of an all-powerful executive presidency, with elections not due before 2023.

Still, over time the CHP – the party founded a century ago by the secular father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – may use local governance to revitalize its powerbase, as the AKP once did.

It remains to be seen how smart they will be, in translating these increased capabilities into a more effective political strategy,” says Mr. Ülgen.

A party machine sputters

Either way, the loss of Istanbul spells trouble for Mr. Erdoğan, and could deepen the divisions within the AKP.

“The days of Erdoğan comfortably winning elections, like a piece of cake, are over. It’s getting much trickier for him,” says Ms. Aydintaşbaş.

The AKP candidate Mr. Yildirim seemed to indicate as much during a lackluster campaign in which he had every advantage of the AKP political machine, but that machine appeared worn out, and he sometimes appeared reluctant to engage.

He arrived, for example, at Turkey’s first televised debate ­in 22 years just minutes before the three-hour spectacle went live, while his rival was in his seat 40 minutes early.

And before a speech last week, Mr. Yildirim spoke off-camera to a Turkish television journalist setting up her microphones. She asked how he was doing.

“Thanks,” Mr. Yildirim replied, then laughed. “Just don’t forget me after the election.”

A correspondent for the Monitor provided election-day reporting from Istanbul.

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