What will the Istanbul election change?

The residents of Istanbul sent a big message to the government of Turkey by electing Ekrem Imamoglu mayor, but what will the election change?

Image by MHIRM

Last Sunday, residents of Istanbul delivered an unprecedented blow to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, electing the rising star in the opposition camp, the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) Ekrem Imamoglu, as the new mayor of the city by a margin of 44 percent to 54 percent. Once occupied by the young Erdogan, the top position in Istanbul’s municipality of 16 million people is a major seat of power in Turkish politics – and, as he often notes, “whoever loses Istanbul loses Turkey”.

Voters in Istanbul seem to have punished the government for its overreach. Imamoglu initially won the mayoral election on 31 March by a small margin, but Erdogan spearheaded endless rounds of requests for recounts and annulment – until, finally, on 6 May, in a sign of how weak Turkey’s institutions have become, the once-irreproachable electoral board annulled the result and called for a re-run of the election. People have responded, teaching Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) an important lesson: do not meddle with their right to vote.

“Nothing will be the same”, noted a leading politician from the pro-Kurdish CHP, whose members mobilised to vote for Imamoglu despite the government’s last-minute effort to extract a handwritten note calling for a boycott from imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) maintained its support for the opposition and, with a sizeable base in Istanbul, is destined to be the kingmaker in Turkey’s elections in the near future.

But what exactly will change after Sunday’s loss? Erdogan is still the formidable and omnipotent leader of Turkey who, in 2017, overhauled the country’s constitution to transform its parliamentary system into a presidential system with superpowers. Given that the next general election is scheduled for 2023, the street dancing that took place across Istanbul’s secular and opposition neighbourhoods to celebrate Erdogan’s defeat may be politically premature.

But, then again, it may not be.

Istanbul has long been the centrepiece of the ruling AKP’s financial and social network. There are roughly 10 million voters in the municipality, whose commercial subsidiaries have a combined budget of $9.5 billion. It is likely that Erdogan will try to limit the powers and financial influence of the new mayor using legislation, but Imamoglu will still have a formidable structure at his disposal – not to mention records of municipal support for the AKP machine and transfers of funds into pro-government foundations, religious groups, and media outlets. Imamoglu will be able to tap into the municipality’s vast resources to build a political and financial base that appeals to the urban poor, who have long been the AKP’s core vote. His victory could also encourage the business community to raise its voice about the government’s policies and lead to the formation of news outlets that end the AKP’s hegemony on the media landscape.

In terms of pure politics, the opposition victory matters because it can provide encouragement to former AKP heavyweights such as Abdullah Gül and Ali Babacan, who are planning to spearhead their own political party soon, possibly attracting some AKP members of parliament over the next few years.

Imamoglu’s victory will also energise Turkey’s fragmented opposition, further solidifying the CHP’s de facto alliance with the centre-right Iyi Party and the HDP. The opposition bloc suffers from internal political and ideological divisions, and it has too few members of parliament to push for an early general election by itself. But, together, the parties can raise their voices more effectively and even work with a splinter group from the AKP to push for an early election – especially in an environment of economic decline such as the one Turkey is experiencing.

Given the country’s recession and the vulnerability of AKP, many people in political and business circles have started to speculate about the possibility of a general election in 2020. What is still unclear in this political equation is the durability of AKP’s alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party and whether Gül and Babacan will form their new party in time to peel some sitting MPs away from the AKP.

Meanwhile, Ankara is bracing itself for the possibility of US sanctions on its defence industry after its decision to purchase Russian S-400 air defence systems despite the objections of NATO and the Trump administration. Ankara turned down US suggestion of a “pause” in the purchase in May; the system is due to arrive in July, triggering the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) as mandated by Congress. US officials are warning that Turkey will be excluded from the sale of F-35 fighter jets, even though Ankara has been involved in the aircraft’s production process. And there are plans under way to scale back the strategic alliance between Washington and Ankara by reducing US reliance on Turkish military bases.

None of this is good news for the Turkish economy, which suffers from high inflation, high unemployment, and low consumer confidence. While the government is telling markets that CAATSA sanctions are likely to be relatively light, and that Turkish companies can weather the measures, the economic impact of the spat over Turkey’s detainment of a US pastor last August gives reason for caution. A breakdown in negotiations over the release of the pastor – whom the Turkish authorities jailed on spurious terrorism and espionage charges – and President Donald Trump’s tweets threatening to “devastate” the Turkish economy resulted in a steep decline in the lira and almost led to a run on Turkish banks.

There is no doubt that Imamoglu’s victory could galvanise the opposition around him and turn Istanbul into the new centre of opposition politics. The big unknown is how Erdogan will react to this. The Turkish president congratulated Imamoglu on Twitter last Sunday and sounded conciliatory in his speech to the AKP on Tuesday. But there are emerging reports that he may be inclined to encourage a local governor to bring libel charges against Imamoglu, raising the possibility that the new mayor will be removed from office.

This is already turning out to be a hot summer for Turkish politics. Last week, residents of Istanbul sent a big message to the government of Turkey, pushing back on its more authoritarian instincts. What is unclear is whether there is in anyone in Ankara who will listen.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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