Opinion

Turkey Holds Its Breath: Is Erdogan About to Lose, Again?

Turkey’s president once said: 'If we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey.' What happens if he loses Istanbul twice? And to Ekrem Imamoglu's unprecedented liberal, secular, Kurdish, nationalist and conservative Muslim coalition?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media after Friday prayers, in Istanbul, Friday, June 7, 2019
,AP

No race to the polls in Turkey has ever been scrutinized like this one. The rerun of Istanbul’s mayoral elections takes place Sunday, after the unprecedented cancellation of the March elections won by the CHP opposition’s candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu.

Imamoglu’s star wasn’t diminished by his truncated 17 days in office. He’s only become more popular since he first brought an end to the AKP ruling party’s hold over the city, Turkey’s largest, wealthiest conurbation, with a population of more than 15 million people and an annual budget in the billions of dollars.

Istanbul is so important for the balance of power, personal and party prestige and political leverage that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gone on record as saying, “If we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey.”

>> In Istanbul, Turkey’s anti-Erdogan Opposition Is Becoming a Dangerous Cult >> Desperate to Reclaim Istanbul, Erdogan Does the Unthinkable

Many in Turkey, even among some AKP supporters, interpreted the shock annulment of the March 31 results as the result of extreme government pressures placed on the election committee.

If President Recep Tayyip Erdogan thought that this intimidation would give him a chance to fix his incredible loss, the rerun elections may very well show this was a colossal political misreading, and that losing twice is far more damning than losing once.    

The AKP was reeling from its defeat in Istanbul, which has controlled the city - in one way or another - since Erdogan first became its mayor in 1994. The AKP was also forced to relinquish its hold over Ankara, the nation’s capital, in addition to a whole host of other major metropolises throughout the country. 

The AKP would not be placated and would not let the results stand. After numerous recounts still placed the 63 year-old AKP candidate Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister and Erdogan confidante, as winning a minority of votes, and 49 year-old Imamoglu already establishing himself in office, the election committee cancelled the vote on May 6 on a technicality, calling for new elections on June 23.    

Ever since, CHP party candidate Imamoglu has continued to rise in popularity, with his political message of embracing all sectors of Istanbul. The city functions as a microcosm representing the population of Turkey at large - a large metropolitan area with over 10 million registered voters hailing from all corners of the country and whose identities run the full spectrum of the country’s demographic, religious, political and social spectrum. 

Supporters of Ekrem Imamoglu at a rally in the neighborhood of Gaziosmanpasa before the re-run elections in Istanbul June 14, 2019
Louis Fishman

Just last week I attended a mass pre-election rally in the working-class conservative AKP-led district of Gaziosmanpasa. It was evident that despite Imamoglu being a dedicated CHP politician - a party that prides itself on secularism - his relatively conservative take has attracted even voters from the traditional AKP base.

There were significant numbers of women wearing headscarves in the crowd; his supporters even said a prayer for his reelection, and the crowd’s "Amen" was shouted loudly and in unison.  

For the CHP, such references to and symbols of religiosity are unprecedented. Their denting of the AKP’s conservative base, even if minor, at this point, just goes to show what trouble the AKP is in. 

If that was not enough, despite Binali Yildirim’s strong overtures to the nation’s Kurds, using the taboo word "Kurdistan" during a visit to the Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir, it made no real leeway. Perhaps that is because Yildirim’s political expediency was just too transparent; earlier this year, Erdogan himself declared that: "In my country, there is no region called Kurdistan." 

In fact, the Kurdish vote has clearly pivoted towards Imamoglu. On Tuesday, Selahattin Demirtas, the jailed Kurdish leader of the mostly Kurdish HDP party, tweeted his support for Imamoglu to his large following in Istanbul.

Imamoglu has returned the favor: at every rally, he has thanked HDP voters for their decision to coalesce around one opposition candidate, himself, in the March elections. Following Demirtaş’ endorsement, he unequivocally accepted his support and praised Demirtaş’ "constructive, positive language." His inclusive language has gone even further: criticized for using the clumsy circumlocution, "my brothers of Kurdish heritage," during a television debate with Yildirim, he now speaks about "my Kurdish brothers, citizens."

People watch the live TV debate between Istanbul mayoral candidates Binali Yildirim (AKP) and deposed mayor Ekrem Imamoglu (CHP), shown at a public park in Kadikoy, Istanbul. June 16, 2019
Ozan KOSE / AFP

That live television debate was also unprecedented in recent political memory. In their 17 years in power, the AKP politicians have opted out of the once-standard expectation for candidates in Turkey’s elections to debate each other in front of a national audience. This time, they understood the cards were stacked up against Yildirim, and the bleak outlook called for desperate measures. 

Both Imamoglu and Yildirim held their ground in the debate; both sides could argue their candidate had out-performed the other, though the contrast between the younger, energetic, thoughtful Imamoglu and the older party hack Yildirm was evident. 

Imamoglu has the clear advantage that he is offering something new, while Yildirim is trying to win on past AKP achievements. Few can deny the mass improvements of infrastructure in the city, but despite these changes, a great number of Istanbul’s residents are unhappy with their quality of life. 

The AKP, for decades, sold not just an appealing ideology but also relied heavily on a system of patronage to reward and sustain its supporter base. This clientelist system didn’t necessarily require the somewhat obvious handing out of goods and jobs, but rather held out the hope of upward social mobility for the city’s migrant communities who’d made their way to Turkey’s economic center seeing better opportunities from all parts of Turkey. 

Now, with the country’s currency crashing, with dramatic price hikes on food and vegetables, and unemployment levels breaking records, the AKP has lost a great deal of its appeal. For Yildirim, both the AKP’s record and Erdogan himself have become an electoral liability, a weight that he has to carry. 

This is the Catch 22 Yildirim finds himself in. Yildirim must sell the same AKP achievements that are right now disintegrating. 

That’s why it’s been unsurprising that in this second round, Erdogan has mostly stayed backstage, and Yildirim has taken upon himself the campaigning to a tired electorate. He’s kept his language clean, leaving it to other AKP officials to sling the mud, and though distinctly uncharismatic, appears a likeable enough candidate, which has worked to his advantage.

Will this be enough for him to win such an uphill battle? It seems unlikely.    

A woman walks next to a campaign bus for Ekrem Imamoglu, Istanbul mayoral candidate of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), during a election rally in Zeytinburnu, Istanbul. May 29, 2019
Yasin AKGUL / AFP

Imamoglu is free of the party baggage burdening his opponent, and has developed a Teflon political skin: all the unfounded slanders and negative attacks against him just haven’t stuck.

Just days before the election, Erdogan re-upped the allegation that Imamoglu called a local governor a "dog" in an argument over the use of a VIP entrance at a regional airport, an allegation that Imamoglu has repeatedly denied. 

Erdogan continued with a barely veiled threat: If Imamoglu does not apologize directly to the governor, and to "the nation," he will never be able to take up the post of mayor of Istanbul. But that threat also reveals that Erdogan, too, is thinking about the day after the elections, and what shape the next stage of his campaign against Imamoglu might take if he is victorious again.

That’s fueling the skepticism that the Erdogan-run state will allow even a second Imamoglu victory to stand, and that it will find any number of spurious reasons to disenfranchise Istanbul voters again. 

Before the first Istanbul elections in March, I thought Imamoglu could win, but it would be very difficult. This time around, his success is already looking much more likely. It may have seemed like overreaching, naïve optimism that Imamoglu would beat the AKP machine the last time around. 

But this time, Imamoglu’s solid support base - a far broader and deeper opposition coalition than Turkey has ever seen - his messaging, and his proven popularity leads to the conclusion that an electoral win is not a question of wish-fulfillment, but of solid evidence. His victory is very much within reach.