Turkey’s President Erdogan lost Istanbul after a quarter century. Now what?

By Abdullah Aydogan, Ph.D.
Research Scholar

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost Istanbul, a key metropolitan municipality, following last Sunday’s repeat mayoral election. This is the largest electoral defeat Erdogan has faced since he became the mayor of Istanbul in 1994, and it is particularly important as the rerun was only held because the Supreme Election Commission (YSK) annulled the original election (held on March 31, 2019). Many observers rightfully believe this decision only occurred due to the Erdogan’s discomfort with the opposition’s initial victory.

The June 23 election results show that the opposition mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu widened his margin of victory from 13,000 to 800,000, making it even harder to question the legitimacy of his victory. Now that the results are in, what does this victory mean for the future of Turkish democracy?

Erdogan still controls the Turkish bureaucracy and media

Undoubtedly, the opposition achieved a big success. Istanbul accounts for more than 30% of Turkey’s GDP, and its municipality has played a central role in the AKP’s clientelistic networks. As a result, the AKP — which has ruled Istanbul for years — will significantly suffer from this defeat. The fact that the major opposition party also won the municipalities of Ankara and Izmir, the second and third largest cities, further exacerbates the AKP’s situation.

Nevertheless, the AKP still controls Turkey’s bureaucracy and media. After thousands of civil servants in the judiciary and the police force were purged after the 2016 coup attempt, the AKP largely filled the vacant positions with loyalists. During the local election campaign in Istanbul, the AKP also frequently threatened opposition candidates with judicial trials should the opposition emerge victorious. In addition, the Turkish government controls about 95% of the media, and Turkey’s ranking in the international press freedom index is 157 according to the International Press Institute.

Under these circumstances it will not be easy to replicate the opposition’s local electoral successes on a broader national scale, especially in the presidential election of 2023. In order to overcome the challenges posed by AKP control, the opposition needs to strengthen their direct communication with the voters.

In the Istanbul election, the opposition party’s biggest strategy in the absence of large media support was to mobilize its core supporters to spread its message to apolitical, nonpartisan voters, as well as former AKP supporters. Imamoglu organized dozens of rallies in different corners of Istanbul, and he worked hard to encourage each participant to gain new votes.

Imamoglu’s strategy also included the efficient use of the internet and social media. With over 2.8 million followers on Twitter, he gained enormous visibility during the campaign. Nevertheless, a similar internet-based campaign will not necessarily guarantee national success for the opposition. Internet penetration rates are about 15% higher in Istanbul compared to the rest of the nation according to a Konda 2018 Barometer survey. As a result, the opposition should either push further to gain more national media visibility, or it should mobilize its resources to increase the internet penetration rates, especially in lower income neighborhoods. To achieve the latter, the opposition-controlled municipalities might consider allocating more funding to increase internet access among public.

Kurds were pivotal in the Istanbul election

Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Turkey, comprising about 20% of the population. About half of the Kurdish population votes for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in national elections. The HDP did not nominate a candidate for the Istanbul election, so the last few days of the campaign were entirely dominated by a single question: which candidate will receive the HDP’s support?

Despite the aggressive policies of the government against the Kurdish groups and pro-Kurdish politicians over the last five years, the ruling AKP made few strategic moves to attract Kurdish voters before the election. The most important move was cooperating with Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which was designated as a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the U.S. In order to block large-scale support for the opposition candidate, Öcalan wrote a letter asking Kurds not to vote.

This letter became a top news focus within the media, including the state-run and pro-government television channels. Even Erdogan referred to the letter in a live TV interview.  The HDP leadership immediately responded by praising Öcalan’s role in the Kurdish movement while reiterating their explicit stand against the AKP candidate and their decision to vote for Imamoglu. As a result, Kurdish politicians and voters did not heed Öcalan’s message. In the entire history of the Kurdish movement, I do not recall any moment in which Kurds were so pivotal in determining such a key political decision.

Now what?

Looking ahead, many experts believe that early presidential and parliamentary elections are possible, as the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) — historically an ally of the AKP — may decide to withdraw their support from the government. Under the presidential system enacted after 2017 referendum, early elections are extremely difficult and require 60% of the votes in the parliament to initiate. Even if the MHP and all the opposition parties demanded early elections, the support of at least 54 more AKP members would be needed. Given the fact that the MHP barely passed the 10% electoral threshold and was heavily criticized by nationalist voters during the Öcalan letter fiasco, it is unclear if the MHP would want to risk its seats in the parliament by calling for early elections at this moment.  From this perspective, early elections remain unlikely.

If early elections are not called, Turkey’s parties will need to begin preparing for the 2023 elections. In this respect, Erdogan’s biggest challenge is the economy, which is one of the most important reasons for his loss in Istanbul. Fixing the economy would require Erdogan and the AKP to respect the rule of law and Turkey’s electoral institutions. I previously suggested that conceding the local election results would create a huge PR opportunity for Erdogan. Had he respected the original election results, he might have shown the domestic and international audiences that he is not an authoritarian leader. However, he only congratulated Imamoglu after Imamoglu’s second win.

Still, Erdogan has the opportunity to change his image among Turkish voters. It will require some dramatic efforts at fixing the economy, respecting the rule of law, and decreasing the level of polarization in the country. If Erdogan doesn’t work toward these goals, Imamoglu’s softer rhetoric will continue to attract more and more voters. In addition, if Imamoglu has administrative success as the mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan may face a serious challenger in the next presidential elections.

Twenty-five years ago, Erdogan rose to fame following a historic win in Istanbul. Last Sunday, Ekrem Imamoglu achieved the same. It will be interesting to see their stories unfold moving toward the presidential election in 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic.


Image credit: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis