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A night to remember: a new dawn for Istanbul (and Turkey)

What are the reasons behind this result, which marked the ruling AK party’s biggest defeat in almost 20 years?

was International Relations Policy Advisor at FEPS, where he coordinated various international projects and activities and conducted political research

Ekrem İmamoğlu’s landslide victory in Sunday’s re-run of the mayoral election in Istanbul will have an important impact not only for the city’s future, but also for the future of Turkey’s ailing democracy. What are the reasons behind this result, which marked the ruling AK party’s biggest defeat in almost 20 years? What is the meaning of Mr İmamoğlu’s win for Turkey, its progressive electorate, and the country’s relations with Europe?

This past Sunday felt different in Istanbul. Of all the times I have visited the city in the last few years, the level of (cautious) optimism on people’s faces throughout the day was something I hadn’t noticed for a while. And then the evening came, and the results were announced, and optimism translated into celebration and -perhaps- that long forgotten sentiment of (equally cautious but genuine) hope.

The result looked far easier than it was. The landslide victory for the opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu (CHP) that came on Sunday – which is also the ruling AK party’s biggest defeat in almost 20 years – represents a truly impressive achievement, given the utter unfavourability of most factors on the ground, from media bias to government control, that have been a harbinger on so many elections before. İmamoğlu won with 54.03% over the government candidate, former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım (AKP), who received 45.09%. In Istanbul’s constituency of 10 million, this translates to a gap of slightly above 800,000 votes, an almost 60-fold increase compared to the 13,720 votes that separated the two contenders in the March 31st election, but which was declared invalid upon request by the AKP. It is precisely this unexpected margin that will hopefully provide a certain level of safeguards for Mr İmamoğlu’s win to be respected and its legitimacy will not be rendered short-lived.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was quick to congratulate the winner on election night, with a carefully worded tweet declaring that “national will has manifested itself once again today”. And yet for a man who started his political career as mayor of Istanbul in 1994, and who reportedly proclaimed that “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey”, this defeat will also be recorded as a meaningful misfire.

For Europe, and once this year’s institutional reconfiguration in Brussels is over, this election result creates an opening

Of course, it is always easier to pontificate about what could have been avoided or done differently ex-post, but for a political maestro like President Erdoğan, a series of strategic mistakes were made in the run up to the election which clearly influenced the result. First was the miscalculation that a re-run could prove advantageous to Mr Yildirim. On the contrary, though, the AKP candidate’s defeat in so many conservative districts that had previously voted for him (such as Üsküdar, Eyup or Fatih) illustrates in the clearest manner the pervasive perception that Mr İmamoğlu’s March win had been falsely contested. Second was Mr. Erdoğan’s last-minute attempt to utilise the jailed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan’s letter to Kurds to remain “neutral” in Sunday’s vote. This clearly created a backlash within the Kurdish electorate, which strategically backed Istanbul’s new mayor. The third – and perhaps more crucial- point, the president’s decision to involve himself in the last few days of the campaign not only tarnished the image of invisibility he had so carefully built over the years, but also elevated the stature of Mr İmamoğlu, since this was poised as a direct confrontation between the President of the country and a mayoral candidate, making a hero of the latter amongst crucial parts of the electorate.  

Adding voter fatigue at the election re-run, and Mr İmamoğlu’s measured, inspiring and mistake-free campaign as key factors shaping Sunday’s result, this means that, as some international observers noted, Mr Erdoğan did not just lose either Istanbul or legitimacy in the minds of large swaths of the population; he managed to lose both.

From an international perspective, the night provided a perfect opportunity to quench curiosity about whether Turkey’s democracy has a pulse. The country’s democratic resilience was proven again, following Mr Erdoğan’s razor-thin victory in the 2017 constitutional referendum, or the victories the opposition scored in places like Ankara, a previously reliable bastion of the ruling AKP for more than 20 years, during the March 2019 local election.

For the country itself, and for its progressive electorate, this moment of joy, coming on top of many close, albeit disappointing results, obviously does not spell the end of Mr Erdoğan’s hegemony. Sunday’s outcome will inescapably entail a serious rethink of Mr Erdoğan’s alliance with the nationalist MHP party or involve an internal AKP discussion about their future orientation, but it might actually lead the Turkish president to become even more assertive in his political determination and posture, rather than less. Nonetheless, if many factors align, it could be the very beginning of the end. A one-man regime, over 16 years in the making, is now facing a first, really serious competitor in the face of Ekrem İmamoğlu, even within the confines of Turkey’s ailing democracy. 

For Europe, and once this year’s institutional reconfiguration in Brussels is over, this election result creates an opening, not necessarily to break the impasse of the current dynamics on the relations between both sides, but at the very least to have a serious, progressive interlocutor, overseeing a city whose population equals or surpasses that of many European countries. Mr İmamoğlu’s capacity to manoeuvre in a very difficult internal landscape in Istanbul, and the impact of his performance as mayor on his political significance for the country’s central political scene will certainly be a key factor in how the EU looks at Turkey and calibrates the scope of engagement with the country. 

In his victory speech, Mr İmamoğlu’s proclaimed that “This is not a victory, it is a new beginning” striking a conciliatory tone despite the historically important victory has had just snatched. The task before him is huge, carrying the hopes and dreams of so many citizens of Istanbul (and Turkey at-large), and the road ahead will certainly be uphill. But this Sunday night was a night that Istanbul will remember, since it did mark the dawn of a new era for the city. Hopefully, it will be remembered for long, and for all the right reasons. 

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