Voters embrace CHP party campaign bridging religious, class and ethnic divides
Bethan McKernan in Istanbul- The Guardian
Turkey’s opposition has won a high-stakes rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election, a serious blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and a landmark victory in a country where many feared democracy was failing.
Shortly after initial results pointing to a landslide win for the opposition coalition candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu, emerged on Sunday evening, the candidate of the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), Binali Yıldırım, conceded and congratulated his rival.
The repeat election, designed to undo İmamoğlu’s narrow surprise win in the 31 March contest, was an unprecedented test for both Turkey’s fragile democratic institutions and Erdoğan’s political future.
Yıldırım’s swift concession saved the AKP the embarrassment of watching the vote count add up to a second defeat, but the loss is likely to lead to intense new power struggles inside the coalition government. Opposition parties were jubilant.
“We are starting a new page in Istanbul. On this new page, there will be justice, equality, love. Today 16 million Istanbullus have refreshed our belief in democracy,” İmamoğlu told supporters in a televised speech.
“I thank them all from my heart. You have shown the world that Turkey still protects its democracy. And we have shown other countries who try to go down the road we were choosing that it is no road at all.”
The president issued his congratulations to İmamoğlu on Twitter after initial results showed that with 99% of ballots counted the People’s Republican party (CHP) candidate had increased his lead in March, of 13,000 votes, to an astonishing 777,000, or 54%.
Crowded parties broke out on Istanbul’s main shopping streets and in liberal neighbourhoods.
“This has brought people hope,” said Semra Deniz, 35, from the city’s artistic hub, Cihangir. “I came to this neighbourhood six years ago and a lot has changed. Places closed down. I hope the cultural erosion is reversed and people feel free to express themselves again.”
Despite blanket pro-government media coverage, İmamoğlu, a previously anonymous local administrator, stunned the country with his narrow win in March. For Erdoğan, the loss of his hometown, where his political career began in the 1990s, was a personal blow.
After weeks of AKP appeals, Turkey’s electoral board upheld one complaint regarding ballot counting and annulled İmamoğlu’s victory, sparking outrage even within the ruling party’s ranks, where some feared the board had dented the AKP’s democratic credentials.
At polling stations on Sunday both CHP and AKP voters stressed that they wanted the repeat election accepted as final.
“Clearly there is some funny business going on here but I don’t know what,” said AKP voter Cihat Içyumaz, 65, who like many Istanbullus cut short his summer holiday to vote. “For me, chaos after this round of elections is the scariest outcome. I just want the candidate who is best for Istanbul to win.”
Yıldırım worked hard in the second round of campaigning to close the gap with his rival, reaching out to the party’s base in working class and conservative neighbourhoods, voters who punished the government for Turkey’s economic crisis by staying away in March.
However, in both a televised debate with İmamoğlu and in conversations with voters, Yıldırım struggled to explain why the repeat election was necessary.
İmamoğlu was embraced by voters for a platform which focused on bringing people together across the city’s religious, class and ethnic divides, and was able to paint his new campaign as a battle for the future of Turkish democracy itself.
“The AKP decision to go for a rerun was a colossal strategic mistake,” said Turkish-American political scientist Soner Çağaptay. “And the campaign was an uncharacteristic mess. For the first time in a long time, [the AKP] were on the back foot here, running after the opposition, who dominated the narrative.
“Erdoğan has to do some serious house-cleaning in his government and reassess his policy making process to bounce back from this, or the suggestion that this is the beginning of his decline will get louder.”
Rumours are already circulating that the second defeat could trigger a snap national election as Erdoğan seeks to oust increasingly fractious elements in his governing coalition.
Losing Istanbul for a second time is an unthinkable outcome for the AKP. Turkey’s biggest city and economic heart, it accounted for 31% of GDP in 2017 and is an important driver of the government’s unofficial patronage networks. It has been controlled by the ruling party and its Islamist predecessors for a quarter of a century.
Observers note that İmamoğlu’s mandate is still far from assured: the 2015 general election which saw the AKP lose its majority in parliament was rerun and other charismatic challengers to Erdoğan have been imprisoned or folded under pressure.
The AKP still controls 25 of Istanbul’s 39 districts and holds a majority in the municipal assembly, which will make it difficult for İmamoğlu to deliver on campaign promises. The margin of his victory, however, shows that at least in Istanbul there is a strong appetite for change after 16 years of national AKP rule.
“Turkey has been ruled by a populist leader for almost two decades: he [Erdoğan] has tried to erode the rule of law and take over the media,” Çağaptay said.
“People say it takes a long time to build a democracy, but what today’s result shows it takes a long time to kill a democracy too. Clearly, Turkey’s democratic structures are incredibly resilient.”
Additional reporting Gökçe Saraçoğlu