By Ahmad Sas - On 23 June 2019, Ekrem Imamoğlu, the Nation Alliance (NA) candidate for Istanbul was re-elected as Mayor of Turkey’s largest city, defeating Binali Yildirim, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate. This second electoral round has followed the decision of the Supreme Electoral Council, on 31 March, to invalidate the first round, after allegations from the AKP of irregularities during the election process. The court ruled that bureaucratic anomalies had taken place and ordered the re-run of the elections. This ruling raised questions about the degree of influence President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party have over the judiciary, as the opposition repeatedly called the decision a "coup" against democracy, warning about Erdoğan’s attempt to institutionalize an autocratic system. Imamoğlu won 775.000 votes, with an increased margin of 13.000 votes from the previous election. Yildirim, the former Prime Minister and Erdoğan’s candidate, conceded to his opponent and admitted defeat. These results, arguably, represent the public’s disdain over the decision to repeat the elections, as much as their dissatisfaction with the ruling party, which already in March suffered a major setback, losing Turkey’s three main cities: Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir.
These elections saw a more significant role for Kurdish politics, as Imamoğlu’s victory is attributed to the support gathered by the NA from the pro-Kurdish minority’s Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). Such an alignment was far from certain, as HDP had to choose between the constant suppression perpetrated against Kurdish minorities by Erdoğan’s government and an opposition characterized by an ultranationalist ideology. Yet, the press mentioned calls by Abdullah Öcalan—the founder of the Kurdistan Workers' Party– from prison, condemning HDP’s neutrality and urging supporters to stand against the governing party’s candidate. These leaks were denied by Erdoğan personally, who claimed the opposite, boasting Kurdish support for his agenda.
In his acceptance speech, Imamoğlu stated: ‘Sixteen million Istanbul residents have renewed our faith and our trust in justice; it’s a new beginning.’ Today, there is a marginal democratic victory celebrated not only by the opposition, but also by Erdoğan’s supporters, wishing to discard the accusations of illiberalism addressed to him. However, there is no political battle without a loser. The losing side in this context was certainly Binali Yildirim, as he jeopardized his political future after two consecutive defeats.
This second round of the elections highlighted the inability of the AKP to overcome the mistakes of their first defeat. Instead, there was an attempt from Yildirim to double-down on his campaign promises, drifting more towards anti-refugee populist rhetoric by promising to deport “Syrian offenders” to Turkey’s southern border as an initial step for permanent deportation. Apparently, these promises were not attractive enough for voters to forget an ongoing economic recession and currency crisis.
At the party level, a clear crisis started to emerge due to Erdoğan’s cult of personality. Erdoğan deliberately excluded influential voices who questioned his policies such as Ahmet Davutoğlu, the former Prime Minister and formally the second most powerful man in the AKP. These actions marginalized the figures who may have been able to win such crucial electoral contests. On 23 May 2019, in fifteen pages statement as a response to AKP setbacks, Davutoğlu finally broke his silence after three years of resigning from his position, condemning the AKP's bad economic policies and their alliances with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). He also attributed this setback to the restrictions the AKP is imposing over media and the sovereignty of state institutions which, according to the former Prime Minister, are harming the separation of powers within the state. Despite the consensus enjoyed by Davutoğlu among Turkish voters across the political spectrum, he was replaced by Yildirim due to his disagreement with Erdoğan on party policies, and the full alignment of Yildirim to Erdoğan. Furthermore, Turkey’s Former Deputy Prime Minister, Ali Babacan, declared his resignation, on 8 July 2019, over “deep differences” with the AKP leadership; ‘Turkey needs a new vision’ Babacan mentioned.
While these electoral victories are described as indications of the beginning of the end of AKP domination, the opposition in Turkey continues to face several challenges while Erdoğan’s power monopoly is largely intact. If the opposition wants to consolidate these results, several ideological limitations should be addressed. A new and comprehensive political vision should be presented. Currently, the opposition is characterised by two major trends. Firstly, the anti-Erdogan ideology which cannot offer much for the welfare of the Turkish people. Secondly, the conservative-secular nationalism, which excludes many components of the diverse Turkish society – and especially the Kurdish communities. If such limitations are not addressed, the opposition’s achievements will likely remain localized.
Currently, the domestic political scene is shaped by a stagnating economic crisis, driven by economic frustration. The public punished its political leadership at the ballot box twice. Nevertheless, such dynamics cannot be disentangled from Erdoğan’s foreign affairs’ management. In particular, frictions with the United States (US) can increase economic burdens and trigger future electoral setbacks for AKP. Ankara’s latest S-400 purchase–Russian made anti-aircraft weapon system–is going precisely in that direction, with the US administration threatening to respond by imposing economic sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.
Given the country’s crucial positions at the intersection between Europe and the wider Middle East and North Africa region, as well as its involvement in Gulf politics, the Euro-Gulf Information Centre is committed to monitoring events in Turkey.