Erdogan Loses Istanbul: Reasons and Implications

Ekrem Imamoglu, the candidate of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) who was backed by most of the other political parties opposed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), won the Istanbul mayoral repeat election on June 23, forced by the AKP’s challenge to the original result on March 31, with 54.2 percent of the vote against the AKP candidate Binali Yildirim’s 45 percent. The difference of over 800,000 votes between the candidates served to underline the severity of the electoral setback for Erdogan and the AKP, as the gap announced by the YSK after a recount of the first vote was only 13,000.

The AKP lost votes in all 39 of Istanbul’s districts, while the CHP exceeded the AKP vote in 11 districts that the latter had won on March 31. With an insurmountable gap impervious to another challenge, there was also no repeat of the controversy provoked by the official Anadolu Agency’s inexplicable delay in providing results in the last election. Yildirim conceded early into the count and Erdogan followed up with a brief congratulatory tweet.

Imamoglu’s victory was a personal defeat for Erdogan, as his campaign on behalf of Yildirim confirmed the almost universal perception of the race as a referendum on his leadership. Having openly accused the CHP candidate of stealing votes in the previous election, while pushing for an ultimately disastrous repeat, which, he predicted on May 2, “the AKP is hundred percent sure to win,” Erdogan clearly made a costly unforced political error.

While he now surely recognizes the negative consequences of his decision to push for a repeat election, Erdogan may feel that he had no alternative in view of the symbolic and material importance of Istanbul. Having lost Ankara, the capital, along with a number of other important cities like Adana, Antalya, and Mersin in the March elections, he was unable to accept without a fight the loss of Turkey’s biggest city, despite reliable opinion polls suggesting an even bigger win for the opposition.

The June 23 result is remarkably similar to Erdogan’s own unexpected victory as a little-known candidate in the Istanbul mayoral election of 1994, which set him and his followers on the path to achieving national power in 2002. It remains to be seen whether this race a quarter-century later is just a stumble or the harbinger of a historic reverse.

The Road to a Second Defeat

The March 31 result provoked immediate and sustained appeals by the AKP to Turkey’s High Election Board (YSK) on the grounds of alleged election irregularities. After confirming Imamoglu’s victory on April 17 following a recount, which allowed him to move into the mayor’s office, the YSK duly ordered a rerun on May 6, thus voiding his mandate and temporary replacement by the Erdogan-appointed Istanbul governor Ali Yerlikaya the following day. Its decision to reject the validity of the vote for mayor while accepting the results of the other three votes for other municipal positions on the same ballot was reminiscent of the YSK’s controversial decision to accept unsealed ballots during the 2017 referendum by acceding to a request by the AKP during the counting process.

While the YSK decision was predictably the object of scorn by Imamoglu and his supporters, instead of taking to the streets, they chose to focus on winning again. Their task was undoubtedly facilitated to a great extent by widespread perception on the part of Istanbul residents, including some who had not voted for Imamoglu on March 31, that he had reason to be aggrieved and deserved a sympathy vote.

The sluggishness and disorganization within the previously smooth-functioning AKP party operation, which was on display during the nationwide municipal elections in March, was also an important factor in the result. Internal factional squabbles, combined with ‘metal fatigue’ within the AKP that Erdogan had drawn attention to, effectively undermined Yildirim’s campaign. As a result, in addition to failing in its declared goal of bringing to its side the estimated 1.7 million voters who had not voted on March 31, the AKP actually lost some voters to Imamoglu even in religious districts such as Fatih and Eyup.

Despite occasional flourishes, Yildirim was not able to shed the image of a candidate who had been dragged unwillingly into the rerun. His lackluster participation in the TV debate between the two candidates on June 16—a first involving an AKP candidate in the nearly two decades it has been in office—and subsequent gripes relating to alleged collusion and favoritism involving the moderator underlined the absence of an effective plan to reverse the result.

The seemingly ad hoc nature of the campaign was also demonstrated by the late attempt to sway the Kurdish vote, estimated to be around 15 percent of the electorate in Istanbul, from the commitment to Imamoglu’s candidacy on the part of the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The generation and publicization of a letter from the imprisoned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan to that effect, coupled with his brother Osman’s extremely unusual appearance on TV, hinted at desperation in AKP ranks close to the vote. In addition to failing to persuade Kurdish voters to switch, this gambit also negated previous attacks on Imamoglu as a tool of the PKK.

Erdogan’s late entry into the campaign after allowing Yildirim to take the lead was indicative of the AKP candidate’s faltering campaign. Having failed to get Yildirim past the finishing line on March 31, despite frenetic personal efforts in which he constantly emphasized the theme of national survival against Turkey’s enemies who were backing opposition candidates, Erdogan returned to that theme in numerous speeches and TV interviews in final days to little visible effect.

Although many weaknesses in the AKP campaign contributed to the result, it is apparent that the CHP also managed to get a number of things right this time. Imamoglu’s mild demeanor, coupled with his positive and inclusive language, was in stark contrast to the stridency and polarizing rhetoric of Erdogan. His emphasis on his conservative background also helped broaden his appeal beyond the CHP base. In addition to tapping into the inevitable weariness on the part of Istanbul citizens with AKP’s long tenure in office, Imamoglu managed to counter the nationalization of the election campaign by Erdogan by sticking to his focus on plans to tackle long-standing local grievances of Istanbul residents.

Imamoglu was also able to tap into simmering discontent with the large number of Syrian refugees in Istanbul in the context of his general complaints about the high level of unemployment in the city. In the process, he managed to highlight the economic concerns on the part of voters which Erdogan and Yildirim’s promises about better days ahead failed to alleviate.

Looking Ahead

With Erdogan’s seeming invincibility dented, momentum and enthusiasm have shifted away from him at least for the moment. With the confirmation of the loss of Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city will now be transformed from an AKP fortress to a center of opposition, as Imamoglu shuts off widespread municipal patronage to AKP members while targeting the financial links to favored foundations and companies.

However, having said prior to the election that Imamoglu would find it difficult to govern Istanbul even if he were to win, Erdogan will surely try to find ways to undermine a man he had compared on June 19 to Egyptian dictator Abdah Fattah el-Sisi, who had overthrown elected leader Mohamed Morsi, soon after publicly mourning the latter’s sudden death in custody in a symbolic funeral service. One avenue Erdogan has suggested that might be explored is Imamoglu’s prosecution for insulting the Governor of Ordu during a campaign visit.

Even as he ponders how he will grapple with an emboldened opposition, Erdogan also has to keep an eye on the growing possibility of the first significant split in the AKP since its establishment in 2001. Former AKP stalwarts like Abdullah Gul, Ali Babacan and Ahmet Davutoglu, who had indicated their discontent with Erdogan’s unchallenged control over the AKP even before the June 23 vote, may finally be inclined to make their move.

Although the prudent response by Erdogan to the political stumble in Istanbul and its possible implications would be to adjust his governing style and content along with his rhetoric, the pursuit of a strategy of accommodation with his challengers is counter to his natural inclination to continue down his chosen path of confrontation. While he will surely make some changes in his cabinet and party organization once he identifies those below him he deems to be culpable for the June 23 defeat, he will do it according to his own timetable and calculations. In his first post-election speech to AKP members at the Turkish Grand National Assembly on June 25, he announced that there would now be a thorough review of all aspects of the functioning of the presidential system.

Despite the political wound the Istanbul election constitutes for Erdogan, it is important to note that he retains full control over all aspects of policymaking at the national level and does not have to contest scheduled elections before 2023. By focusing on major foreign issues, he will attempt to distract attention away from the troubled domestic political scene and economic problems. Erdogan will also hope that this will enable him to shore up domestic support, similar to the way he had taken advantage of the resumption of the conflict with the PKK to help the AKP to regain the parliamentary majority in the November 2015 repeat elections it had lost six months earlier. However, he is now operating in a more difficult political, economic, and international environment with problems in each of these areas exacerbating those in the others.

Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Zeynep Yekeler is a research assistant with the CSIS Turkey Project.

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Bulent Aliriza
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Zeynep Yekeler

Research Assistant, Turkey Project