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An Istanbul mayoral election is rattling Turkey’s politics

In a do-over of a March election, the opposition candidate decisively defeated an ally of President Erdoğan — a serious blow to the Turkish leader.

Istanbul Returns To Polls In Re-run Of Mayoral Election
People celebrate the victory of mayoral candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), who defeated Binali Yildirim of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on June 23, 2019.
Burak Kara/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

A mayoral election in Istanbul has delivered a big victory for Turkey’s democracy — and a stunning setback to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

On Sunday, voters in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, picked their next mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu. For the second time this year.

This was a do-over of a previous election, held in March. İmamoğlu is a member of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), and in that March race, he defeated former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, an ally of President Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

İmamoğlu’s March victory was a big deal. Istanbul is Erdoğan’s home turf. He served as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, a position that brought him to national prominence. The city has long been a base of support for him and his party.

Erdoğan has also increasingly consolidated his power since becoming president in 2014, turning Turkey from a democracy into an increasingly authoritarian state that answers to him and the AKP.

So İmamoğlu’s victory, as a member of the opposition, was nothing short of shocking.

But that win was somewhat short-lived. Almost immediately, Erdoğan’s party demanded a full recount of the votes, with AKP officials alleging the vote was “tainted.”

The recount still showed İmamoğlu winning, and he was eventually sworn in as mayor. But the AKP applied for a do-over with the election commission, which the commission granted, invalidating the opposition party’s win in Istanbul based on what was described as irregularities in voting. İmamoğlu served about 17 days as mayor before he was kicked out of office and forced to stand for reelection again.

A redo of the race was scheduled for June 23. İmamoğlu defeated Erdoğan’s ally again — this time by nearly 800,000 votes. It was an incredible margin, almost 60 times greater than in March.

İmamoğlu’s second and even more decisive victory is a defeat for Erdoğan and a rebuke of the president in the city that built his political fame.

“His footprints in Turkish politics started with this Istanbul mayorship; losing that is huge, both politically and symbolically,” Sibel Oktay, an assistant professor political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, told me.

How an opposition candidate won Istanbul’s mayoral election a second time

İmamoğlu’s impending win was evident shortly after the results started coming in. Yıldırım conceded, and Erdoğan congratulated İmamoğlu on his victory.

It was a sign that the AKP’s gambit to undo the March election didn’t just fail, but failed spectacularly.

Soner Çağaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a recent biography on Erdoğan, told me that Erdoğan has long cast himself as the champion of the underdog — and by canceling and redoing the election, he unwittingly thrust İmamoğlu into that role.

“İmamoğlu has become the new Erdoğan,” Çağaptay said, “the underdog with whom Turkish voters love to identify.”

İmamoğlu also framed his campaign as a fight for Turkish democracy. He did so in March, but it was particularly potent campaign message in June, when he stood for his second election. He also pitched himself as a contrast to Erodğan, whose brand of paranoid, populist politics is designed to polarize and pit different groups against each other.

Instead, İmamoğlu ran a more inclusive campaign, urging unity rather than exploiting differences. When he won the election, he said his victory was “opening up a new page in Istanbul.”

“On this new page, there will be justice, equality, love,” he said, according to the BBC.

But this Istanbul election also needs to be viewed against the backdrop of Turkey’s economic crisis. Erdoğan and his AKP presided over strong economic growth in the previous decade, when the Turkish president pursued growth at all costs; it involved a lot of borrowing and spending, including on infrastructure and massive construction projects. Now Turkey is faced with a lot of debt that’s spooked investors and fueled this economic tailspin.

This is especially acute in Istanbul, one of the country’s financial hubs. It also didn’t help that İmamoğlu’s stint of a little more than two weeks in office helped expose wasteful spending in government under the leadership of the AKP.

Documents also revealed that millions of dollars from Istanbul’s budget had gone to foundations with ties to Erdoğan and his family — which makes it look as if Erdoğan was benefiting as the rest of the city and country were facing an economic tailspin.

“That phenomenal economic growth is no longer there, and that’s Erdoğan’s bright side,” Çağaptay told me. That’s also helped expose and test the limits of his darker side — specifically, his polarizing politics. People are starting to be turned off by it, and Çağaptay said, “Those who were buying into it are not buying into anymore because the economy is not doing so well.”

What does this mean for Turkish democracy?

Erdoğan has held power in Turkey for 16 years. He first served as the country’s prime minister and then won the presidency in 2014. He is unlikely to relinquish his influence anytime soon, as he’s crushed dissent in the media, which included jailing hundreds of journalists and shuttering dozens of independent media outlets. He’s purged the civil service, military, and judiciary of his perceived enemies, with arrests totaling in the tens of thousands. He’s also bent the law to his will, altered the constitution to give himself broad authorities, and consolidated power in the executive branch.

Erdoğan, then, doesn’t like to lose. But he did — and it’s offered reason to be hopeful about Turkish democracy and revealed that there may be limits to Erdoğan’s drive to power.

Other major cities, including Ankara, the capital, are now also under the control of opposition parties. Istanbul, as Turkey’s biggest city and Erdoğan’s old stronghold, is the most significant of these. And experts told me it’s likely that İmamoğlu had to win support from traditional AKP voters to win the Istanbul election with 54 percent of the vote.

But this is probably not Erdoğan’s political obituary, either. Oktay said just Istanbul’s election and the expected transition of power doesn’t mean there won’t be repercussions to Erdoğan’s defeat. “We don’t know if [İmamoğlu] will be given the mandate, and we don’t know how long he can keep it because Erdoğan’s shadow looms large,” she said.

Erdoğan can still frustrate governance in Istanbul, as the city is still largely dependent on the centralized government for a chunk of its funding. The Istanbul city council is still controlled by Erdoğan’s AKP.

Yet there’s reason for cautious optimism. Istanbul resisted Erdoğan’s attempts to reengineer an election outcome he didn’t like. At the very least, it shows democracy is not yet defeated in Turkey — and there may be limits to Erdoğan’s drive to power. “It also takes a long time to kill democracies,” Çağaptay said. “This is the case for Turkey.”

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