Erdogan’s defeat in Istanbul shows opposition’s changing tactics

Appeal of mayor Ekrem Imamoglu to conservatives spells trouble for Turkey’s president

Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate for mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu celebrating in front of supporters at Beylikduzu in the city after his decisive win in Sunday’s election. Photograph: CHP press service/AFP/Getty Images

Delivering a victory speech at his party's election headquarters on Sunday night, Istanbul's new opposition mayor declared that his triumph in a high-stakes municipal contest marked a new beginning. "We want to start a new chapter, a new era," Ekrem Imamoglu told a packed room of media and party activists, as the chants of euphoric supporters floated up from outside.

That is precisely what will be worrying Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish president built a formidable political career on the back of his own election as mayor of Istanbul 25 years ago. Now, since gambling on a repeat election after losing the city's original mayoral vote in March, the city that served as his launchpad is in the hands of an energised and motivated opposition led by the Republican People's Party (CHP).

"It's the worst setback he's had," said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of Edam, an Istanbul-based think tank. "It will embolden the CHP and Turkey's parliamentary opposition because now they are firmly in control of not only Istanbul but also basically [all of] Turkey's major metropolitan cities."

Imamoglu’s resounding victory in Sunday’s rerun was the result of a big miscalculation by Erdogan, who has struggled in recent years with eroding support amid souring western ties, a flagging economy and accusations of growing authoritarianism.


Having lost control of a string of cities in local elections that took place across Turkey on March 31st, the president and his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) pushed for a rerun in the most important one of all.

Ekrem Imamoglu claimed a decisive victory in Istanbul's re-run election, dealing one of the biggest blows to President Tayyip Erdogan during his 16 years in power. Video: Reuters

They claimed that contest in Istanbul – the former Ottoman capital that carries deep political, economic and symbolic significance for Erdogan and his supporters – was riddled with irregularities and fraud. Turkey’s electoral board annulled the result, stripping Imamoglu of his narrow victory, and ordered a new vote.

On Sunday, Istanbul’s electorate responded by handing Imamoglu a decisive win, with 54 per cent of the vote, according to initial results. His ruling party rival, the former prime minster Binali Yildirim, garnered 45 per cent.

New tactics

Imamoglu’s victory underlines the success of a change in tactics by the CHP. For years, the party was unable to shake off its reputation for aggressive secularism and staunch nationalism. This was alienating to the AKP’s pious base as well as to members of the large Kurdish majority.

The 49-year-old former district mayor – who, like Erdogan, hails from the conservative Black Sea coast – fasted for the holy Islamic month of Ramadan and demonstrated his ability to recite passages from the Koran.

“You have a guy who, for the first time in 17 years, actually has the capability to cut into the conservative vote,” said Suat Kiniklioglu, a former AKP MP and visiting scholar at the University of Oxford. “That’s a game changer for the AKP.”

Crucially, the CHP worked with others, including a Kurdish-dominated party, to form an alliance that could mount a serious challenge to the AKP and its allies. They were given a helping hand by deep economic woes, which shattered the AKP’s image as a guarantor of rising prosperity and jobs.

Winning Istanbul is a huge symbolic victory, but it also has immediate practical ramifications. For years, the AKP has enjoyed sole control of the $4 billion municipal budget, using it to sustain patronage networks that formed a pillar of its support. Now that tool is gone.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan during voting in the Istanbul mayoral election re-run on Sunday. Photograph: Erdem Sahin/EPA

"The AKP's durability can be explained to a large extent by its success in establishing and maintaining an extensive network of privilege and dependency," said Esra Ceviker Gurakar, author of a book on procurement and patronage under the AKP. "One building block of this dependency network is damaged now. Things have got complicated for the AKP."

To the relief of the opposition, the AKP moved swiftly to accept defeat on Sunday night. Yildirim congratulated his opponent even before the state news agency had begun publishing results. Later, Erdogan used tweets to join him in congratulating the new mayor.

Plan C

Nonetheless, the journey ahead is unlikely to be plain sailing for the opposition. Having gambled on a second election and lost, some analysts believe Erdogan will now turn to a Plan C, seeking to undermine Imamoglu by trying to squeeze his funding or pursuing him through the courts.

"Will Erdogan allow Istanbul's budget to be relatively autonomous? Will he allow Imamoglu to truly use the resources he needs to govern?" asked Merve Tahiroglu, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. "These are all big questions."

In his victory speech, Imamoglu urged the president to work with him on issues from earthquake preparedness to helping the city’s half a million Syrian refugees. “I am ready and willing to work with you in harmony,” he said.

The new mayor has previously sought to bat away questions about his own presidential ambitions. But his impressive victory under difficult conditions – and the echoes of his story with Erdogan’s – make the comparison inevitable.

On Sunday night he described the task of governing Istanbul as a “sacred duty” as he promised to focus on tackling poverty and unemployment and establishing more green spaces. But he also nodded to the broader consequences of his triumph in a country where Erdogan has often seemed unstoppable.

Referring to the decision to strip him of his original victory, Imamoglu said the citizens of Istanbul had “held to account that small handful of people for the great injustice that was done to this country.”

He added: “The winner of this election is not one person, one party, one group or one segment. All of Istanbul and Turkey have won.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019