Ekrem Imamoğlu’s Faltering Path to Office
On the night of the March 31 mayoral election in Istanbul the honking of jubilant cars, blaring CHP songs, and shouts of loyalty to Atatürk and Istanbul echoed throughout the city. For most, the election signified a shift in Turkish politics.The nationwide municipal elections were an upset for Erdoğan’s consistent AKP electoral victory. The opposition coalition took large cities, including Ankara, that had consistently voted for the AKP since their rise to power in 2003. But the opposition’s success in Istanbul more than anywhere else offered Turks hope for their democracy.
On the night of the June 23 re-election Turks across the world incessantly refreshed their news webpages, scanned Twitter, and waited for the media ban to be lifted. News began to leak that the chair of the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) had had a heart attack while other sources claimed that early results showed opposition candidate Imamoğlu winning by a landslide. Opposition supporters anxiously questioned whether they could trust in the electoral process after three months of inconsistent responses from the YSK.
The previous mayoral election in March 2019 ended in controversy as CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoğlu won the election with a margin of 0.2%.1.“Turkey’s election board orders revote for Istanbul mayor” : CNN The AKP alleged that the opposition had committed voter fraud. They went as far as to claim that in Büyükçekmece, a district which had flipped from AKP, they could identify AKP voters by their names.2.“Soyisminden parti analizi!” : SOZCU In the days following the election residents of Büyükçekmece were subjected to visits by police to check for irregularities. Although the YSK rejected some of the AKP’s requests for recounts, it allowed for 51 ballot boxes to be re-examined.3.“AK Party seeks Istanbul vote rerun as YSK limits recount to 51 ballot boxes” : Daily Sabah4.“AKP scans voters’ surnames to prove electoral fraud in Istanbul” : Ahval
Yet thirteen days after Imamoğlu first took office the YSK reversed its decision to recount a nominal portion of the votes – a portion not large enough to change the results of the election – and called for a new election.
On June 28, for the second time this year, after weathering two races that bore deep into Turkish identity politics, İmamoğlu was certified as Mayor of İstanbul.5.“Ekrem İmamoğlu becomes Istanbul mayor after rerun polls” : Hurriyet This time he chose to celebrate with his supporters in Fetih – a conservative district with a large Syrian population. Imamoğlu’s win in Fetih and the other swing districts helped to increase his previous win in March from just 13,000 votes to more than 800,000.6.“Turkey’s top election body announces official results for Istanbul elections, says İmamoğlu winner” : Hurriyet
Turkish Voting Blocs
Istanbul, like the rest of Turkey, has a significant portion of young voters capable of drastically affecting election results.7.“How will young, urban people vote in Turkey’s next elections?” : Hurriyet
Both campaigns focussed on the future of Istanbul and Turkey as a whole, with children and young voters at the center of their rhetoric.8.“Metropolitan Mayor of İstanbul Ekrem İmamoğlu: We are Bringing Peace to This Beautiful City” : Bianet
After the March election Istanbulites woke up to find AKP posters and billboards around the city thanking them for AKP candidate Binali Yıldırım’s electoral victory.9.“Turkey AK party rulers are bad losers, says election ‘winner’ Imamoglu” : BBC In the weeks preceding the June election, the posters changed to new campaign promises. One in particular targeted young voters with the promise of 10 GB of free data.
While Yıldırım made promises about greater internet accessibility, Ankara has blocked online sources like Wikipedia since 2017. Likewise social media sites have often been targets of censorship and temporary blockages.10.“Mapping Internet Freedom in Real Time ” : Turkey Blocks During the campaign Yıldırım revamped his Twitter presence by returning to a former account with more followers and incessantly tweeting in an attempt to catch up to Imamoğlu’s now 2.9 million followers.11.“Ruling AKP’s Yıldırım switches to previous, more popular Twitter account ahead of Istanbul revote” : Ahval While critiquing the current administration has landed several people in jail, memes and citizen journalism alike closely followed the re-election in Istanbul.12.“Turkey elections: Six arrested for ‘insulting Erdogan’ on social media ahead of major national polls” : Independent
Yıldırım’s campaign posters also promised free museums, increased transportation discounts for students, new libraries and continuity of AKP policies.13.https://twitter.com/BY/status/1141477783786479618 Their campaign urged voters to appreciate AKP achievements with slogans like “What we said, we did. And we will do it again.”14.“Binali Yıldırım’ın Seçim Sloganı Belli Oldu” : Haberler Their campaign urged voters to appreciate AKP achievements with slogans like “What we said, we did. And we will do it again.”15.“Binali Yıldırım’ın Seçim Sloganı Belli Oldu” : Haberler
Meanwhile Imamoğlu pledged to create jobs for young people in Istanbul, make Istanbul green again and represent people of all religions and backgrounds. Based on the election results it seems that Istanbul’s younger and older generations alike are ready for change.
The mayoral election campaigns resembled a referendum on AKP administration and Erdoğan himself rather than Yıldırım’s local policies. Posters and ads for Yıldırım often included photos of Erdoğan and state run news outlets were quick to promote AKP achievements and Erdoğan specifically leading up to the election night. Both Imamoğlu and Yıldırm campaigned outside of Istanbul, demonstrating the nationwide implications of the election results. Yıldırım visited the Kurdish dominant city of Diyarbakır while Imamoğlu was greeted by huge crowds in his hometown, and Erdoğan’s electoral base, Trabzon.16.“Yildirim campaigns for Kurdish support in Diyarbakir before Istanbul re-run” : Rudaw17.“Governor Warns İmamoğlu to Cut Rally Short, Threatens to Intervene In” : Bianet
Erdoğan made several attempts to rally support not only from his base but also from Kurds and Syrians. In Fetih and other Syrian enclaves Yılıdırım and Erdoğan made attempts to simultaneously pander to Syrian refugees and those Turks who called for their return to Syria.18.“Vatandaştan Binali Yıldırım’a Suriyeli tepkisi: “10 sene önceki İstanbul’u özledik”” : Yenicag Imamoğlu promised to create a new position in his office to look into the resources and problems in the city surrounding Syrians while Yılıdırım insisted that the municipalities “municipal initiatives on the issue ‘already exists’ though they could be strengthened”.19.“All eyes on June 23 Istanbul revote” : Andolu Agency While many Syrians were off put by the CHP’s alliance with the ultra-nationalist İyi Party (given some increasingly open calls by some İyi Party representatives to send Syrians back to Syria), the AKP’s outreach to Syrian voters appears to have ultimately failed. Yıldırm’s loss in Fetih, home of Istanbul’s Little Damascus, implies that Syrians may have helped to sway the results in Imamoğlu’s favor.20.“Will Syrian voters be kingmakers in Istanbul’s mayoral election?” : Al-Monitor
In an interesting twist, the Kurdish voting bloc – from which many had abstained in the previous election due to the lack of an HDP candidate – may have been the deciding factor in the second election. The leak of jailed former PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s open letter to his supporters urging them to “forge a third way” between CHP and AKP just days before the election made a huge impact on perceptions of the AKP and Kurdish voters alike.21.“AKP on Öcalan’s Leaked Letter: ‘We Would Do It in a Different Way'” : Bianet The letter immediately made front pages in several AKP supported newspapers which interpreted Öcalan’s message as a call for HDP supporters to abstain in the upcoming election.22.“Erdoğan: Öcalan’s letter indicates struggle between outlawed PKK leader, Demirtaş” : Hurriyet Many speculate that Öcalan and Ankara struck a deal to dissuade Kurdish voters from going to the polls in the re-election.23.“Demirtaş: Please Go to Polls and Cast your Vote” : Bianet Many speculate that Öcalan and Ankara struck a deal to dissuade Kurdish voters from going to the polls in the re-election.24.“Demirtaş: Please Go to Polls and Cast your Vote” : Bianet
Amongst both Kurds and AKP supporters this unsavory alliance may have pushed voters to vote against the AKP. Many found the letter to be a thinly veiled last minute trick, an alliance with a PKK mouthpiece or a disingenuous attempt to sway Kurdish voters. However, after having remained relatively silent in the last election, jailed former HDP leader Selhattin Demirtaş urged HDP voters to “…bear your cross if necessary, but go to the polls and cast your vote, which means ‘No to fascism’.”25.“Demirtaş: Please Go to Polls and Cast your Vote” : Bianet This statement reinforced the coalition’s combined strength and points toward the potential for a united parliamentary bloc in 2023.
“Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey”
On Saturday Former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan and former president Adbullah Gül, both veteran AKP members, announced that they were forming a new political party.26.“AKP breakaway party to steer clear of Erdoğan’s identity politics – Artı Gerçek” : Ahval This new party, alike Merel Akşener’s İyi Party which broke from the AKP-allied MHP, shows increasing opposition to Erdoğan’s one-man rule from his conservative colleagues. Nonetheless while Imamoğlu’s victory in Istanbul signals a shift in Erdoğan’s reign, the opposition still remains divided on several fronts. The tenuous alliance between the nationalist CHP, practically outlawed progressive HDP, and conservative nationalist Iyi Party hinges on a united front against Erodgan. All three parties have haggled over Kurdish voting blocs and pushed forward different responses to the Syrian refugee crisis.
The opposition coalition has drawn parties to the center in an attempt to combat the AKP’s alliance with the MHP, temporarily setting aside serious ideological differences. Demirtas tweeted to voters that “superficial daily debates” should be put to the side while the opposition tends to upholding democratic practices and preventing one-man or one-party rule.27.“Istanbul’s new mayor warns Erdogan against curbing his powers” : Financial Times Yet it is by no means a guarantee that their unlikely alliance will survive serious tests in the coming years.
Meanwhile Erdoğan has begun working to suppress some of the new mayors’ powers.28.“Istanbul’s new mayor warns Erdogan against curbing his powers” : Financial Times Last month Erdoğan introduced new legislation that “removed the right of municipal mayors to elect officials at companies linked to the municipality”. 29.“Istanbul’s new mayor warns Erdogan against curbing his powers” : Financial Times While Erdogan may have lost some access to his resources, business connections, and infrastructure projects in Istanbul, he still has a firm grip on Turkish media, parliament, and his fresh presidential powers.
Nevertheless many Istanbulites are looking toward the future, some with the expectation that everything will be good.30.“Istanbul vote re-run: Ambitious mayor takes on Erdogan’s man” : BBC
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