Turkish opposition leader Ekrem Imamoglu secured a resounding victory in Sunday’s repeat of the Istanbul mayoral election, according to unofficial results. Imamoglu’s success has turned the young mayor into a rising political star and the greatest rival to date of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Despite an uneven playing field favoring Erdogan’s candidate, Imamoglu won the original election in March by a margin of some 13,000-30,000 votes. Turkey’s High Election Board called for a rerun of the election based on procedural irregularities for which the board itself was responsible. Imamoglu then led a vigorous campaign to reclaim his mandate, emphasizing the politically motivated decision to invalidate his earlier victory. On Sunday, he won the re-vote by a far greater margin, taking 54 percent of the votes – the highest percentage won by any candidate in the city’s mayoral elections in 35 years. The secular and liberal Imamoglu even emerged triumphant in Istanbul’s most conservative neighborhoods, known to be Erdogan’s strongholds.
With his impressive victory, Imamoglu has challenged Erdogan’s air of invincibility. Erdogan’s popularity has slumped since the August 2014 presidential elections, when he won 52 percent of the vote – his highest-ever total. Despite alienating nearly half of the country’s population, Erdogan’s populist and divisive rhetoric had until now secured him enough of the electorate to continue his rule over Turkey since 2003. But with economic conditions worsening, that pattern shifted in the March 31 local elections, when Erdogan lost the country’s six most economically significant cities. Sunday’s rerun election only reaffirmed the loss of confidence in Erdogan among large swaths of the Turkish people.
The mayorship of Istanbul will also allow Imamoglu to challenge Erdogan’s ability to rule Turkey with an iron fist. Erdogan built his political and economic power – including his media and public relations empire – on Istanbul’s municipal spoils. His business cronies, ministers, and parliamentarians are likely to keep demanding those rations for their continued political loyalties. Imamoglu could expose the corruption, nepotism, and waste for which Erdogan’s party is responsible over the last decade.
How Erdogan responds to this challenge will depend on his perception of Imamoglu’s threat to his patronage of Turkey’s political and economic elite. Erdogan has a track record of seizing municipalities and jailing political rivals – such as Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic co-leader of the progressive Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – on frivolous charges. Before the election, he implicitly threatened Imamoglu with the same fate, saying the “courts will decide” whether to prosecute the mayor-elect over a previous dispute with a governor. Erdogan could also use his executive powers and control over the central budget to obstruct or constrain Imamoglu’s ability to govern.
Whatever Erdogan may try, however, the Istanbul election forebodes robust popular opposition to the president’s authoritarian tactics. Until the next general election, currently scheduled for 2023, this revived opposition will cast a shadow over the legitimacy of Erdogan’s controversial and self-serving decisions. Turkey’s transatlantic allies must strongly urge Erdogan to respect his citizens’ democratic will. Washington should remind Erdogan that only a return to a rules-based, democratic order can help alleviate Turkey’s political and economic woes.
Merve Tahiroglu is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow her on Twitter @MerveTahiroglu. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.