Turkey's Erdogan Tries to Bury Defeat in Istanbul Election - But Can He?

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“The defeat for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) was decisive.”


In March's local elections, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) narrowly won the mayoral contest in Istanbul, Turkey's largest city. The AKP pressed and pressed and finally got a court order for a re-run, on the grounds of electoral irregularities.

Last Sunday, the second vote was held. This time, the CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu did not have a 13,000 majority.

This time, it was more than 800,000.

A relative newcomer in Turkish politics, Imamoglu defeated Binali Yildirim, a founding member of the AKP, Prime Minister from 2016 to 2018, and a diehard Erdoğan loyalist.

So what does Erdoğan - Prime Minister from 2003 to 2014, President from 2014 to now, a perpetual consolidator of power - do? How does he shovel dirt over Istanbul, his childhood home where he was Mayor from 1994 to 1998, the first step in his political ascension?

He shifts the focus.

The President had to accept and acknowledge the CHP’s victory. But media outlets linked to the AKP quickly moved on. Daily Sabah turned defeat into the headline “DEMOKRASİ KAZANDI” (“Democracy Has Won”), trying to shift the spotlight from the opposition to Erdoğan. It was blatant in marching away from the ballot box, with the value of the troubled Turkish currency attributed to the end of uncertainty: “Turkish Lira: Stocks Rally as Istanbul Elections Left Behind”.

Erdoğan's foreign policy came to the fore. State news agency Anadolu was soon dominated by issues of security and diplomacy. By Monday morning, Syria --- where the Turkish President is gambling on Ankara's sphere of influence in the north of the partitioned country --- was Daily Sabah's number two story, and another featured article proclaimed, “Turkey is Now Ready to Move Forward and Focus on Important Issues Such as International Diplomacy”.

By Tuesday, Daily Sabah's site was devoted to the release of a US Consulate employee from detention, American sanctions against Iran, and raids against Kurdish PKK "terrorists" in northern Iraq. A story on Istanbul's bridges supplanted the CHP’s victory.

Hurriyet, the nation’s most widely-circulated newspaper, initially gave more coverage to the election result and was more open in portraying the triumph for the CHP and its brand of center-left politics. But gradually, the daily also shifted front-page attention to foreign policy and the maintenance of Istanbul’s Fatih Mehmet Sultan Bridge. Gone is the spotlight on Imamoglu, “In Istanbul polls, the victor is democracy, CHP leader says".

Erdoğan v. A Rising Opposition

But, having declared on the campaign trail that “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey”, will he march the country away from his loss?

Imamoglu has been quick to emphasize the symbolism of his victory as a triumph for the nation, “Turkey won this election, not a single party. You will see it with time”. In a tweet, he declared “Istanbul has made its choice in favour of justice and democracy”.

Istanbul’s mayor-elect has been praised for a campaign built on inclusion, refusing to engage with the "populist strongman" politics which have come to define Erdoğan’s presidency. His campaign was fought on a platform of “justice, equality, love”. With this, he was able to appeal to voters beyond the CHP’s traditionally left-wing secular base, poaching a significant number of conservative AKP supporters, many disgruntled with the state of the economy.

In the eyes of many Turks, this victory propels Imamoglu as a future candidate for the Presidency. Irrespective of his intentions, he is now framed as a rival to Erdoğan.

Some independent news outlets are declaring a substantial "blow" to the AKP, but analysts are quick to caution against underestimating the President. Middle East Eye’s Turkey correspondent Ragip Soylu, while acknowledging that this election rerun “backfired spectacularly” on the Government, warned, “It might still be too early to write Erdoğan off."

In the international media, the majority of outlets also perceived the blow to Erdoğan and the AKP, but the interpretations range from only a setback or a "stinging defeat" to a "disastrous loss" which may mark the beginning of the end of Erdoğan's 17-year rule.

Perhaps the strongest line came from The Washington Post, who described Imamoglu’s victory as a "political earthquake" and --- quoting Kemal Kirisci of the Brookings Institution --- “the beginnings of a broader democratic restoration” in Turkey.

So, despite the President's attempt to turn the page, back to Imamoglu. He demonstrated the ability to bridge gaps between a diverse range of voters including nationalists, conservatives, and Islamists, all major constituencies for the AKP. More than 50,000 of the Islamist Felicity Party’s supporters voted for the CHP candidate, as did many of the 230,000 who abandoned the AKP.

Key to this was Imamoglu’s anti-corruption message. In the 18 days he spent as mayor after the initial vote in March, his team assessed that the city was suffering a deficit of $4 billion, with many lucrative public contracts offered to companies linked to Erdoğan’s friends and family.

Will Imamoglu be impeded in his duties as mayor, or will he be able to untangle the tight-knit web of patronage which binds Turkish politics at the elite level? This, far more than the embarrassment of losing his hometome to the opposition, is the threat to the President.

Nicholas Danforth, a senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, summarizes, “Many people assumed that Erdogan wouldn’t have decided to re-run the election unless he had a clear-cut plan for winning it… Imamoglu has been allowed to win, it remains to be seen if he’s allowed to govern”.

The next general election is not scheduled until 2023. In the coming months, it will become clear whether or not Erdoğan's grip on the country as well as its largest city has slipped.

But for today, his tactic is evident: look over there - Syria, Iraq, Iran. Look at the beautiful bridge. Just don't look at Istanbul.