President Erdogan’s Uncertain Future After Istanbul Upset

“Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey,” noted president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan not so long ago. Words he’ll live to regret, if ever they come true. The city of his birth, his political awakening and his ascent to power is – after a quarter of a century – no longer his. In perhaps Turkey’s biggest political upset since the abortive coup of 2016, an opposition candidate – Ekrem İmamoğlu – has surged from relative obscurity to win Istanbul’s mayoral election. 

And win it by a comfortable margin, he did. No fewer than 800,000 votes separated İmamoğlu and his Erdoğan-endorsed opponent, Binali Yıldırım. The latter, a former prime minister of Turkey, had the slick election machine of the governing AKP party behind him, as well as overwhelmingly favourable coverage from state controlled media and huge amounts of funding. But still he lost.   

It was the second time in just three months that denizens of Turkey’s largest city were tasked with selecting a leader. İmamoğlu prevailed in March’s election also, but – alleging the vote was “tainted” – Erdoğan lent heavily on electoral authorities to order a rerun. It was a catastrophic miscalculation from the usually adept politician, with İmamoğlu increasing his vote share some sixty times in the second ballot.

Erdoğan was gracious in defeat this time around, recognising the emergence of “the national will”. The notoriously incorrigible leader promised to take stock of the result, vowing not to “ignore the messages given by the people”. But the fact remains that many – including members of his own party – blame him for the stinging loss.

His foot-stamping dismissal of the original result typified Erdoğan’s autocratic tendencies and played poorly with the Istanbul electorate. İmamoğlu offered them something the president and team could not – ‘umut’, or hope, a word synonymous with his insurgent campaign. His optimism, his inclusive message and his progressive ideals were an unapologetic rebuke to the president’s strident populism – and struck a chord with voters in search of some positivity. 

Mr Erdoğan will now be worried that Istanbul’s fervour for change could spread nationwide, and not without good reason. The city is Turkey’s economic and cultural hub, and has in the past dictated the sway of national politics for decades to come. The collapse of the once dominant Motherland Party began with defeat in Istanbul’s 1989 municipal election. And then, five years later, another local poll saw Erdoğan claim the mayoralty – the first step in his ascendant to the top.       

İmamoğlu has been quick to dismiss rumours that his victory could prompt a presidential bid, but Erdoğan knows a mayor’s ambition needn’t be confined to city limits for long – and the younger man’s presidential potential can’t be denied. Throwing off 25 years of AKP rule required grand coalition building, something Istanbul’s new leader has proven himself adept at. His secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) has brought together Kurds, nationalists, Islamists, and even some disenchanted AKP members. 

And Istanbul will offer the mayor further opportunities to burnish his leadership credentials. The city accounts for just short of a third of Turkey’s total GDP, and commands a municipal budget of $4bn. It is suffering something of a migration crisis, however, with 600,000 residents moving out of the city in 2018, according to official statistics.

This is symptomatic of Turkey’s acute recession, which is crushing living standards nationwide. Brought on by years of large-scale building projects cheaply funded through foreign credit, the economic crisis has forced national unemployment rates towards 15% – with experts warning that the bad times are likely to endure. 

“Because previous crises were left behind quickly, the duration of unemployment was not too long. But now people will be unemployed for a very long time,” said Seyfettin Gursel, director of the Betam research center at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University.

A champion of Turkey’s explosive growth in recent years, the economic downturn has smashed Erdoğan’s personal credibility. It was his AKP government that accelerated borrowing to fund huge infrastructure and construction projects – but with the collapse of their lira currency, Turks are desperately struggling to pay their foreign creditors. Growing disenchantment with the government’s economic policy was a key driver in the Istanbul mayoral contest, experts say.

It was, however, Erdoğan’s assault on civil society that hindered his candidate most. Press freedom, judicial independence and human rights have all been cracked down on – especially in the aftermath of 2016’s failed coup. Free elections were perhaps the last bastion of true democracy in Turkey, and Istanbul’s voters used theirs to send a clear message: İmamoğlu’s positivity trumps AKP repression. 

Mr Erdoğan will be especially concerned that the new mayor managed to win over one-time AKP voters. Tens-of-thousands of citizens who backed the president’s party in March shifted across to İmamoğlu in the rerun, polling data shows. This speaks to the wider threat of division among Erdoğan’s ranks. There are wide rumours that former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan and former president Abdullah Gul – two stalwarts of the AKP movement – are planning a breakaway party.

And while that would be devastating for the president, it’s the lethal mix of powerbase disintegration and growing opposition unity that could prove fatal, experts believe. Those who oppose Mr Erdoğan “now have the recipe for electoral success,” said Berk Esen, assistant professor of international relations at Ankara’s Bilkent University. The president “will have added difficulty in keeping his party and base together without access to Istanbul municipality’s vast resources,” he added, speaking to InsideOver.

For the time being, however, Erdoğan remains in charge. He is equipped with sweeping executive powers which could, hypothetically, be used to undermine Mr İmamoğlu. Further erosion of democratic principles would be abominable, but with a populist leader like Mr Erdoğan backed into a corner, not unthinkable. “Hope and love won this process. Mr İmamoğlu represents the future,” a colleague of the new mayor said after his election. A message of promise for those in greatest need; a dire warning – perhaps even a threat – for those already at the top.