Does election result in Istanbul breathe new life into Turkish democracy?

What does a (2nd) victory of Ekrem Imamoglu in Istanbul elections mean for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkish politics? Read few comments.

New Mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu. Credit:

Umut ParmaksizAssistant Professor, Department of Sociology, TED University

This result is a huge blow to Erdogan and his party. Imamoglu, the new mayor of Istanbul, has placed himself on the national stage as a worthy opponent of Erdogan who could topple him in a Presidential election. Moreover, this result will also embolden disillusioned former AKP members who  are rumoured to be in the process of forming new political parties to challenge Erdogan. If these former AKP members do form their parties and are able to grab some AKP MPs to their party, AKP and the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party)  coalition could lose its majority in the parliament. Such a development will definitely mean early elections. Erdogan has a lot in his plate right now; economy, S-400 crises and other problems with the US in Syria would make it a very bad time for early elections. Erdogan will try to avoid early elections as much as possible, until the effects of the economic crises are mitigated.

Overall, while in the short run this result has brought some stability to the political sphere, in the medium and long run, there is more political uncertainty waiting the country.

Christopher Houston, Professor of Anthropology, Macquarie University, Sydney

To start with the second question first, what does the election result mean for Turkish politics? The Refah Party, and then its successor party (the AKP) first won the Greater or Metropolitan Municipalities of Istanbul and Ankara in 1994, and have won every election for those two cities since, until their municipal defeats in 1919. That equates to 25 years of continuous government of the AKP over Turkey’s two most important cities, Ankara as the city of government and administration, and Istanbul as Turkey’s economic powerhouse. In Istanbul, of course, Tayyip Erdogan became Mayor in 1994, and so the rise to power of the Refah/AKP political party and the wider social movement associated with it coincided with the emergence of Tayyip Erdogan as Turkey’s most influential political figure.

Turkey does not have a federal system, so the municipalities, especially what is called the ‘Greater Municipality’ or ‘Metropolitan Municipalities’ of Istanbul and Ankara (which is what Ekrem Imamoglu has just won), are in effect the second tier of governance in Turkey. And although the power and autonomy of the municipalities is constrained by the Government in power in Ankara, municipalities do have significant influence over planning, over raising revenue (taxing) for their own projects, and of course in providing services for the inhabitants of Istanbul. Indeed the budget of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality is larger than many small countries’ budgets alone.

All this means that the loss of Istanbul by the AKP is a major political and economic event, as it now gives an opportunity to a rival political party to showcase their urban competence and to provide services to Istanbul’s inhabitants. This is important because at its core, the AKP emerged as a municipality party, and its popularity for decades has been connected to its ability to built housing, to make new roads and bridges, to construct new transport infrastructure, to design parks, establish shopping malls, and to regenerate Istanbul’s built environments (including its tourist infrastructure, and cultural heritage conservation). Turkish voters have a pragmatic streak in them (as do most voters everywhere), and so a competent administration that ‘gets things done’, and that is not too corrupt in its dealings with the public, will be popular with the electorate. So for the CHP (the biggest opposition party), winning Istanbul is (potentially) a major game-changer, as it allows it to develop its own practice of ‘democratic municipalism.’

On top of that, control of Istanbul’s planning processes, its development possibilities, its marketing and organizing of tourism and conferences, its provisioning, and its urban sustainability processes gives the CHP enormous new opportunities for business and finance, for rewarding its supporters with contracts and services, for establishing new companies dedicated to city servicing, for new enterprises oriented to cultural production, arts entrepreneurship, and tourism. Istanbul is a global city, one of the biggest mega-cities in the world, with a population of 20 million people at any one time (counting tourists). In brief, control over its growth, investment, and development facilitates a huge number of new opportunities for the incoming government and its cadres.

So what does all this mean for Turkish politics? It means a rejuvenated Opposition party, which is now governing the cities of Ankara, Izmir, and Istanbul. (The Kurdish party won Diyarbakir, so parties in opposition to the AKP now administer most of Turkey’s most important cities).

But it also means a return in some ways to the 1970s, where the political party in power at the national level (and the President himself) is from a different party to the governments or administrations at the municipal level. In the late 1970s that led to a disastrous crisis in municipal services and competencies, as the national government starved the municipal governments of funds. We can expect to see the AKP and the President change or ‘reform’ the financing arrangements and tax regimes for the metropolitan municipalities, now that they have lost control over them, in an attempt to undermine the CHP’s ability to provide good governance and new forms of urban innovation. So political struggle in Turkey will switch to the local, urban level, and we can expect new and bitter disputes over the financing and attempted re-centralizing of Ankara’s control over municipalities.

As for the President Tayyip Erdogan, it is hard to say how it will affect his power over Turkish political, social, and economic processes. The constitutional referendum in 2017 gave the Presidency virtual control over the Parliament, so in one way it will be politics as usual at the national level. But the AKP and Tayyip Erdogan have been intimately connected to Istanbul and its development over the last 25 years, and for that reason alone this election result is significant in bruising his prestige. It is, in brief, both a real political loss and a symbolic sign that the authoritarianism of the President is not accepted by huge numbers of urban citizens in Turkey. After all, Istanbul also voted NO (by a small majority, 50.5 – 49.5 %) in the referendum on constitutional change last year, a result that heralded Istanbul’s disillusionment with the AKP and its dominant figure, Tayyip Erdogan. In sum, I think the election result breathes new life into Turkish democracy, as it rejuvenates urban issues as core battleground for citizens’ rights.

Toni AlarantaSenior Research Fellow, Finnish Institute of International Affairs

First of all, the fact this was repeated in itself indicates how fragile democratic institutions have become under Erdogan.

Now, the margin of Imamoglu’s victory is so massive, that similar manipulation is not possible. Even authoritarian regimes require legitimacy. Erdogan has built his support base by claiming he uniquely represents the national will. This has now become implausibible.

First Muharrem Ince in 2018 presedential elections and not (twice) Imamoglu have been able to reach beyond the CHP’s 25 % support base. The victorious AKP electoral base is gone for good. Erdogan tried to seduce both Kurds and MHP nationalists, with disastrous results.

The crucial thing will be the conservatives who now voted for Imamoglu: was this only temporal caused by economic downturn, or a more permanent collapse of the centre-right bloc gathered around Erdogan/AKP since 2002. I think there are already elements of the second mechanism as well.

We will have to wait and see – Erdogan may try to make Imamoglu’s life as mayor as hard as possible…

Major event, there is no doubt about it.

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