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Major Political Defeat of Erdogan in Istanbul Hints at Reform Coming to Turkey

Posters for Binali Yıldırım and Ekrem İmamoğlu
Posters for Binali Yıldırım (left) and Ekrem İmamoğlu (right) in Istanbul election, 2019. (Photo: VOA)

“The significance of Ekrem Imamoglu’s win in Istanbul cannot be understated…. he represents a much-needed change in political discourse.”

Turkey’s opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) triumphed over President Erdogan’s ruling party in Istanbul’s mayoral election on Sunday in a victory that could have tremendous consequences for the future of the country.

Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) already lost Istanbul on March 31, but President Erdogan demanded a recount. Erdogan began his political career as the city’s mayor and views it of major strategic importance, having once said “whoever loses Istanbul loses Turkey.”

Erdogan’s gamble backfired, with CHP’s Ekrem Imamoglu expanding his victory from a narrow 0.2% on March 31 to a sweeping 9.2% on Sunday.

Changing of the Guard?

“The significance of Ekrem Imamoglu’s win in Istanbul cannot be understated…. he represents a much-needed change in political discourse,” Lisel Hintz, an assistant professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University SAIS, told PBS.

Erdogan’s AKP party ruled Istanbul for the last 25 years, using the city’s $4 billion municipal budget to entrench an extensive patronage network of loyalists. With new hands in control of Turkey’s largest and most prosperous city, Erdogan’s support system could be ruptured.

“One building block of this dependency network is damaged now,” Esra Ceviker Gurakar, author of a book on procurement and patronage in Turkey, told the Financial Times.

As Turkey endures an ongoing economic downturn, Imamoglu’s ability to steer municipal funds away from AKP loyalists and towards the city’s population could expand his popularity and set him up for a presidential contest against Erdogan in 2023.

“The books are going to open, and we’re going to see what was being done in Istanbul for all these years,” said Hintz.

Will Erdogan Interfere in Istanbul?

Despite losing Turkey’s financial and cultural hub (in addition to other major cities in the March 31 election), Erdogan maintains tremendous power over the country’s politics, media, and judiciary. Many analysts believe Erdogan will seek to use his other channels of power to undermine his political rival.

“We now have to wait and see whether Imamoglu’s tenure as mayor will be interfered with in any way, whether by cutting off funding and hampering his office’s ability to provide services or by removing him under some legal pretext,” said Hintz.

“You have protected the reputation of democracy in Turkey,” Imamoglu told supporters. Lawyers and citizen journalists from across the country gathered for the election to oversee its fairness.

Political commentators note that the victory of Imamoglu’s center-left CHP party reflects Erdogan’s original rise to power 25 years ago. Back then, Erdogan framed his socially conservative Islamist party as a champion of the oppressed against the country’s secularist military. But since Erdogan has eroded his country’s system of checks and balances and entrenched unilateral rule, Imamoglu was able to cast himself as the protector of the persecuted in this election cycle.

While the AKP swiftly accepted defeat, it remains unseen what actions Erdogan will take to counter Imamoglu’s powerful mayoralty.

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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