On the eve of the end-of-March Turkish local elections, bne IntelliNews asked whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could actually emerge the loser from the contest, even though by rights such an outcome should have been a dead certainty when one thinks of how badly his administration has botched Turkey’s economy. But given the democratic deconstruction of the country during Erdogan’s 17 years at the top, our reporting team has had too much experience of strange goings-on at the Turkish ballot box to think that logical assessments necessarily hold sway.
Two days before election day we came to the conclusion that the disappointment with Erdogan had grown to such an extent that his Justice and Development Party (AKP), and by extension Erdogan himself (for in his tub-thumping campaigning he seemed only too willing to make the polls a referendum on his rule), could conceivably lose in Ankara despite election manipulation but that the strongman would not allow Istanbul to remove itself from his control.
But there were two things that we had not properly reckoned with. One, the tidal wave of opposition to Erdogan had grown so strong that those dedicated to achieving sufficient ‘goings-on’ after votes were cast were perhaps rather overwhelmed and, two, the opposition candidate in Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, and the Republican People’s Party (CHP’s) Istanbul head, Canan Kaftancioglu, achieved the astonishing feat (and, yes, where Turkish elections are concerned, this truly was astonishing) of collecting all signed-off documents on the votes made in the city. Never before had the CHP achieved such a thing.
The announcement that didn’t come
Cynics listened out for the traditional early hours AKP announcement that their man had won. And they pricked their ears expecting the CHP to meekly accept its latest defeat. But not this time. Imamoglu emerged victorious and Turkey watchers stood agog.
Alas, the sweet victory was short-lived as a riled Erdogan and his party gradually, and ironically, stepped up their protests that the narrow triumph was intolerably marred by alleged polling station “irregularities” and the YSK election watchdog (despite warnings from big voices such as Berlin that its move was essentially preposterous) with a split decision annulled the result and demanded that Istanbul run its election all over again on June 23. So what chance of Imamoglu winning through again?
Prior to the first contest, we were sceptical that the CHP—which, like its junior election coalition partner, the Iyi Party, includes more than a few nationalist-minded politicians who have little time for Turkey’s sizeable Kurdish minority—could overcome the divisive and pervasive effects of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict in its attempts to consolidate the opposition vote.
Letter from Demirtas
In an effort at giving the attempt at defeating Erdogan and his henchmen a decisive boost, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) opted to not put up local election candidates across the west of Turkey and, in Istanbul, recommended that Kurds vote for Imamoglu. Given the age-old tensions there was a big question mark over whether the strategy would work, but a letter from jailed Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas seemed to largely convince Kurdish voters to turn out for the CHP candidates.
Erdogan’s descending popularity across Western provinces and municipalities thus accelerated, though his stronger popularity in mainly rural other parts of Turkey meant that, factoring in the ‘goings-on’, countrywide support for the People’s Alliance election coalition of the AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party (the MHP, which represents the ‘ultras’ of nationalism in Turkey) held up above 50%.
Howard Eissenstat, associate professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University, New York State, is one observer who remarked before the local elections that Erdogan, who rose to prominence in politics as mayor of Istanbul in the mid-1990s, would never allow the business and cultural capital out of his grasp. Well, hats off to Imamoglu and Kaftancioglu, it did indeed slip from his grasp. The question now is will the populist authoritarian—back spouting angry rhetoric in recent days after a strategy of playing aloof from the Istanbul re-run apparently failed with voters—find it back in his palm following the revote?
“Erdogan is weakened AND fully dominant”
“Whatever happens in Istanbul on Sunday, here are two things I can say for sure: 1. Erdogan is weakened AND fully dominant over the political structures in Turkey. 2. Precisely because of point #1, Turkey will be less stable in the short and medium term,” Eissenstat said in a June 18 tweet.
Turning to some deeper currents that may define what’s ahead, Omer Taspinar wrote on May 26 in a Syndication Bureau op-ed entitled “In the Istanbul Elections, Erdogan’s Alliance with the Deep State Defines Turkey’s Future”: “Most observers of Turkish politics understandably are obsessed with the political power that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accumulated over the past 16 years. They focus exclusively on him and his autocratic tendencies. But this fixation creates a false idea that overstates Erdogan’s reach at the expense of the real driver behind Turkish politics: the anti-Kurdish coalition that exists between the Turkish ‘deep state’ and Erdogan himself.
“The decision to void the Istanbul election is the latest example that proves the power of this coalition. It is a big mistake to think of Erdogan as a leader who operates with full independence from deeper structural factors that have historically defined Turkish politics,”
“Whatever happens in Istanbul never ends in Istanbul alone”
Taspinar added: “After 16 years in power, Erdogan has proved himself to be a Machiavellian survivor who has successfully transformed the deep state’s secularist threat perception… This coalition will do all it must to torpedo the emergence of a game-changer in Turkish politics: the Kurds as kingmakers. For indeed, Imamoglu’s alliance with the Kurds in Istanbul could well shape the future of Turkey. And in this, the stakes for the deep state are high: whatever happens in Istanbul never ends in Istanbul alone.”
Ahead of the revote, we are mired between the external view of “Erdogan will not stand for losing again” and the domestic feeling of “If there’s not sufficient rigging or the deploying of violence, if there’s no big surprise from the AKP camp in these final few campaign days, Erdogan is on for a big hiding”.
A trick in the hat at huge cost?
“Despite what might look like a gloomy picture for the [Binali] Yildirim [AKP] campaign, there are those who think that Erdogan would have never called for a rerun of the election without making sure he would win—one way or another. Will Erdogan pull a trick out of his hat? He might, but not without a huge cost for his already damaged image and the country’s faltering economy,” Gonul Tol of the Middle East Institute wrote on June 18 in an op-ed.
“Key question remains: can #Ekremİmamoğlu improve on his performance enough to preclude manipulation… That is a question of the electorate. It is also a question of #Erdogan's own political calculations: how much is he willing to tarnish electoral legitimacy to maintain control of Istanbul,” Eissenstat said on June 17 on Twitter.
A helpful environment, of course, rather than Erdogan’s banana or banana-like republic (we’ll leave it to you to split the difference), would produce opinion polls enabling some reliable forecasting of the likely winner. However, what polls are available (and Turkey does not have a good record on this front) presently suggest Imamoglu—a politician who has thrilled audiences with his ‘radical love’ rejection of tired populism in favour of extending the hand to your opponents—is 2 percentage points ahead of ex-PM Yildirim whom he defeated in the original vote, and that unfortunately falls within the statistical margin for error.
Around 10.56mn Istanbullers are eligible to vote in the re-run. Some 8.87mn of them voted on March 31, with Imamoglu attracting 4,169,765 votes, or 48.77%, and Yildirim 4,156,036, or 48.55%, according to the official results. A total of 315,250 votes were deemed invalid.
Convincing those who stayed away
For the revote, Imamoglu seems to stand on stronger moral ground as regards convincing the 222,000 Istanbullers who voted for neither himself nor Yildirim the first time round, while Yildirim must persaude AKP supporters, resentful of Turkey’s sharp decline in the past year and who were among the 1.7mn Istanbullers who did not vote, to this time make the effort.
‘Hopeless democrats’, who did not turn up for the first vote believing Erdogan invincible, are now perhaps fully motivated to vote after Imamoglu’s inspirational victory.
“It is unclear whether Yildirim can convince disgruntled AKP voters, who are frustrated over the country’s economic woes, Istanbul’s growing problems, as well as increasing authoritarianism. He has promised to address some of these concerns, but the fact that the city has been run by his party for the last 25 years makes the task of persuading voters difficult,” Tol also wrote.
Erdogan’s attempts to open a breach among the Kurdish vote with his recent move to allow jailed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan to see his lawyers appears to have fallen short. Demirtas has sprung back into the picture with a tweet pledging support once more for Imamoglu.
“[..] Kurds are unlikely to be swayed by the ruling party’s last-minute efforts at a time when the AKP is seen as more anti-Kurdish than ever… The opposition candidate Imamoglu’s prospects for mobilizing disgruntled Kurdish voters are better,” according to Tol.
Demirtas’ latest tweet caused a big stir among the Twitter commentariat, with Ayla Jean Jackley tweeting on June 18: “In first tweet in almost three months, jailed Kurdish politician @hdpdemirtas urges support for opposition candidate @ekrem_imamoglu in this weekend’s Istanbul mayoral election describing it as a vote against polarisation. His party’s @HDPenglish +1m voters likely to swing vote… Tweet backing @ekrem_imamoglu comes as Demirtas @hdpdemirtas heads to court today for 1 of myriad cases stemming from political speeches that have kept him locked up for 2.5 yrs. Last week rumours emerged (since rejected) he cld be freed to boost support for government candidate.”
Survival turning on global recognition
Win or lose the revote, the question of Erdogan’s survival will likely turn more on his ability to sustain his global recognition.
Even if his domestic support keeps declining inexorably amid the spiralling down of the country’s economy, Erdogan might remain in the presidential palace as a Western-backed autocrat like Saudi crown prince ‘MbS’ or as a non-Western-backed dictator such Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro. There are reports that Donald Trump likes Erdogan’s style (and that’s enough, folks!) and is wavering over plans drawn up by officials to hit Turkey with sanctions in the Russian missiles row. The two are set to meet at the G20 in Osaka at the end of June.
If Erdogan cannot manage to secure the support of some powerful foreign tutelars, then observers might see him on the path to a snap election, whatever the result of the revote, a snap election he could be doomed to lose.
But let’s not forget, this is a man who needs to keep himself and his family away from the reach of both domestic and international law.
“That creates a sort of vicious circle of existential insecurity, and politics becomes a zero-sum game. So it’s either you dominate or you’re destroyed,” Akkoyunlu commented.
“If Binali Yildirim wins, voters’ faith in the electoral process will suffer another blow. Those who have been arguing that a peaceful transfer of power after an electoral defeat was no longer possible will be proven right. An opposition win, by contrast, will have much broader consequences. It will not only provide a golden opportunity for Imamoglu and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to build a track record of successful governance and connect with religious voters, it could also lead to a crack in the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) alliance with the ultranationalists. In short, the stakes are high for everyone,” Tol concluded.