The outcome of the June 23 mayoral race in Istanbul marks a turning point in Turkish politics. The opposition’s Ekrem Imamoglu — a little-known district mayor until several months ago — put an end to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s election invincibility, trashing his candidate — former Prime Minister and parliament Speaker Binali Yildirim — in a momentous election rerun.
Under pressure from the government, the Supreme Electoral Council overrode its own precedent judgments to scrap Imamoglu’s original win in the March 31 local polls in which the candidate of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) had a tiny margin of some 13,700 votes.
Ahead of the March 31 vote, Erdogan campaigned across Istanbul to rally support for Yildirim, often eclipsing his candidate. The local polls, he argued, were a “matter of survival” for Turkey. The loss of Istanbul, albeit by a small margin, was a big defeat for Erdogan. But had the story ended there, the consequences could have been less menacing for his government.
Erdogan kept a lower profile ahead of the June 23 rerun, letting Yildirim be on the forefront and even appear on a television debate with his opponent, something unprecedented under the 17-year rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The change in Erdogan’s attitude was widely seen as a sign he was anticipating a defeat and thus trying to contain the damage for himself. Remarkably, he dropped the narrative that the elections were a “matter of survival” in an apparent bid to reframe them as a local contest between two contenders alone.
Imamoglu pulled off a bigger victory, extending his winning margin to more than 800,000 votes or 10 percentage points. Inevitably, the stunning outcome reverberated across the country in what became a political tremor with major consequences.
Beyond the widened margin in the overall result, the shifting numbers on the district level are the harbinger of major political transformations. The AKP’s candidate fell behind in districts he had dominated in the original vote, including, most strikingly, AKP strongholds such as Uskudar, Eyup and Fatih.
If the Istanbul rout is to be read as a popular objection to Erdogan’s overwhelming role in Turkish politics — to the extent he was able to abort a lost election — the AKP’s setback even in constituencies such as Fatih, a bastion of religious conservatism, shows that Erdogan’s hallmark policy of polarization has collapsed and voter fluidity across sharp social divides has become possible.
The question now is how the AKP and the opposition will read the election results and what political moves they might make in the coming period.
Media leaks from AKP quarters suggest that some members are questioning Erdogan’s dual role as president and party chairman, advocating a change. Also, reports are abuzz that former economy czar Ali Babacan and ex-premier Ahmet Davutoglu have stepped up plans to quit the AKP and create new parties, emboldened by the election debacle. Babacan, a founding member of the AKP, has already met with Erdogan to inform him of his departure, according to Haberturk. At the meeting, Babacan reportedly delivered a scathing assessment of AKP policies, including the executive presidency system that took effect last year bestowing sweeping powers to Erdogan.
About 80 of the AKP’s 291 parliament members are expected to defect to Babacan’s and Davutoglu’s parties, reports claim. The figure may be a bit inflated, but the prospect of splinter parties seems to have seriously unsettled Erdogan. “We have been stabbed in the back,” he was quoted as saying at a postelection meeting with AKP leaders.
It is still premature to speculate how Erdogan will respond to the Istanbul debacle, but early signs suggest the government is seeking to beset the new mayors of the opposition, which won most of Turkey’s big urban centers besides Istanbul.
As Al-Monitor has reported, the mayors’ authority to appoint managers to municipal companies has been transferred to municipal assemblies where the AKP holds sway. Similarly, regulations published in the Official Gazette have transferred a number of municipal authorities to the presidential office and the Environment and Urban Affairs Ministry. Erdogan has called Imamoglu a “lame duck,” referring to the arithmetic of the municipal assembly, where the AKP-led block has 180 seats while the opposition has 131. So the AKP appears to be on a quest to besiege and hamper oppositional mayors in big cities both through legal regulations and by the hand of its municipal assembly members.
When it comes to the opposition camp, the postelection statements of its leaders suggest that their strategy, in turn, will focus on curbing Erdogan’s powers.
According to CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, voters have delivered a message that “the person at the helm of the nation must be neutral.” The CHP “is ready for a referendum on [the president’s] neutrality,” he said in a speech in parliament June 25. On another occasion, he argued that the executive presidency system was being questioned nationwide, stressing that the CHP would be calling for a new constitution.
Meral Aksener, the chairwoman of the nationalist Good Party, urged Erdogan on “reconciliation between parties,” while Temel Karamollaoglu, head of the pro-Islamic Felicity Party, argued that Turkey should return to the parliamentary system in which the president was a neutral figure with limited powers, and — if this does not happen — parliament should be strengthened anyway. Similarly, Sezai Temelli, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, called for a new constitution.
Remarkably, none of the opposition leaders has called for early presidential elections. They must be reckoning that early polls could amount to a lifesaver for Erdogan from his current predicaments and that the ongoing economic crisis coupled with potential turmoil within the AKP will further weaken the government. Hence — albeit differences in wording — the game plans of opposition parties seem to rest on a shared objective of curbing Erdogan’s powers and political space.
In sum, the Istanbul victory is undoubtedly a big achievement for the opposition that has expanded its room for maneuver, to which Erdogan will respond by besieging the new mayors. Time will show to what extent the parties will manage to curb each other’s powers and space to maneuver.