Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition candidate in the Istanbul mayoral election, on June 23 defeated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s choice and the Justice and Development Party by winning 54 per cent of the votes, 806,000 more than his opponent. It was the biggest defeat of the governing party in close to two decades.
Imamoglu won Istanbul by reorienting Turkey towards a politics that might enable democratic coexistence. He achieved his victory by recognising that dispossession can generate political power, something all populists understand. What sets him apart is that he has managed to do this by alleviating polarisation, not deepening it.
Turkey held municipal elections in March amid an economic recession, and Erdogan’s AKP lost almost all major cities, including Ankara and Istanbul, to the opposition Republican People’s party, or the CHP.
Erdogan and his government couldn’t cope with the loss of Istanbul, a source of immense revenue and prestige and considered the bellwether of Turkish politics. The AKP called on the national electoral body to hold a new election, claiming electoral fraud, citing minor irregularities in voter records and raising questions about credentials of officials overseeing ballot boxes without offering credible evidence or convincing explanations for their claims.
A mayor’s election will change little about the way Turkey is governed, but there is a feeling that there is a new dawn in Istanbul.
The Turkish electoral body obliged, and new elections for Istanbul were scheduled for June 23. People felt — probably rightly — that Erdogan had pressured the body into the decision. It not only disturbed half of the population that does not vote for him but also many of his own supporters. Turks couldn’t accept that the government could arrange a new election after it lost one.
Erdogan’s party tried to make up for this by abandoning its characteristically negative campaigning and tried to charm voters by focusing on its candidate, Binali Yildirim, who had served as prime minister and speaker of the Turkish parliament. Yildirim’s most salient quality is his unflinching loyalty to Erdogan, and for most of the campaign, he looked like he had been forced into running. He was uninspiring, often barely finding the energy to whisper into a microphone.
In striking contrast, Imamoglu energetically brought the various strands of the opposition together: his native CHP, the founding party of the Republic; the Good Party, its nationalist partner; and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party. His rallies were a hodgepodge of political symbols: rainbow flags, pan-Turkic banners, and Peoples’ Democratic Party flags, headscarves and tank tops.
As the polls showed Imamoglu leading during the last days of the campaign, Erdogan lashed out. He insinuated that Imamoglu was in league with Fetullah Gulen, the shadowy Islamist cleric, who was once Erdogan’s ally and whom Turkey accuses of being responsible for the 2016 coup attempt, which killed 251 people, mostly civilians, and wounded more than 2,000. “The CHP candidate’s entire rhetoric is built upon lies and taqiya,” Erdogan said, referring to strategic deception employed by certain Islamic sects to infiltrate and target institutions.
The Turkish president and his loyal media houses also accused Imamoglu of having links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or the PKK, which Turkey has been fighting for more than three decades.
Yet at the same time, Erdogan appeared to have authorised a letter written by Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, to be published. Ocalan’s letter called on the mostly Kurdish People’s Democratic Party voters to “remain neutral,” which amounted to asking them to not vote for Imamoglu. Social media ridiculed Erdogan for his apparent endorsement of Ocalan’s authority; Ocalan is usually described by the Turkish press as the foremost public enemy.
Erdogan went too far when he robbed Imamoglu of his March victory and forced a new election. The AKP, which rose to power in the early 2000s as the party of the pious Muslims disenfranchised by the secular elite, could no longer claim the status of the underdog. Two and a half decades in power had turned the AKP into the Turkish establishment. And then it robbed the opposition of an election victory.
The resentment of the Turks opposed to Erdogan and his seemingly total control would often reveal itself in conversations as they would speak about their fantasies of putting AKP politicians behind bars, of stripping their sycophants of privileges, of settling the score.
Fear of revenge
Any opposition campaign is going to call for justice, but in Turkey there is a fear that such calls might cross the line into revenge.
Mine Kirikkanat, a columnist and writer from the old secularist elite, crossed that line at a public event last year when she made fun of the language of Islamist dispossession on issues such as Turkey’s old ban on headscarves in universities. “Who are the dispossessed now?” she said. “Us!” Vowing to convert that resentment into political power, she said, “We will also dispossess you. Surely, that day will come.”
The video of Mine Kirikkanat went viral among a resentful bunch in the secular opposition, but it was a boon to Erdogan and his supporters, who used it to stoke fear of revanchism. A popular pro-government social media account was one of many sharing the video on the polling day, writing: “Show this to those who are still confused, disaffected, angry or upset. #InsallahBinali.”
But even the Fatih, Eyup and Uskudar districts of Istanbul, where conservative Muslims form a majority, offered a majority of their votes for Imamoglu, who made an effort to counteract revanchist impulses.
Before beginning his campaign, Imamoglu went to visit Erdogan to show people that he recognised and respected his authority. He campaigned hardest in conservative districts, went to break his fast with ordinary people during the month of Ramadan and took long breaks to listen to the thoughts of AKP voters.
He did what Erdogan has never truly been able to do: He assumed that we could forgive each other and live as equals under the law. “This is not a victory,” he said in his victory speech, “it is a new beginning.”
A mayor’s election will change little about the way Turkey is governed, but there is a feeling that there is a new dawn in Istanbul, and the two halves of the country might finally whirl toward a place of greater balance.
— Selim Koru is an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara and a writing fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.