Analysis

Istanbul Election Shows Erdogan Is Losing His Magic Touch

Growing economic woes and Kurdish voters' support led to a second defeat of the president’s candidate in the city's mayoral race

Erdogan greets people after casting his ballot, outside a polling station in Istanbul, June 23, 2019.
\ KEMAL ASLAN/ REUTERS

Less than three months after the last municipal elections in Turkey and after forcing the Supreme Election Council to order a new mayoral vote in Istanbul following the defeat of the candidate he backed – President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suffered his first major defeat.

Erdogan will have to do some thorough soul-searching, personally and regarding his Justice and Development Party (AKP), following the second rout of his candidate, Binali Yildirim, and the sweeping victory of the opposition Republican People’s Party candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, who won by a 9-point lead.

This time, too, Erdogan had defined the election as a vote of confidence in him personally, not just a vote for his candidate, who had served as Turkey’s prime minister. So he owns the failure.

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The AKP also lost the March mayoral races in other big cities, including the capital, Ankara, the business hub Izmir, and in the tourism region of Antalya. But the loss in Istanbul is the most disastrous for the party. It is the largest city in Turkey, with around 15 million residents, and this latest defeat exposes the deep crack in the wall that Erdogan erected around himself and his party during his 16 consecutive years as prime minister and president, and in 17 years of AKP control over Istanbul.

The breakdown of votes isn’t final yet but it seems that Kurdish voters tipped the scales after that community decided not to field its own candidate, and threw its support behind the secular opposition candidate, Imamoglu.

Erdogan had tried to win over the Kurdish community by allowing the jailed leader of the Kurdish PKK party, Abdullah Ocalan, to meet with his lawyers for the first time in nine years. In exchange Ocalan offered Erdogan a message of support: He and his brother urged the Kurdish population not to support the opposition. But it seems that the all-out war that Erdogan waged against the Kurdish political leadership overpowered Ocalan’s recommendation.

Also, support for Imamoglu grew (as compared with the March election) in the wealthier neighborhoods of Istanbul – due to his vow to ban alcohol sales in certain community centers, and to segregate men from women at public swimming pools.

Imamoglu talks to supporters from atop his campaign bus during a rally in honor of his victory in Istanbul, June 23, 2019.
Onur Gunay,AP

Imamoglu also gained significant support in relatively poor and religious neighborhoods of the city, including the conservative quarter Fatih. It seems that Erdogan’s rhetoric about being the “protector of Islam” didn’t work.

In the initial election, Erdogan posed as the leader of the battle against Islamophobia, citing the murders at mosques in New Zealand. This time around he took advantage of the sudden death in court of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi to call for an international investigation into Egypt’s present leader, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. He also accused the Turkish opposition of seeking to emulate Sissi, who forcefully grabbed the reins of power. However, this time around Erdogan’s rhetoric seems to have evoked mainly yawns.

But the main reason for the opposition victory in Istanbul Sunday seems to be the intensifying economic distress in Turkey, the rising prices and the unemployment, which has risen above 25 percent among the young. It is true that all that was relevant three months ago as well, but in the interim, the public seems to have lost faith in Erdogan’s promises to bring economic improvement and push through reforms to improve citizens’ lives.

The Turkish lira continues to decline (it has lost about half its value against the U.S. dollar in five years). New investors aren’t coming to Turkey. The tension, or rather the rift, between Ankara and Washington because of Erdogan’s insistence on buying Russian S-400 antiaircraft missile systems, and Turkey’s desultory intervention in the Syrian civil war – all these contributed to Imamoglu’s mayoral victory.

Erdogan reaped bitter fruit from his decision to present the local elections as a national referenda, thus rendering his political and economic failures relevant to the campaigns. Now he will have to contend with the failure at the national level.

Erdogan casts his ballot at a polling station, in Istanbul, on June 23, 2019.
AFP

A year ago Erdogan was reelected to the presidency for another five years, and given his absolute control over parliament, the outcome of the Istanbul race does not threaten his status, for the time being. He has supreme power that he can employ to embitter the life of the capital’s new mayor; he can delay or withhold funding, block projects or enact national laws that will constrain Imamoglu’s freedom of movement. The latter may also be forced to stand trial for insulting the governor of the province of Ordu during his campaign.

Erdogan has hastened to say that if Imamoglu is sentenced to a long prison term, he cannot serve as mayor. The president, who has made an institution out of suing his detractors and has managed to bring about the incarceration of several rivals, surely wouldn’t waver at using this method to unseat Imamoglu.

But the new mayor also has the means to diminish Erdogan’s prestige and status. He could damage the economic interests of the president’s supporters; he could block the government’s property development plans through bureaucratic means; he could set new priorities for the municipal budget, which is running at a $4.5 billion deficit; and mainly he could use his term to set himself up as an alternative to Erdogan in the next presidential election.

Imamoglu can thank Erdogan for the latter’s insistence on holding a repeat election in Istanbul. It has made the opposition prospect into a counterweight against the president – and not only against Erdogan’s candidate Yildirim. His victory could serve to leverage Imamoglu and his party at the national level, since it delivers an important message to Erdogan’s opponents, who have been losing election after election: The magician has lost his magic.

On the other hand, however, Erdogan does have plenty of time before the next presidential and parliamentary polls to rebuild his status and Turkey’s economy, and to present his case again as being savior of the nation.