Istanbul loss marks tectonic shift for Turkey

Istanbul loss marks tectonic shift for Turkey

Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition Republican People’s party candidate, won the mayor elections in Istanbul. See Istanbul celebrates Ekrem Imamoglu's election victory. Financial Times presents its own vision on the events in its article Istanbul loss marks tectonic shift for Turkey.

By decisively defeating the proxy of Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his home turf of Istanbul — after the Turkish president bullied the judiciary into ordering a re-run of the opposition’s first, wafer-thin victory in March’s municipal elections — Mr Imamoglu may have called the beginning of the end for the giant of Turkey’s politics this century.

Mr Imamoglu, the secular and social democrat Republican People’s party (CHP) candidate for mayor of Turkey’s biggest city, beat his opponent, Binali Yildarim, the former prime minister whose job Mr Erdogan last year abolished, by about 9 percentage points. No one should ever write Mr Erdogan out of the script: a man who has won14 straight elections and plebiscites since his neo-Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP) first won power in late 2002.

Mr Erdogan, after three terms as prime minister, ascended to what was a symbolic presidency resting on a parliamentary system and turned it into a quasi-autocracy to which all institutions — party, legislature, judiciary and media — are subordinate.

When he lost the capital Ankara, Istanbul, and other great cities on March 31, he essentially told Istanbul it had got the wrong answer. That result, to be clear, was very close. This result is a thundering defeat for President Erdogan and his followers’ overbearingly arrogant response.

Mr Erdogan is probably not surprised. Quite astonishingly, given his unique electoral success and that these were mere local contests, he said last time round that the fight for Istanbul was a matter of “national survival”. In the run-up to March he campaigned up to eight times a day. His own career took off when he was elected mayor of Istanbul 25 years ago. He believes the country cannot be governed without control of the former Ottoman capital. “If we stumble in Istanbul we lose our footing in Turkey,” he told his party after the 2017 referendum that turned Turkey’s parliamentary democracy into a presidential system. The AKP in Istanbul just lost huge patronage at the point of delivery of many public services, an ability to provide that is more vital than its Islamist identity.

Mr Imamoglu, unknown until this year and until his 18 days in office before the election authorities ordered him to stand again, undid more of the Erdoganist identity by running an open and inclusive campaign. This is anathema to a president who polarises to the point that he accused his opponents of terrorist support. He has shown that Tayyip Erdogan can be defeated, and that is seismic.

Kadri Gursel, a leading liberal columnist and one of hundreds of journalists caught up in the purges after an attempted coup against Mr Erdogan in mid-2016, tweeted that the Istanbul result was “a political tectonic shift”.

This electoral earthquake in Istanbul occurs on the eve of a ludicrous show-trial staged against the purported orchestrators of the civic uprising of mid-2013 — marked by a brief Istanbul commune in Taksim Square that spread through urban and coastal Turkey. They opposed not just plans to redevelop a local park but the Erdogan government’s intrusiveness into personal and social freedoms.

Mr Erdogan, and subservient prosecutors, say that academics, lawyers and philanthropists associated with George Soros used the Taksim commune as a dry run for the 2016 coup. The government blames that on a shadowy Islamist movement which the accused had warned them against.

So Mr Erdogan has plenty of reasons to be wary of Istanbul, however much it is his home town.

Mr Imamoglu has successfully built a broad coalition against the AKP, which the CHP — narrowly associated with the former ruling elite built by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the republic — could not match in modern times. That may be in part because, after his brief incumbency in Istanbul, he is seen as insider and outsider at the same time: the essence of the Erdogan mystique.

This may unlock further problems for the Turkish strongman, who has ruthlessly strewn his path to power with almost everyone who helped him. These include former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, former president Abdullah Gul, and former vice-president and economy tsar Ali Babacan. They finally appear to have gathered their courage to found a rival to the AKP. Watch this space.

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