Voters in Istanbul have dealt a stunning blow to the prestige of President Erdoğan and a landmark victory for democracy in the landslide win for the opposition coalition candidate from the Republican People’s party (CHP), Ekrem İmamoğlu, who for the second time was elected Mayor of Istanbul over the former prime minister Binali Yıldırım, the candidate of the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP).
And what a victory it was. Despite blanket pro-government media coverage, nearly 9 million people voted in the rerun election, representing some 85% of those eligible to vote. In the March election, Ekrem İmamoğlu majority was 13,500. This time is was some 775,000 representing just over 54% of the votes cast. The decision to demand a rerun has been a disastrous one for Erdoğan and will have serious repercussions within the governing AK Party, which it was rumoured was split over the original decision to call for the rerun election. After all it was Erdogan who said that whoever wins Istanbul will win Turkey. The vote is the biggest blow in his 25 year career to what seemed his dictatorial grip on power.
Writing in The Guardian (24 June) Bethan McKernan reported that: “Losing Istanbul for a second time is an unthinkable outcome for the AKP. Turkey’s biggest city and economic heart, it accounted for 31% of GDP in 2017 and is an important driver of the government’s unofficial patronage networks. It has been controlled by the ruling party and its Islamist predecessors for a quarter of a century.
Observers note that İmamoğlu’s mandate is still far from assured: the 2015 general election which saw the AKP lose its majority in parliament was rerun and other charismatic challengers to Erdoğan have been imprisoned or folded under pressure.
The AKP still controls 25 of Istanbul’s 39 districts and holds a majority in the municipal assembly, which will make it difficult for İmamoğlu to deliver on campaign promises. The margin of his victory, however, shows that at least in Istanbul there is a strong appetite for change after 16 years of national AKP rule.”
This strong appetite for change was reflected in the measures some electors went to in order to cast their votes. The Turkish Hurriyet Daily News reported that Fatma Tunca, a 77-year-old who recently had a hip surgery, was brought to a school in an ambulance in the Samandıra neighbourhood on the Asian side to cast her vote. She was one of the elderly and disabled people who were escorted by officials to the ballot boxes. The newly opened Istanbul airport also witnessed a busy day with thousands of people flocking to the districts where their addresses were registered. Long lines of buses were observed at the Esenler Bus Terminal on the European side of the city starting from 22 June. According to İbrahim Tansel from the Central Anatolian province of Sivas, the election offered an opportunity to see his friends while Dursun Çağlayan from the Black Sea province of Trabzon told Demirören News Agency at the airport that his family had businesses in both cities. “We will cast our votes as a family and go back to Trabzon,” he said.
Ekrem İmamoğlu’s campaign was supported by the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and adopted the slogan “Everything will be just fine”. Just whether that turns out to be true remains to be seen. The result will boost the confidence of those campaigning for a democratic society and against Erdoğan’s autocratic rule, but as a friend from Ankara observed shortly after the result was declared: “This is the first major defeat for the dictator, and a success for the big coalition of Turkish-Kurdish people and all democratic forces. Restoring democracy will take longer and will need patience.”