The political battle over Istanbul

Bassem Aly , Wednesday 8 May 2019

The AKP in Turkey is ready to “use any means against the opposition” to prevent it from future electoral gains

Turkey Protests
Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration in Istanbul's Kadikoy district, on May 7, 2019, following a decision by the authorities to re-run the city's mayoral election (Photo: AFP)

The awaited decision has finally been made. Turkey’s High Election Board (YSK) decided Monday to accept an appeal by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) for a re-run of local polls in Istanbul on the basis of irregularities.

While President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist party gained most of the seats in municipal councils and won most of the districts, it lost the biggest three cities: Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.

“My people tell me the elections should be renewed. I have not spoken until now, I’ve been silent. But everyone else has spoken. Enough already,” Erdogan said Sunday. “There is a controversy here, it’s clear. There is an irregularity here, that’s clear too. Let’s go to the people and see what they say and whatever the outcome, we will accept it.”

But the history of Erdogan and his party with the opposition inevitably leads to questions on whether he will stop at the legal stage. Mass arrests, closure of anti-AKP media outlets, removal of thousands of state employees based on claims of being supporters of Fethullah Gulen — a US-based cleric — after the 2016 coup attempt and efforts to block social networks were all signs that Erdogan has chosen a non-democratic path for the country in previous years.

For Ahmet Kuru, political science professor at San Diego State University, Erdogan “is the most powerful political leader of Turkey since 1950 as he controls not only the bureaucracy but also the parliament, judiciary and media”.

Yet, Kuru, author of a new book called Islam, Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment, believes that Erdogan is in a tough position that “will limit his attempts to weaken the opposition” due to “fragile financial conditions, growing public criticism and the lack of ideological consistency”.

“He [Erdogan] is willing and able to use any means against the opposition. Yet he also has three main weaknesses. First, the Turkish economy has been facing a financial crisis. Second, about half of Turkish society is critical of Erdogan. Third, Erdogan has failed to provide a consistent ideology, which can be comparable to Kemal Ataturk’s Kemalism,” stated Kuru.

“The elected Republican People’s Party (CHP) mayors, particularly Istanbul’s Ekrem Imamoglu, have already started to challenge Erdogan’s political hegemony. These mayors are now shaping public debates, which were previously dominated by Erdogan per se. In the short run, these mayors do not have much capacity to restrict Erdogan’s socioeconomic policies, or repression of opposition figures. Yet, in the long run, these mayors may constitute a deeper challenge if they promote a new public discourse based on democracy, liberal values, productivity and toleration.”

There is a great possibility that Erdogan, who reportedly said in 2017 that “if we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey,” is concerned about history repeating itself.

The first big step in Erdogan’s political career — which began during the 1980s as member of Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party — was his election as mayor of Istanbul in 1994. He was then credited for solving a number of its local problems such as those related to trash and access to freshwater.

When Erdogan became prime minister following the AKP’s victory in parliamentary elections in 2002, his economic achievements — including solving a financial crisis that hit Turkey in 2001 and achieving growth rates that reached eight per cent in 2010 and 2011 — helped the Islamists to be victorious side in almost every electoral race.

Halil Karaveli — senior fellow with the Turkey centre of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Programme Joint Centre — referred to another concern for the “Turkish regime”: the Kurdish factor.

Karaveli pointed out that the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) directed its voters to vote for the opposition parties in the big cities, arguing that Erdogan pushed for a presidential system to limit Kurdish influence specifically.

“The presidential system that was introduced last year was to ensure that the influence of the Kurds in Turkish politics is neutralised as they became a major force in parliament. If you put most of the power in the hands of the presidency, you ensure that the Kurds don’t have the capacity to be kingmakers,” he explained.

“But the results of the municipal elections showed that despite the fact that the regime introduced a presidential system in which a parliament is almost powerless, the Kurds still decided the outcome, especially in Istanbul where there is a major Kurdish population,” stressed Karaveli.

Karaveli, anticipating that the “regime” will make sure the AKP will win if a re-run in Istanbul takes place, noted that it might resort to acts of terrorism or violence, referring to the recent attack on CHP’s leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu on 21 April during the funeral of a soldier who was killed in fighting against Kurdish militants.

“I think that was an attempt to kill him [Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu], which would have provoked his supporters to stage huge protests, leading the regime to declare martial law and cancel the elections. I think this was the plan, at least as speculation from my side,” he said.

Erdogan recently faced a number of criticisms from both opposition and AKP figures. Istanbul’s new CHP Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, addressing supporters, said “it has been 36 days since the elections ended. Some people are doing everything they can for the Istanbul vote not to be concluded,” Imamoglu said. “You are elected, even if it is by one vote.”

Kılıçdaroğlu slammed Erdogan, the AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), their ally, of pressing the YSK to hold a re-run in Istanbul. The most remarkable criticism arguably came from Ahmet Davutoglu, former AKP leader, top diplomat and former premier.

“The fact that our party, which remained the only political actor capable of managing this entire process, began to expend its own energy on the provocations and manipulations of certain power centres that disregarded the national will to play a leading role in these conspiratorial processes, served to shake our internal harmony, as well as restricting our capacity to forge and implement a fresh vision,” Davutoglu said in a lengthy Facebook post.

Meanwhile, HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas — currently in jail — wrote for The Washington Post: “Thousands of members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who should currently be participating in politics — including me — are in prison on political grounds. The security forces continue to harass and obstruct those members of our party who remain free. Many of us have been criminalised and deemed ‘terrorists’ by government officials. And yet my party, which I co-chaired for many years, still showed its strength in these latest elections,” Demirtas said.

Lenore Martin, associate for Harvard’s Centre for Middle Eastern studies, underlined the fact that the municipal elections are the last scheduled elections until 2023, which explains why the opposition cooperated and worked hard to make gains in it, for “it was feared there would be no chance to challenge the almost complete power of the AKP over government and policymaking by then.”

Yet, Martin emphasised that Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir “is not something the AKP is going to easily give up as we see in their protestation about the legitimacy of the elections”, specifically Istanbul, which has a “strong symbolic value for him [Erdogan] personally”, for it “brings enormous opportunities for patronage and awarding contracts which AKP has used prodigiously”.

This matter, for Martin, was another motive for the opposition parties, specifically the CHP, to win big in municipal elections, as being “in control of the cities again gives CHP a chance to govern close to the people and to perhaps reveal more of AKP’s decisions on contracts and appointments”.

She referred to the example of the new mayors in the Kurdish southeast areas who were elected in March, as they “found their cities left bereft of funds”.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The political battle over Istanbul

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