Sunday’s Istanbul mayoral race: a contest for Turkey

The people of Istanbul head to the polls on Sunday to cast their votes, a second time this year, in a mayoral election that has taken on crucial national significance.

The June 23 rerun caps five years of crucial elections in Turkey, a period that started with the last round of local elections in 2014, presented by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a referendum on its rule after nationwide unrest and corruption scandals the previous year.

The AKP won with a landslide and built on its advantage over the three parliamentary elections, two presidential elections and constitutional referendum that followed.

After the June elections last year, with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ensconced in his position as the country’s first executive president and holding vast powers over the state, the ruling party seemed an unstoppable force, and critics were lamenting the end of Turkish democracy.

But if a week is a long time in politics, nine months is more than enough to birth radical change.

By the time the 2019 local elections were held in March, the economy was heading full steam toward crisis, with hundreds of companies on the verge of bankruptcy and hundreds of thousands of citizens forced to buy cheap, rationed fruit and vegetables at government food stalls.

This, and a resurgent opposition with an innovative and inclusive campaign strategy, led to victories for the opposition Nation Alliance in seven of Turkey’s 10 largest cities, including the shock defeat of the AKP’s candidate, former prime minister Binali Yıldırım, in the country’s largest metropolis and economic driving force, Istanbul.

That the AKP was not prepared to lose the city was obvious on March 31, when Yıldırım announced his victory before the count was complete. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu, rejected Yıldırım’s declaration.

Then, when the state-run Anadolu Agency abruptly stopped reporting the results without explanation, he held his nerve until the Supreme Election Council (YSK) announced the next morning that the initial count had gone his way.

But that count, which put İmamoğlu around 22,000 votes ahead of Yıldırım, was not enough to secure the victory. The AKP challenged the mayoral count in every district of the city, and weeks of recounts of invalidated votes narrowed the CHP candidate’s lead to around 14,000.

The billboards declaring Yıldırım the campaign's winner, hastily put up before the count had finished on election night, stayed up, and the YSK went on to annul the election after an AKP appeal on the grounds that ineligible polling committee officials had taken part in the first count.

It was a decision that was roundly condemned by the opposition in Turkey and by international observers, including states and politicians from the European Union, many of whom have said the decision demonstrates the  loss of independence of a crucial democratic institution.

Analysts have cited the symbolic importance of Istanbul, as the Ottoman imperial capital and the city where Erdoğan came to prominence as mayor in 1994, in explaining the AKP’s desperate attempts to hold onto the city. At least as important is the depth of resources the municipality can draw on and distribute to client networks.

In any case, this is the city where victory, as Erdoğan himself has said, means victory in Turkey. The Turkish president campaigned before March 31 on the claim that the municipal elections were a “matter of survival” for the country, equating the opposition with terrorists and hostile foreign powers.

Yet again, he had turned local elections into a national referendum. This time, the gambit failed. Analysis of the results by University of Illinois scholar Ali Akarca says the AKP’s vote, independent of its far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) allies, fell by 7.7 percent to 34.9 percent compared to last year.

Nevertheless, the strategy had raised tensions to the point of boiling over into real conflict. CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu endured a lynch attempt at a soldier’s funeral in Ankara three weeks after the March vote – the product of a months-long campaign by government officials and friendly media outlets to paint the opposition as siding with terrorists.

Sure signs that a backlash to Erdoğan’s divisive campaign was growing within the AKP’s own ranks came the day after the attack on Kılıçdaroğlu, when former AKP prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu published scathing criticism of the party’s recent direction in a long Facebook post that blamed a “narrow and greedy group” for the failure in March.

The post gave credence to rumours that Davutoğlu is planning to launch a new political party, while further talk circulating in Ankara says AKP stalwarts Ali Babacan and Abdullah Gül, a founding member and former president, are to launch a second breakaway party.

With the ruling party in disarray, there was no call for the CHP and its nationalist Good Party allies to dramatically change their strategy in the lead-up to the June 23 rerun, and the contrast between Yıldırım’s muted response to news of the annulment on May 6 and İmamoğlu’s energetic speech on the same night showed where the momentum lay.

The AKP softened its rhetoric for weeks, steering clear of the incendiary accusations and polarising statements that had characterised its first campaign.

After making a call in late April for national unity in a “Turkey alliance”, Erdoğan was markedly absent for much of the campaign after the annulment, as was the talk of terror links and existential struggle – a narrative that appealed to the AKP’s nationalist allies but turned off Kurdish voters. 

It was those Kurdish voters whose support – pledged tacitly by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – is widely thought to have swung the first vote for the Nation Alliance.

The AKP based its attacks instead on the idea that the Istanbul election had been stolen by actors it would not name, and launched racist attacks on İmamoğlu calling him Greek, referring to his origins in the Black Sea city of Trabzon.

This backfired tremendously when İmamoğlu toured his hometown and nearby cities for the Eid holidays, drawing huge crowds in areas known as highly nationalistic strongholds of the ruling party.

Yıldırım’s visit to Diyarbakır, the major city in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, failed to have a comparable impact, despite the AKP candidate’s use of the word “Kurdistan” in comments deemed “wrong from start to finish” by the party’s MHP allies.

With June 23 swiftly approaching and polls showing İmamoğlu to have increased his lead to a comfortable 9 percent, the AKP attempted to turn up the heat in the last week before the polls.

Erdoğan swooped back onto the scene to resume the high-octane rhetoric that had failed to win the election the first time round.

Meanwhile, the party’s overture to Kurdish voters took a remarkable turn on Thursday, when a letter from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)’s jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, was leaked to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency. The letter urged HDP voters to remain neutral in the vote – a turn of events that would likely give the ruling party the advantage.

It was Öcalan and his PKK, an organisation that has fought Turkish security forces for Kurdish self-rule for decades, that Erdoğan’s AKP accused the opposition of siding with by accepting support from the HDP in the first vote.

Yet days before the election took place, the ruling party and MHP gained the implicit support of the man they call the “terrorist chief”, while the HDP, a legal and legitimate political party that picked up over 5.8 million votes in 2018, doubled down on its support for İmamoğlu.

The story of this election had been simmering along in the background while Turkey’s disputes with the United States over the purchase of Russian S-400 defence systems and with the European Union over energy exploration rights near Cyprus drew threats of potentially crippling sanctions.

The drastic turn of events as Sunday’s vote approached demonstrate that Erdoğan feels far from secure going into the vote.

Some analysts have contended that this insecurity marks the beginning of the end for the AKP, singling out İmamoğlu, an unknown on the national stage before March 31, as a heavyweight challenger to the ruling party.

Others have expressed fears that, no matter which way Sunday’s vote goes, Turkey has many more rough days ahead under a government that will take drastic measures before relinquishing control.

One thing is clear: win or lose, the process since March 31 has shown that the AKP juggernaut, seemingly invulnerable in June 2018, is now on shaky ground.

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