Who would have guessed that a 13-year-old opposition youth’s shout at Imamoğlu’s election bus would become the slogan of hope for tens of millions of Turks: Ekrem! Everything is coming up roses…” Pictured: Crowds celebrating Ekrem Imamoğlu’s second victory. (Photo by Getty Images)
An Islamist political party that comes to power by popular vote would never leave power by popular vote. That suggestion is overwhelmingly accurate. But not always. Any Turks younger than 18 have never seen an election defeat for President (and former Prime Minister) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. On June 23, a little-known small district mayor won Istanbul for the first time since Islamists first won Istanbul’s mayoralty in 1994 — a good quarter of a century.
In fact, that was the second time Ekrem Imamoğlu was elected mayor of Istanbul in less than two months. Commenting in a May 27 article on the re-run of the Istanbul election, under the headline “Erdoğan’s Istanbul Nightmare,” this author wrote:
“[S]ince his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, [Erdoğan] has not lost a single election. Everything was coming up roses all the time. Not anymore.
“‘Who wins Istanbul wins Turkey,’ has been Erdoğan’s dictum since 1994, when he won mayoral elections in Turkey’s biggest city (home to nearly 15% of Turkey’s 57 million voters and accounting for 31% of its GDP).”
In the tally of votes on March 31, Imamoğlu and his pro-Erdoğan rival, Binali Yıldırım, were in an unseen cutthroat rivalry: The opposition’s Imamoğlu finished on top merely by a margin of 13,000 or so votes, in a city where there are more than 10 million registered voters.
Upon appeal from Erdogan’s ruling AKP over alleged irregularities, the Supreme Electoral Board, consisting of judges apparently under government pressure, cancelled the election result for Istanbul, thereby suspending Imamoğlu’s mandate. The Board also set the date for a re-run on June 23. The Board cancelled the election result on the pretext that some officials serving at the polling stations were not civil servants, as required by the law.)
The invincible Erdoğan took a great risk: a second loss for the man who thinks “who wins Istanbul wins Turkey” would mean just more than just an embarrassing mayoral loss. Comparatively speaking, the difference in votes between Imamoğlu and Erdoğan’s candidate, Yıldırım, widened within less than two months from 13,000 to nearly 800,000.
The change in top management in Turkey’s biggest city (16 million) could unleash a flood of embarrassing corruption dossiers.
“It appears that losing Istanbul entails too many risks for the AKP for the matter to be left to its own resources. Many are convinced that if the AKP were to lose Istanbul to the opposition, after having held it – with its precursor – for 25 years, a hornet’s nest of vested interests, corruption, and abuse of power would be revealed,” wrote Semih Idiz, a columnist for Sigma Turkey, an Ankara-based think tank. “Had he done the politically correct thing and accepted the defeat in Istanbul nobly he would have elevated his moral stature. As matters stand he and his party have been tainted and it is difficult to understand how they expect to reap any benefits from this”.
How did Erdoğan’s millions of fanatically devoted fans abandon him when he needed them most? True, most observers agree that Imamoğlu also benefited from portraying himself as the victim whose mandate was illegally revoked. But it is not a coincidence that the AKP’s first ever single crash came at a time when the average Turk felt the economic crunch in its worst.
The Turkish economy has seen its worst performance in nearly a decade.
On May 7, only six weeks before the re-run, the Turkish lira slumped to its lowest level in seven months as further political unrest weighed on the nation’s currency. Justin Low, an analyst at ForexLive, attributed the lira plunge to the electoral board’s controversial decision. Meanwhile, Turkey’s unemployment rate “surged to 14.7 percent in the December-February period, its highest level in nearly a decade… The Turkish economy contracted a sharper than expected 3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2018, its worst performance in nearly a decade, indicating that last year’s near 30 percent slide in the lira had tipped it into recession.”
If historians one day write the story Turkish politics in the early 21st century, they will have to divide their work into pre- and post-June 23 election. The vulnerability of the Turkish economy, huge corporate debts at high interest rates and the sliding Turkish lira may all force the AKP into an early presidential election (now scheduled for 2023). The more the public feels the economic pressure, the more Erdoğan’s popularity will sink.
Who would have guessed that a 13-year-old opposition youth’s shout at Imamoğlu’s election bus would become the slogan of hope for tens of millions of Turks: “Ekrem! Everything is coming up roses…”
“When I look at him,” says Imamoğlu, “I see hope.”
Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey’s leading journalists, was recently fired from the country’s most noted newspaper after 29 years, for writing in Gatestone what is taking place in Turkey. He is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.