The editor-in-chief of the pro-government Islamist daily Yenisafak, Ibrahim Karagul, accused the opposition on Tuesday of carrying out a “coup” by defeating the local elections in Istanbul. He demanded via Twitter: “Elections in Istanbul must be repeated. Because on March 31, a coup was carried out against Turkey in an open stage through the elections. It was not electoral fraud or corruption, but a multinational intervention.”
This reaction by one of the most reliable supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, illustrates the shock of losing this key city in Turkey. The entire militant ruling structure of the AKP party is still unable to recover from the loss of eight of Turkey’s thirteen largest cities in Sunday’s local elections. And on the whole coastline in the Aegean and Mediterranean Sea. AKP’s reaction was instinctive – it challenged the results in all 39 districts in Istanbul (won in most of them) through the Supreme Election Council to somehow get to victory, which is missing about 25,000 votes.
The Election Commission ordered a recount of votes in 19 counties in Istanbul and 11 in Ankara. It seems illogical, but the party that has the entire power in the country since 2002 will now regret that it has conducted irregular elections itself.
Usually local elections in Turkey do not pay special attention to the international public, but after Erdogan presented them as a matter of “national survival,” it became clear that something was happening beneath the surface of the authoritarian rule in the country of 79 million citizens. That there is major dissatisfaction with how the economy is moving, the 30 percent loss of lira against the dollar, the 20 percent inflation, that the country’s already two quarters in recession, corruption, nepotism, and cronyism that have spread like cancer in the entire society; from the fact that Erdogan after the second began building the third presidential palace, from the huge production of enemies of the state, from the belittling of political opponents, from the arrest of journalists and civic activists – from the fierce fights against everyone who thinks differently after the unsuccessful coup attempt in 2016.
Erdogan was in constant campaign for two whole months, holding up to eight rallies on daily basis. He sent his best ally, the former Prime Minister and Parliament Speaker Binali Yildirim, as candidate for mayor of Istanbul, believing that such a government figure would help him preserve power in the megalopolis, which is basically everything for Turkey. And for Ankara, he appointed another former minister to prevent the candidate of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), Mansur Yavas, from winning, as the polls predicted. Yildirim, however, had lead of three to five percent in the polls, which for a huge city like Istanbul this means several hundred thousand votes. Both of them failed. Unless the electoral commission alters their defeat. And that would be quite the opposite of Erdogan’s entire philosophy of governing – “my power comes from the election boxes” and the results from them are undisputed in a democratic country.
Erdogan’s party and its predecessors have ruled Istanbul since 1994. He began his political career as the mayor of the megalopolis in 1999. He knows exactly what this city means for Turkey. Erdogan could get over losing Ankara, but the loss of Istanbul means that he lost the heart of Turkey. Erdogan believes that the country cannot be ruled without the control of the former Ottoman capital: “If we give up in Istanbul we will lose the lead in Turkey,” he told his pro-Islamist party after a narrow referendum in 2017, which turned the republic from parliamentary democracy into presidential system. Buildings in Istanbul had large billboards hanging for months, showing Erdogan saying “Istanbul is My Love”.
Approximately 8.5 million people voted in this election and could cause a wave that would cover the entire country. It generates $ 266 billion, which is 31 percent of Turkey’s overall GDP. The other figures of the loss are even greater – the 13 of the 20 major cities that AKP lost produce two-thirds of Turkey’s total GDP combined. It looks like a staggering defeat, although Erdogan’s party remains the dominant political force in the country, it won just over 40% of the vote, while the main opposition party, CHP, 30%. But the loss of these cities opens up great concern for Erdogan, although his authority is still absolute for the time being. The next general elections are scheduled for 2023.
Realizing that he could experience an unexpected blow, Erdogan occupied the entire campaign. Television programs on state television and on many pro-government TV networks were interrupted to transmit almost each of his rallies. In every speech he found new enemies of the state: Kurdish politicians were his favorite topic, he showed pictures of them at rallies, as well as photographs of feminists; even showed inserts from the video of the Christchurch Massacre in New Zealand. He was portrayed as a fighter against those who want to divide or weaken Turkey. He attacked them as “enemies of the state” liberals, the opposition, the West, Europe, Soros, Israel, “atheists”, “financial barons” – anyone who thinks differently or who he presumes might be a threat to his power. He told opposition candidate in Ankara, Yavas, that he will be arrested if he wins the election. He presented the opposition as a devil who was linked to the terrorists, after the CHP agreed to an electoral coalition with the right-wing Iyi Party (Good Party) and provided support from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) for the elections in the largest cities. This support was a remarkable move by the CHP, as the HDP abandoned its candidates in Istanbul, Ankara, Mersin, Antalya, and Adana, and called on its constituent body of millions of Kurds to vote for the opposition. Since last year’s general elections, Erdogan leaned more than needed on the hardline nationalist MHP party, creating a coalition and dragging his party’s policy further to the right. This alienated many of his traditional voters.
He threatened the leader of the Iyi Party, Meral Aksener, that she would be arrested and thrown in prison. The day before the election rally in a small town in the Aegean, Aksener showed up with a suitcase on stage and said she was packaged and ready to go to prison, if necessary. That scene left a remarkable impression among voters, who still believe in democracy. The fact that turnout was 84 percent proves that democratic values in Turkey, despite the authoritarian regime, are not buried, but people still believe their vote is decisive.
The opposition chose a candidate for Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, who is completely opposed to government politicians who are trying to divide the people. Moderate, a soft speaker, a unifier, a good organizer, he galvanized the inhabitants of Istanbul. So far he has been the mayor of one of his municipalities and has proved himself to be an excellent organizer who brought great novelties. One video became a synonym for his campaign. During a visit to a market in Istanbul, a hardline AKP opposed Imamoglu, saying that the AKP had built railroads, and his party destroyed mosques, associating the abuse of CHP rulers from 50-70 years ago. Imamoglu just smiled, embraced him, and said: “Old man, I was not even born when all that happened.” Then they continued talking a bit and eventually the old man said: “I will not vote for the CHP, but I will give my vote for you.”
This episode in its own way shows how much Istanbul has changed, and the people in it. The new generation of young people who grew up in the Gezi Park demonstrations in 2013 have little to do with the AKP structures, they are demanding a different democracy, not orchestrated by a single person. The victories in Istanbul and Ankara have shown that there is a way for Democrats to oppose the illiberal regime. They need to be well-organized, the opposition united and choose real candidates who will send a clear message – that it is enough.
It is illusory to say that Erdogan is losing power, but for a ruler who is accustomed to winning, this defeat in big cities is a major blow. His main task is now to understand why the AKP party alienates from the citizens and does not understand their messages. He will not find the answers by accusing everyone else, but can only ignite the fire of the opposition’s hope for the next general elections, encourage its better organization and define the message of political rivals. This is not an easy task for the man who thought he had the answer to everything.