“To win Istanbul is to win the whole of Turkey,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said triumphantly when he was elected mayor of this city that straddles the Bosporus in Turkey 25 years ago.
He has since made it into a proverb that he has repeated time and time again, confident in his and his ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) claim to everlasting title of the city. But now the rug has been pulled out from under his feet, as in the rerun elections for the city’s mayor last week the people of Istanbul rejected the AKP candidate, in effect saying “we’re through with you.”
Istanbul has thus proclaimed its freedom from a quarter of a century of AKP Islamist clutches. But this has been only half fulfilled with the victory of the opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, as its new mayor. The other half will come four years from now when Imamoglu succeeds Erdogan as president of Turkey.
Erdogan had expected to be defeated, but not by a nine-point margin that has put paid to his chances to cast aspersions on the results. This time he has had no choice but to swallow his pride and to congratulate the victor in the elections, a man Turkey’s pro-government press had earlier branded “Pontus”, a codeword for a traitor alluding to Pontic Greeks and Christians and early 20th-century Greek nationalist attempts to revive the Pontus/Trabzon region in Turkey along the Black Sea.
Moreover, only a few days before the polls Erdogan personally lashed out against Imamoglu, accusing him of having secret links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and warning that the courts would soon be on his trail. The implication was that even if Imamoglu were elected, he could be removed as mayor by using accusations of “terrorism” and replaced by a government-appointed trustee. This has occurred with at least seven elected municipal chiefs in southeast Anatolia that were critical of the Erdogan regime.
Strategically, Erdogan and the ruling AKP were on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, they had to sustain their aggressive, ultranationalist rhetoric to cater to their ally, the far-right Nationalist People’s Party (MHP). On the other hand, they wanted to appeal to Kurdish voters who turned out to be the key to swinging the 31 March elections in favour of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) in Turkey’s major cities.
Ironically, as a last ditch attempt on the eve of the elections, Erdogan dispatched a messenger to the high-security prison on Imrali Island where the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan had been held in solitary confinement until recently in order to procure a message to Turkey’s Kurds to “remain impartial” in the polls. The pro-government press dutifully rewrote this as “do not take part” in them.
Shortly before this, the AKP candidate for Istanbul mayor, Binali Yildirim, travelled to Diyarbakir in the east of the country in order to address the Kurds back in Istanbul. From there, he spoke of an “envoy from Kurdistan” among the people’s representatives that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, had brought to the first convention of the National Assembly in Ankara.
But in doing so, the AKP candidate had broken a nationalist taboo. Only a month before on one of this campaign stops in Imamoglu’s home town of Trabzon, Erdogan said that “we don’t have a Kurdistan [in Turkey] region. If you love it, so does northern Iraq. Go there. Get out and go to Iraqi Kurdistan. You have no place in this country.”
Stranger still, the state-owned TRT television channel then hosted Osman Ocalan, the brother of the imprisoned PKK leader. A former PKK commander himself and on Ankara’s “danger list” since 2015, the AKP has been hailing him as a man of peace.
A prominent member of the Saadet (Felicity) Party, which also fielded a candidate in last week’s rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election, tweeted that “for 45 years the Turkish state has told the Kurds not to follow in the footsteps of the terrorist Abdullah Ocalan. But when it appeared that Erdogan’s party would lose Istanbul, the government itself told them to heed his call. This isn’t government. It’s dirty politics.”
“The state television channel did not invite our candidate for an interview. Instead, it opened its doors to Abdullah Ocalan’s brother. Such are the morals of the ruling party,” he said.
Before the elections, Erdogan had said that “if we stumble in Istanbul, we will lose our footing in Turkey.” In other words, the AKP would lose the status of being the party in charge of providing key services to voters, which is chiefly how it has built its popularity over the years. Now Erdogan and his cronies may have decided that if they cannot have Istanbul, they will make the city’s residents pay.
“The president could opt to starve opposition-controlled municipalities by withdrawing funds that are tied to ministries under his direct control. The presidential system, in place for a year in Turkey, could provide the easiest answer to the local election defeat,” wrote commentator Xavier Palacios in the newspaper Ahval on 20 June.
In fact, two weeks ago the AKP shifted a large chunk of Istanbul’s municipal assets to the Ministry of Youth in Ankara, using a protocol described by a CHP municipal official as “immoral”.
With the loss of Istanbul, all the major cities that generate 64 per cent of Turkey’s GDP are now in opposition hands, meaning that the AKP has lost much of its clout. As Palacios observed, “major municipalities have used utilities companies they control as political tools. These public-private entities, despite being legally exposed to the Court of Accounts, are in practice exempt from accountability, mostly due to the opaque political environment. Most of these municipality companies are governed by boards of directors that are appointed by municipal bodies, in which mayors have an influential voice.”
Is this the beginning of the end for the AKP and Erdogan? Before the polls, AKP cofounder Bulent Arinc warned that “if we lose the 23 June elections, we’ll never win again.”
Turkey has seen a number of governments that have used religion as props come and go. The Democratic Party government headed by Adnan Menderes in the 1950s, the Motherland Party government headed by Turgut Ozal in the 1980s, and the True Path Party government led by Süleyman Demirel in the early 1990s have all been consigned to history.
Erdogan’s AKP government may be going the same way soon.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Defeat for Turkey’s AKP