Istanbul's Mayoral Re-Election: The Beginning of the End for Erdoğan?
Updated: May 29
After a re-run of the mayoral elections in Istanbul last month, the ruling Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) has once again been defeated by opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu in a decisive election result. Since its establishment by current President Erdoğan in 2001, the right-wing AKP has steadily grown its power base, holding the presidency since 2007 and the mayorship of Istanbul since March 2004. This shift in Istanbul’s power balance is said to have marked a considerable setback for President Erdoğan’s regime. As Turkey’s largest city and the economic powerhouse of the country, Istanbul is a key stronghold for whoever controls it, with the President previously saying that "whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey" (1). Mr İmamoğlu’s victory is also of personal significance to President Erdoğan, who was not only born and raised in the city but also formerly held the city's mayorship in the 1990s (2). Political science professor Sibel Oktay has explained that "[Erdoğan’s] footprints in Turkish politics started with this Istanbul mayorship; losing that is huge, both politically and symbolically" (3).
As part of the scheduled Turkish local elections, the Istanbul mayoral election was originally held in March 2019. The first candidate was former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, strongly allied to President Erdoğan and the AKP. The opposition, representing the Republican People’s Party (CHP), was Ekrem İmamoğlu, who won the March election by a marginal 13,000 votes. His victory was nevertheless swiftly challenged by the AKP who suggested that ‘the vote was “tainted”’(4). The AKP also claimed the victory for themselves with a widespread display of posters around the city picturing the President and the AKP candidate under the words "Thank you Istanbul" (5).
An agreement could not be reached and a re-count of votes was therefore insisted upon by the AKP, which only reaffirmed the opposition's victory. What followed was an AKP gambit orchestrated through the election commission, nullifying the March result on the basis of voting irregularities. Mr İmamoğlu had already been sworn in as mayor but was swiftly removed from the position after 17 days in office, and a re-election was scheduled for June.
Three months later, the new result in June magnified the opposition's lead by over 60 times and reflected CHP popularity, embodied in the figure of Mr İmamoğlu himself who ‘framed his campaign as a fight for Turkish democracy’ (7). His message stood deliberately in contrast to the President's policy which has in recent years become increasingly autocratic after the failed military coup of 2016.
The election result is considered to be a great disturbance to the influence of President Erdoğan, with Mr İmamoğlu securing a second victory of over 775,000 votes. BBC Turkey Correspondent Mark Lowen has analysed the events, concluding that ‘President Erdogan – the most powerful leader Turkey has seen in modern times – has just been dealt the biggest blow of his career’ (9). After claiming that voting irregularities had jeopardised the first election, events in June reveal ‘an incredible miscalculation’ by President Erdoğan in calling for a re-election (10).
For supporters of the CHP and Mr İmamoğlu himself, his success in the mayoral elections of both March and June of this year has sparked hopes for a new beginning. In his victory speech, he told the people: “We are opening up a new page in Istanbul…On this new page, there will be justice, equality, love” (11). The President’s loss of the city, along with capital city Ankara among others has, according Mark Lowen, helped to ‘break his image of invincibility’ (12). However, in terms of Turkish politics more broadly, it will certainly take more than this defeat for President Erdoğan to relinquish power. His authoritarian rule has seen the successful quashing of dissidents, arresting AKP opposition, and sacking anti-establishment military personnel and civil servants. CHP power in Istanbul is also far from absolute; the AKP have retained control over the city council and Istanbul continues to rely upon funding from the central government in Ankara.
Mark Lowen has nevertheless encouraged cautious optimism, suggesting that Mr İmamoğlu’s victory ‘will likely hasten splits in [the] ruling AK Party and amplify talk of the post-Erdoğan era’ (14). By promising the people the equality and security they have sought for so long, Mr İmamoğlu has struck a chord with the people of Istanbul and cities beyond it. The words of 22-year-old university student Ayca Yilmaz sum up opposition reactions to the re-election result: “Many young people desperately want to leave Turkey, but now, we might consider staying here. We are hopeful once again” (15).
(1) 'Erdogan's party suffers blow after Istanbul re-run poll defeat', BBC News https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-48739256 ;
(2) J. Kirby, 'An Istanbul mayoral election is rattling Turkey’s politics', Vox https://www.vox.com/2019/6/25/18715397/istanbul-mayor-elections-turkey-erdogan-imamoglu ;
(3) J. Kirby;
(4) J. Kirby;
(5) M. Lowen, 'Turkey AK party rulers are bad losers, says election 'winner' Imamoglu' https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-47799291 ;
(6) E. Toksabay and T. Gumrukcu, 'Turkish opposition demands mandate as Istanbul recount continues', REUTERS https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-turkey-election/turkish-opposition-demands-mandate-as-istanbul-recount-continues-idUKKCN1RF0MH ;
(7) J. Kirby;
(8) 'Turkey's Erdogan calls for Istanbul vote to be re-run', Arab News http://www.arabnews.com/node/1492496/middle-east ;
(9) M. Lowen;
(10) M. Lowen;
(11) 'Erdogan's party suffers blow after Istanbul re-run poll defeat';
(12) M. Lowen;
(13) Onur Gunay, Imamoglu Media Team, 'Ekrem Imamoglu celebrates', ABC News https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-06-25/ekrem-imamoglu-celebrates-1/11242154 ;
(14) M. Lowen;
(15) 'Erdogan's party suffers blow after Istanbul re-run poll defeat'.
At the time of writing, Issy Williams is a History and Languages graduate from the University of Bristol. She is most interested in contemporary power politics in Russia and the Middle East.