What does the 23 June Istanbul mayoral election tell us about the present state of Turkish politics?
Special event on 1 July on the Turkish Mayoral elections
"The one who rules Istanbul, rules Turkey"
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
The mayoral elections in Istanbul on 23 June saw an alliance of opposition parties: the centre-left Republican People's Party (CHP), and the centre-right iYi party. They call themselves the Nation Alliance.
These elections are only one of the six national elections and one referendum held in Turkey since 2014. This includes the local and presidential elections in 2014, the two general elections in 2015, a 2017 constitutional referendum, the 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections, and finally, the local elections of this year. These elections have seen a gradual, but definite, shift away from the ruling coalition towards the opposition. Based on the results of the recent Istanbul elections, the governing coalition no longer commands popular support in the country. However, the divisions between the large urban centres and rural areas are stark.
For many, the recent elections are seen as a vote on the rule of President Erdogan. The opposition’s joint candidate for mayor Ekrem İmamogly saw his margin of victory climb from 13,000 votes to 800,000 between March and June. Of Istanbul’s 39 districts, İmamoğlu won outright in 28 districts, up from 16 in the previous round. İmamoğlu’s success is partly explained by his focusing on bread and butter issues affecting the lives of the citizens of Turkey’s most populous city, while the AK Party’s Binali Yildrim tried to make the election about the survival of Turkey, and partly by voters revulsion at the Supreme Electoral Council to rerun the election in the first place.
The switchover in Istanbul should also be read in the wider context of the results of the 31 March 2019 local elections, which saw Istanbul, Ankara, Antalya, and Adana swing to the opposition and away from government control. The opposition also managed to maintain and consolidate its hold on İzmir, Mersin, Aydın, Eskişehir and Edirne. The only major metropolitan area that the government coalition managed to maintain is the city of Bursa. While 16 of the country’s 30 metropolitan municipalities are controlled by the governing coalition, and only 14 by the opposition, the opposition now control the major population and economic centres of the country. The election thus exposes an urban-rural divide, or more precisely, a divide between larger metropolitan areas and smaller cities and towns.
Why did it happen?
Many disparate factors fed into the opposition’s victory. As above, many citizens viewed the decision of the Supreme Electoral Council to rerun the election to be a gross injustice which drove them towards the opposition. İmamoğlu and the opposition alliance also focused on the politics of hope and tolerance which resonated with many, as opposed to AK’s discourse of fear and division. Meanwhile, Turkey’s ongoing economic malaise also played a role. With stubbornly high unemployment, urban poverty and rising inflation, many voters sent a message of anger to the ruling AK party. Notably, the opposition alliance also worked in harmony, and were also able to connect with Istanbul’s Kurdish minority and the city’s younger liberal voters.
The consequences of this shift will be enormous for Turkey and for the region. The opposition are emboldened under a new, popular leader, who espouses an articulate and vocal liberal discourse. Meanwhile, the June election has dealt a massive blow to AKP’s clientelist networks as 2/3s of Turkish economic activity now takes place in opposition-controlled areas. Istanbul’s budget is massive at around 5 billion euros annually, and is larger than the national Ministries of Justice or Health, and almost as large as the country’s entire defence budget. The economy is also highly dependent on urban rent and the construction sector, which are regulated in large part by local municipalities. Politically, fractures are also becoming apparent within the AK Party, with new splinter parties emerging.
It is too early to tell if the government will seek to undermine the opposition or to sow discord within their ranks (particularly with the Kurds), or whether AK may shift tack to a more liberal discourse to recover some of the support they have lost. What is clear is that this changing electoral landscape has enormous significance for Turkey and for the politics of the entire region ahead of the next scheduled general election in the country in 2023.
Barry Colfer (Deakin, Visiting Fellow (2018-19), St Antony's College, Oxford )