Istanbul’s Mayoral Election: The Winners and Losers

The revote for Istanbul’s mayoral elections, the largest city in Turkey, held on June 23, and Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition candidate who won the previous round on March 31, defeated the Erdogan’s candidate, Binali Yildirim again. The re-election becomes a major battle against the Erdoganism in which many people and political parties with different ideologies gathered around Mr. Imamoglu. The new victory came with a significant margin of close to 10%, and Ekrem Imamoglu received nearly 800,000 votes more than his opponent.

Six months ago, few had heard of the name of Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of a middle-class Beylikduzu district in Istanbul. But since that time, the name of this 49-year-old opposition politician has been heard everywhere in Turkey and around the world. For the government’s opponents, Mr. Imamoglu is an individual who can eventually defeat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who seems invulnerable. In home and abroad for many, Mr. Imamoglu has become a high-profile challenger of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the unexpected new hope for Turkish democracy.

During his election campaign, Mr. Imamoglu emphasized the importance of working together despite opposing views to tackle urban poverty and condemned the populist and polarization rhetoric that has become commonplace in Turkish politics. While his opponent, Mr. Yildirim, was sidelined by President Erdogan, Mr. Imamoglu, was regularly seen at the small neighborhood markets and discussed local problems and issues directly with ordinary citizens.

Despite being the candidate of the social democrat People’s Republican Party (CHP) which often described as being too distanced from the conservative Muslim segments of the Turkish society, Mr. Imamoglu has become from traditional conservative family background, goes to the mosque and reads the Quran. Using a soft language in his election campaign, he promised to fight corruption and elimination of the deep division exists in Turkish politics and society. All these characteristics helped him to receive great support from the different parts of society.

In both March 31 and June 23, the local elections gave strong victories to Nation Alliance which consisting CHP and Iyi Party, while it was a major defeat and failure for the AKP and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and their People’s Alliance.

Beyond these political parties and other groups, these elections had some major winners and losers.

Winners:

Ekrem Imamoglu:

Defeating Erdogan and his party twice, make Mr. Imamogl an absolute winner of these elections. This 48-year-old politician born in the Black Sea province of Trabzon in 1970, was unknown to most Turkish people while serving as mayor of middle-class Beylikduzu district of Istanbul, but since the March 31 mayoral election his popularity rise rapidly. Many Turkish people become to describe him as the next President of the Turkish Republic. These elections increased Mr. Imamoglu’s reputation and turned him to a new leader in Turkish politics, and now Erdogan has a new challenger and rival with great support from different segment of the society.

Meral Aksener:

Meral Aksener, the leader of center rights Iyi Party and Turkey’s former interior minister and former member of MHP. In 2016, with a group of oppositions within MHP, she left the party and founded the İyi Party, of which she is the leader. Aksener and his party in the local elections allied with CHP under Nation Alliance and support CHP candidate in Ankara, Izmir, and Istanbul. When the Nation Alliance established many argued that an alliance of nationalist center-right party and a center-left could not stay long. However, Aksener showed all Turkey that the culture of reconciliation is possible, and the current polarization in Turkish politics is wrong. During the election campaign, she stepped in at critical moments and personally campaigned for Imamoglu. Contrary to the polarizing rhetoric used by People’s Alliance, Aksener’s conciliatory language, was one of the main reason to consolidate nationalist votes around Imamoglu.

Selahattin Demirtas:

The People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish and pro-minority party, didn’t join the Nation Alliance. However, the party supported the candidates of the Nation Alliance in big cities like Ankara, Izmir, and Istanbul. In Istanbul, where the HDP holds more than 1 million votes, they called on Kurds to support Imamoglu. The person who played a critical role in the election was the HDP’s former President, Selahattin Demirtas, who is in prison since 2016. In both March 31 and June 23, Selahattin Demirtas made a statement through his lawyers and his family, asking all HDP voters to vote against the AKP-MHP alliance.

Abdullah Ocalan:

The jailed militant leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, two days before the election day has called on the HDP to remain neutral in Istanbul mayoral election. His statement widely seen as a demand for HDP to abandon its support for Imamoglu and help President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party retain control of the city. But the HDP said Ocalan’s last-minute call would not change the party’s strategy of supporting Imamoglu in the election. Even though his call rejected by the HDP and its voters, but for almost two days all Turkish media, including state news agency and politician talked about him and his message. Once again he showed, even after 20 years in prison, he is still an important figure in Turkish politics.

Losers:

Binali Yildirim:

Defeated twice with Ekrem Imamoglu, Binali Yildirim perhaps is the biggest loser of this election. 63-year-old Turkish politician served as the 28th Speaker of the Grand National Assembly, the 27th and last Prime Minister of Turkey from 2016 to 2018. According to the some AKP officials he was unwilling to candidacy for these elections. As a matter of fact, he didn’t take center stage in March 31 election campaign. He was also AKP’s candidate for Izmir’s mayor election on 2014, of which he defeated with a large margin to CHP candidate. With twice defeated in Istanbul’s election, Binali Yildirim’s political career ended up with three losses in his all runs in elections.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan:

Before the March 31 election, it seems like Erdogan running against Imamoglu as he held a rally in all districts of Istanbul. After the defeat on that election, he used all his pressure and power to cancel the election results. Erdogan’s initial strategy for the re-election in Istanbul was to stay in shadow and let Binali Yildirim take center stage in campaigning. But as support for Imamoglu grew and after the weak performance of Binali Yildirim in a television debate with Ekrem Imamoglu, the Turkish President returned to campaign for Yildirim. So, on paper, Imamolgu running against Yildirim but in practice, his main opponent was Erdogan. On June 19th, in a live interview which was broadcasted by 15 TV channels and 200 radio stations, President Erdogan accused Ekrem Imamoglu to receiving support from terrorist groups and even compared him to Egyptian dictator Sisi. Days before the election Erdogan had tried to win over the Kurdish community by allowing the jailed leader of the PKK party, Abdullah Ocalan, to meet with his lawyers for the first time in nine years. In exchange, Ocalan sent a message to HPD voters to stay neutral in the election. In a live interview on national public television (TRT), President Erdogan referenced to Ocalan’s message to HDP voters. He expected that the Kurdish voters will accept the Ocalan’s word and will stop supporting Imamoglu. But the things didn’t go as President Erdogan estimated and on the contrary, the People’s Alliance lost votes as many conservative and nationalist voters become unhappy with Erdogan’s use of Ocalan.

Devlet Bahceli:

The leader of the ultra-Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Erdogan’s ally in the People’s Alliance. Bahceli stayed away, as much as possible, in order not to further terrify the Kurdish voters in Istanbul. After the AKP supported the Ocalan’s letter, eyes turned to Devlet Bahceli. But in a written statement Bahceli defended the PKK leader Ocalan and criticized the former chairman of HDP, Seahattin Demirtas.

Suleyman Soylu:

The Interior Minister of Turkey, who is one of the leading figures with the polarizing language in the AKP, between March 31 and June 23 almost every day he was in a different part of Istanbul to rally for Binali Yildirim. In his speeches, he did not hesitate to link Imamoglu to the HDP and to organizations like the PKK.

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