Re-election in Istanbul: A Struggle for Future of Turkish Democracy

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) had controlled the city of Istanbul for almost 25 years. The city which has GDP close to $4 billion and accounts for a third of the country’s economic output. On March 31 after a confident campaign, President Erdogan and his party lost the Istanbul mayoral election to Ekrem Imamoglu, a candidate from the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Mr. Imamoglu’s victory comes after he received significant support from other political parties such as a nationalist party called Iyi Party and the Peoples’ Democratic Party, a left-wing Kurdish party.

Ever since, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, did anything he can to cancel the election results and finally after many meetings between the Supreme Election Board (YSK) and the AKP representatives Mr. Erdogan got what he wanted. Citing mistakes in the appointment of polling station officials (who are appointed by the Erdogan’s government), the YSK overturned the results, took back Mr. Imamoglu’s mandate, removing him from office and ordered re-election. This Sunday, June 23rd the residents of Turkey’s biggest city will be tramping to the polls all over again.

Mr. Erdogan is hoping that his party’s candidate Binali Yildirim, former Prime Minister, can get elected this time. However, evidence and researches show that things have not gone according to Erdogan’s plan. Many people in Istanbul including members of AKP believe that Ekrem Imamoglu was elected mayor and there is no strong evidence about the election mistakes. Many also argue that the decision to re-election will make more damage to President Erdogan and his ruling party as many undecided voters will come to support Mr. Imamoglu.

In addition, the AKP’s wrong and unorganized campaign that targeted Mr. Imamoglu led to massive support for Mr. Imamoglu as many people saw him a victim. In the last two weeks of the campaign, the AKP and Erdogan took an attack mode on their campaign, leaning on a host of unimaginative smears: accusing Imamoglu of being Greek (or Christian), accusing CHP for stealing votes in an “election coup”, connection Imamoglu to the Fethullah Gulen movement, and connecting Imamoglu to the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). However, Mr. Imamoglu has successfully campaigned as both victor and victim. And recent polls show that Mr. Imamoglu with 7–8% is ahead of his opponent Binali Yildirim.

Erdogan’s initial strategy for the Re-election in Istanbul was to stay in shadow and let Binali Yildirim take the center stage in campaigning. But with the recent polls in favor of Imamoglu and the weak performance of Binali Yildirim in a television debate with Ekrem Imamoglu the Turkish President returned to campaign in favor of Yildirim. So, on paper, Imamolgu running against Yildirim but in practice, his main opponent is President 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 compared him to Egyptian dictator Sisi. “On Sunday, are we going to say yes to Binali Yildirim, or are we going to say yes to Sisi?” Said, Mr. Erdogan.

The reason why Erdogan is so ambitious about Istanbul and the reason he used all his power to remove the election results which some observers fear he may do so again, is that losing Istanbul today could mean losing the country tomorrow. As Ayse Ayata, a professor at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University said if Mr. Imamoglu won the Sunday election it would be major chaos for the AKP and Erdogan with members and supporters realizing the party can lose.

In addition, losing Istanbul’s election would also bring some difficulties for several organizations that are close to president Erdogan and his party. According to a recent report, some organizations that are under control of Erdogan’s children and friends, as well as a range of Islamic groups, received approximately $100 million in subsidies from the municipality between 2014 and 2018. For instance, the Turkey Youth and Education Service Foundation (TURGEV), whose board includes Erdogan’s daughter, the wife of his communications director and a former mayor of Istanbul from AKP, received almost $9m from Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. Another example an archery club created and run by the Erdogan’s son, Bilal Erdogan, received $5.5m. Ekrem Imamoglu has promised to stop funding for such NGOs and organizations.

Mr. Imamoglu spent just 18 days as the mayor of Istanbul. During these days, he finds out that while the mayor’s office runs 40 percent of the consolidated city budget, 60 percent of the city’s budget is handled by 28 private companies, with little transparency. Many of these companies are run by supporters and allies of president Erdogan, and the vested interests of his close circle are thought to be one of the reasons that the president has fought to maintain control of the office.

Mr. Imamoglu, his party and many people across the country have described the new election as a battle for the future of Turkish democracy. In a historic televised debate with his opponent, Mr. Imamoglu said: “This is not only a local election, but it is a battle for democracy”. He also added: “I am an elected and legal mayor of Istanbul who only served for 18 days. This is a struggle against those who have seized the democratic rights of 16 million people of Istanbul.”

International Security and the Middle East Studies Penn State and IU Alumni. “Authoritarian and hybrid regimes, elections, terror groups and National Security”