Posters for Binali Yıldırım and Ekrem İmamoğlu, Istanbul, Turkey. March 30, 2019. (Voice of America)Certainties that had defined Turkish politics for a generation were thrown into doubt by the overwhelming victory Istanbul voters handed the opposition CHP party’s mayoral candidate Ekrem İmamoǧlu on June 23, 2019. Voters responded with righteous and smoldering fury to the ruling AKP party’s blatant tampering with the democratic process after it had annulled İmamoǧlu’s previous, and much closer, victory over the AKP’s candidate Binali Yıldırım on March 31, forcing a new election for mayor of the Greater Istanbul Municipality. While not the first electoral setback Turkish President and AKP party leader Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan has faced, it was the first time his own actions boomeranged so pointedly against his own agenda.
The election results could not be clearer. In spite of blatant efforts to dampen turnout from an electorate exhausted from eight elections in as many years, an astounding 84.5 percent of the 10.5 million eligible voters showed up at the polls, handing a clear 54 to 45 percent victory to İmamoǧlu—raising the tally of his narrow initial victory from 13,000 to over 800,000 votes.
The voters’ rebuke of the AKP registered even more strongly in certain districts. Lopsided CHP victories in left-leaning Beşiktaş (84 percent) and Kadıköy (82 percent) were hardly surprising, although even those margins increased. More surprising, however, was İmamoǧlu’s healthy victory in Üsküdar (54 percent), an AKP stronghold where Erdoǧan maintains his Istanbul residence, and which benefits from extensive government patronage in the form of the massive Ҫamlıca mosque, waterfront renovation and transportation improvements.
But downright shocking was İmamoǧlu’s razor-thin victory in Fatih (49 percent), Istanbul’s most notoriously pious district, and long a bedrock of AKP support. While the governing party did carry a handful of districts, the only locale where they won by a wide margin was Arnavutköy, the district housing the new airport, and thus largely populated by those profiting in one way or another from that colossal project.
When preliminary results were broadcast, at 7:17pm local time, spontaneous celebrations broke out in several neighborhoods, including the cosmopolitan and diverse Kurtuluş neighborhood, where cheering, whistling, tencere tava (pots and pans) banging, and communal chants continued for nearly 20 minutes. In the days that followed, the mood noticeably lightened, and as one Roma musician put it, “I feel much more comfortable and relaxed after the election.”
While the loss of one mayoral seat by itself cannot by itself upset the well-entrenched executive power amassed by the increasingly authoritarian President Erdoǧan and the AKP over the past few years, shockwaves from this setback are already having reverberations, most importantly within the AKP party itself. Moreover, an anatomy of the build-up to the Istanbul election re-run reveals a much more fractious and resistant terrain of popular discontent with the AKP’s bully politics and its fraying legitimation than is often understood. Whether these diffuse lines of dissent will add up to a larger wave may have to await the outcome of major challenges confronting the Turkish state and economy in the coming year.
Everything’s Going to Be Great
The seeds for the AKP’s Istanbul re-run defeat were planted by its own actions in the previous election—which were then magnified by the bumbling way it forced and then ran the new election campaign.
The March 31 municipality elections had already set AKP’s historic grip over Turkish politics back, as the party lost control over several key municipalities, including Ankara, Antalya, Adana, and Mersin. When, much to the surprise of most observers, CHP’s Ekrem İmamoǧlu emerged victorious by a razor-thin margin in Istanbul, the defeat appeared complete. Incensed, many AKP supporters alleged electoral fraud, foreign interference, cheating and numerous other alleged improprieties regarding their close Istanbul loss. After days of CHP party observers sleeping on ballot bags to prevent tampering while waiting for İmamoǧlu’s certification as Istanbul’s next mayor, on May 6, the Supreme Electoral Commission (YSK) Chair Sadi Güven announced that “certain procedural irregularities” necessitated the cancellation of Istanbul’s election results, forcing a special election.
Popular outrage at the AKP’s inference was instantaneous, with tencere tava protests breaking out throughout city neighborhoods, and marchers streaming into streets throughout leftist Kadıköy. In Beşiktaş, another leftist neighborhood, protesters chanted “thief Tayyip Erdoǧan” as they marched. Activists immediately debated whether to boycott the special election, protest, call a general strike, or just mount a second campaign.
Some were eager to return to the Gezi Park protests, while others cautioned that those 2013 protests proved a political failure which only strengthened Erdoǧan’s hold on power. Following İmamoǧlu’s lead, most government opponents decided to redouble their efforts, engage in electoral politics, and do their best to contribute to a repeat victory.
The AKP then provoked popular sensibilities by its decision to hold the special election on a popular holiday weekend days after schools had let out for the summer. Incensed Istanbul residents began changing their holiday plans to ensure their presence on that date. Many suspected that government officials, sensing popular frustration with having to vote twice, picked June 23 to suppress turnout by maximizing the impact of university students returning home for the break and family beach vacations.
In solidarity, coastal towns like Datça announced they would close their beach on election day so that Istanbul residents could vote. In a reversal of the “when hell freezes over” expression, Bodrum’s district council produced a tongue-in-cheek travel advisory announcing that since heavy snowfall was anticipated for late June, their beaches would also be closed. Within days, travel companies reported that nearly 100 percent of Istanbul travel reservations had been canceled for June 23.
As vacation plans were being adjusted, Ekrem İmamoǧlu stumbled into what became the slogan of the season. While campaigning, a boy came up and assured him that “everything’s going to be great.” Driven by social media spins on the phrase, his campaign immediately adopted the slogan. Noticeably contrasting with Erdoǧan’s survivalist rhetoric of recent years, much of the electorate came to adopt the slogan as their own, as the twitter handle “#hersey_guzel_olacak” (everything’s going to be great) gained momentum and supportive social media satire spread.
One cigarette booth posted a sign with the handle, stating in Turkish “Ekrem bro, should your sex tape ever come out, don’t retract, we all do the act.” Referencing recent cases where sex tapes had sunk the careers of various opposition politicians, the sign playfully suggested that this time nothing would turn the electorate back, as the “don’t retract” phrase was lifted straight from one of pop singer Tarkan’s most famous lyrics, itself a Turkish take on Edith Piaff’s long celebrated sentiment, “Je ne regrette rien.” Another joke expressed the electorate’s frustration with AKP’s refusal to accept the results, stating “There are three things you never choose: your place of birth, your family, and the Istanbul mayor.”
The AKP’s Bad Optics
While opposition supporters skewered the AKP-backed election cancellation, some government supporters attempted to whip up conspiracy-driven fears about the consequences of Istanbul municipal elections. On 10 May, Yeni Şafak’s provocateur journalist Ibrahim Karagül railed about multi-national interference from foreign crusaders and spies, working alongside domestic traitors, all aiming to reverse Turkish sovereignty over the megalopolis, dating back to 1453. Characterizing İmamoǧlu as part of an international conspiracy to partition Istanbul off from the rest of the country, Karagül in a single column conjured up the 2015 failed coup, the specter of Istanbul’s long history as a strategic prize and Great Power attempts during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference to declare Istanbul and the Straits an International Zone.
But with İmamoǧlu offering free hugs to all, and posters featuring his smiling face spread all over town—and previous respect for AKP’s machismo style of authoritarian rule dissolving into satire or bitterness—the AKP leadership decided a softer tone was needed, though even this was fumbled.
While Erdoǧan spent most of May and early June in Ramadan occlusion, Binali Yıldırım stopped making divisive comments, softened his rhetoric and even started taking selfies with constituents. When asked about his support amongst the youth, Yıldırım officiously stated that “the youth are my kanka,” or “good buddy,” leading to a plethora of memes ridiculing the thought of any young person being the elderly politician’s kanka, itself a somewhat slang term. At one point, during a photo-op, one prankster walked up, kissed Yıldırım on the cheek, and addressed him as “my new kanka.”
In another example of campaign optics gone wrong, after Ekrem İmamoǧlu was photographed sitting on the floor with a poor family breaking iftar fast, Binali Yıldırım followed suit, also sitting on the floor for an iftar photo shoot. As with much else in his disastrous campaign, the AKP politician’s drive for an “everyman” shot was ruined by the ornate dining room table plainly visible in the background.
Before long, İmamoǧlu’s viral slogan “everything’s going to be great” evolved into a protest chant. On May 14, after a street rally commemorating the five year anniversary of the Soma mining disaster chanted the slogan and was broken up by police, the Istanbul governor prohibited its use on protest signs.
Seemingly bereft of campaign ideas, AKP floated its own slogan “everything’s going to be even greater,” touching off widespread laughter before its rapid retirement. After that slogan crashed and burned, Binali Yıldırım’s team decided to go with “we did it, and we’ll do it again.” Attempting to generate excitement, youth from Başakşehir, a wealthy suburb characterized by modern high rise apartment buildings filled with Anatolian business elites, offered a rap homage to the slogan. Commenting on candidate Yıldırım’s complete lack of experience in municipal management, one wag asked “what did you do besides lose an election? And you will lose again.”
In another sign of the public’s turn against AKP, Medipol Başakşehir, a relative newcomer to the Turkish premier league and the Istanbul Municipality’s official team since 2014, played in front of a half-full stadium when it lost to Galatasaray in the Süper Lig’s deciding match on May 19. In the leadup to the game, some Galatasaray fans likened the match to stopping facism, and the absence of home fans clearly demonstrated the low popularity of AKP’s team, which boasts a minuscule fan base compared to Istanbul’s three great clubs, even after five years of heavy promotion.
AKP officials even managed to alienate those who might prefer their support for conservative Islamic values. At one point, the government canceled the Saʻadet (Felicity) Party leader’s passport, labeling him a “terrorist” and preventing his travel. This did not sit well with many conservative voters, as AKP had originally sprung from the Refah (Welfare) Party, the same party which Saʻadet had emerged from. As many conservative voters saw it, with that move AKP was betraying its own roots.
By the end of the second campaign, a widespread sense of popular ennui, combined with AKP dread of the results to come, descended over the metropolis. Throughout these weeks, an absence of key supporters left the impression that AKP leaders had hung Binali Yıldırım out to dry, with his series of awkward missteps suggesting that his heart, or ego, did not relish the opportunity to fall on the sword for the party’s sake. In addition to Erdoǧan’s occlusion, MHP leader and coalition partner Devlet Bahçeli had pledged to “set up camp” in Istanbul to campaign for their joint ticket, but only ended up making a single perfunctory appearance.
A week before the election the two candidates held a televised debate, during which the contrast between the charismatic Ekrem Abi (Brother Ekrem) and a weary Yıldırım appeared for all to see. In terms of policy, İmamoǧlu promised to open women’s shelters and over 150 childcare centers in neighborhoods lacking one. Then İmamoǧlu unveiled a plan to expand Istanbul’s notoriously meagre green space, featuring a large green belt to be knit together around the city’s current urbanized core. In response, Yıldırım pulled out his own map, which offered to open “green corridors” in and around Istanbul. While aware of the widespread public criticism of years of pouring cement, labeling his proposed green spaces “corridors” and spreading such small green spots throughout the city suggested continuity with today’s concrete Istanbul.
The AKP’s Electoral Desperation
In the final days before the election, Ekrem İmamoǧlu returned to his native Black Sea region, where he led massive rallies in Trabzon, Rize and Ordu, seen as a rehearsal for running on a national stage. Refusing to cede any district, he held his final rallies in front of adoring crowds in the perennial AKP strongholds of Eyüp Sultan, Sultanbeyli and Üsküdar.
While completing his campaign tour, pro-AKP social media activists referred to İmamoǧlu as “Pontic,” a slur referring to the former ethnic Greek population of the region—at which point the Black Sea region erupted in social media anger against AKP. A week after E-Day, former AKP member of parliament Ayhan Sefer Üstün revealed that a rogue AKP troll operation, code-named “Pelikan,” was responsible for originating such dirty tricks campaigning in the weeks before the special election. Once this operation became public, observers came to suspect that they had been leading the AKP campaign strategy all along and blamed them for both the “Pontic” slur and the Öcalan letter of the same week.
In an apparent desperation move, government officials allowed Abdullah “Apo” Öcalan, the jailed PKK leader, to release a letter urging Kurdish voters to remain neutral for the second round, released by the state Anadolu Agency and delivered via Ali Kemal Özcan, a previously unknown scholar permitted to meet Apo after years of requesting such visitation. As the letter was not delivered via the law office normally tasked with Öcalan communications, but rather by a relative unknown whom the government finally “saw fit” to allow a visit, many Kurdish nationalists questioned if the letter was even real.
Skepticism was confirmed when former HDP party chief and Kurdish civil society leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, urged HDP voters to stay the course and vote their conscience, in a set of tweets which included a scathing indirect mention of the letter. As a result of this clear division in opinion between the PKK leader long held at İmralı island and the detained HDP leader, observers now see a potential reset in relations between the two Kurdish groupings, which was impossible to imagine just a few years ago, when the PKK (sometimes violently) enforced tight control over its civil society partners within the Kurdish community. Effectively, AKP’s election machinations may have enabled the further growth and elaboration of a Kurdish civil society movement advocating for peace and human rights.
Then, two days prior to the election, the municipal corporation “Istanbul Sea Buses (İDO)” announced the suspension of Marmara Sea ferry service going into Istanbul from that point through the election. That this service interruption was announced for a summer weekend, usually the busiest period for ferry traffic, and with no explanation offered beyond “schedule changes,” did not go unnoticed. Immediately afterward, Turkish Airlines announced several cancellations of E-Day flights scheduled to reach the city before polls were to close, all alleged to be coming from AKP controlled cities, and including several originating in Antakya/Hatay. Even individual vehicles reportedly faced special roving police roadblocks on routes heading toward the city that last weekend. All such measures fell far short of slowing Istanbul vacationers’ long march home, as shown by fully vacated Northern Aegean beaches on the eve of E-Day.
After weeks of absence, President Erdoǧan re-emerged the last week before the election. Offering his usual divisive rhetoric about dark forces threatening the state, he urged on his supporters by stating that only an AKP election victory could ensure the state’s “survival.” Observers attending rallies throughout that week sensed tepid support in the ranks.
As something of an allegory for their entire failed campaign, on June 27 it was reported that AKP had bused in voters from all over the country, only to leave them stranded in Istanbul after their defeat. The sister of one AKP columnist, Süleyman Özışık, could find no bus to return her home after the vote. Although the party had promised her round trip tickets, she and others in her situation found themselves stranded at the city’s sprawling Esenler bus station. After repeatedly calling for help, one exasperated party official shouted at her and hung up.
In the aftermath of the Istanbul landslide, coupled with the nationwide losses in the earlier round, President Erdoǧan now finds himself living something of a Shakespearean nightmare. Like Hamlet, following the election, he accused half of his brain trust of “stabbing him in the back,” even while he begged the other half to return to his fold. Unaccustomed to projecting weakness, the embattled president now appears to be facing up to the reality of what one voter referred to as the “biat (submission) culture.” In such a cultural construct, a leader’s supporters can decide to take it upon themselves to safeguard the leader, rendering it impossible to maintain active control. In addition, such reliance on personal charisma means that even an exceedingly powerful leader can rapidly lose popular support in the face of a setback.
In addition, serious signs of stress have appeared within the AKP. Some party leaders are attempting to reign in their own strongman, while others have chosen to defect. Some have now started asking what Erdoǧan has accomplished in the months since he was granted increased presidential powers following the 2017 constitutional reform referendum, which he justified at the time as being necessary to accomplish more without sacrificing his freedom of action as President. At this point, it seems all he has accomplished is leading his party to a nationwide election loss.
Party leaders are even now attempting to curb Erdoǧan’s power, with some discussions even hinting at his being pushed out of the party altogether, while the formation of splinter parties is under wide discussion. When the party’s High Advisory Council met for the first time after the election, both important former AKP leaders Abdullah Gül and Ahmet Davutoǧlu declined to participate, but the other big names said to be present voted themselves a salary increase above that already offered by previous party bylaws. Concurrently the party’s central executive committee has met several times, with one member admitting that “committees are not functioning – it is only the president and his people.” Others report that Erdoǧan can no longer simply impose decisions on the party due to the broad nature of the internal criticism.
In a further example of internal fracturing, AKP’s economic guru, Ali Babacan, quit the party on July 13, announcing his intention to found a new party, which polls suggest would grab some 18 percent of AKP supporters. Widely renowned for his success working together with technocrat colleagues such as Kemal Derviş, the former UNDP Director pledged to follow the principles of an “advanced democracy”, offering personal red lines in support of the rule of law and separation of powers. Demonstrating the emergent power of this potential party, former President Abdullah Gül has apparently agreed to take an elder statesman (abi) role within the party, as a political advisor.
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoǧlu, who crafted Turkey’s “zero problems” shift towards the Middle East and Central Asia when AKP first took power over a decade ago, discussed joining forces with Babacan, but ultimately decided to form his own rival party. As a result, at this point, it appears likely that not one, but two, cloned AKP parties may enter the fray.
But beyond the popular anger at AKP’s electoral tactics lies a deeper shift in the electorate, which might prove more damaging to AKP’s long term prospects than any single setback could. Younger voters from religious families are said to be turning against AKP, perhaps due to the corruption and unbridled crony capitalism that the party has come to embody.
Other changes may be due to refugee populations, particularly from Syria, settling in neighborhoods throughout the metropolitan area, itself touching off both a backlash against AKP policy commitments and a change in neighborhood demographics. Frustration among the Istanbul electorate at AKP-sanctioned urban gentrification, fueled in part by wealthy Gulf Arab investment, has only grown more acute in the past 3-5 years with the influx and settlement of conflict refugees from south of the border. Such frustration, often tinged with veiled racism, has led some to characterize Erdoǧan as more of an advocate for the three million Syrian refugees than a Turkish president.
Behind the AKP’s unpopularity and internal chaos looms a long-anticipated economic crisis, a perfect storm bringing together impressively deep government debt, pending austerity measures following an over-extension of infrastructure investment, and the collapse of the long overheated construction sector. Signs of desperation in Ankara abound, with some observers expecting the government to print money or raid the national “contingency fund” (yedek akçe) at any moment. While nobody knows quite what to expect next, a period of political flux appears to be opening up. While Erdoǧan is a clever survivor, he has only shown escalation over the past decade, whereas restraint and humility seem to be what the Turkish public is calling for.
Author’s Note: I want to thank Tracy M. Lord for her generous assistance collecting the research for this publication.