Istanbul election important if its legacy is a trend - analysis

It’s the second election in the city since a March 31 election, which also saw Imamoglu win, was annulled.

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June 23, 2019 23:35
4 minute read.
What is next for Turkey?

What is next for Turkey?. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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A closely watched election in Istanbul saw the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem Imamoglu defeat former prime minister Binali Yildirim to become mayor. 


It’s the second election in the city since a March 31 election, which also saw Imamoglu win, was annulled. 
This appears like a big win for the opposition after decades in which the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, dominated both Istanbul and the rest of the country.


Erdogan got his start in Istanbul where he was elected mayor in 1994. Turnout was high in the city of almost 15 million, Turkey’s largest. Around 85% of the 10.5 million eligible voters went to the polls, according to Turkish daily Hurriyet. It had been 83% on March 31. 


Imamoglu appears to have actually strengthened his lead since last time when he only got 48.8% of the vote. He now has a commanding 53% of the vote.


The election is seen as a bell weather and sign that the AKP’s iron grip on power may be loosening. 


Yildirim had the odd distinction of being the last prime minister of Turkey before it became a presidential system in the last election. He now seems to have failed to take the mayor’s seat. But Istanbul may not be the microcosm of Turkey that some think it is.


In the last local elections, the AKP got 17 million votes to the CHP’s 12 million. There are other parties in Turkey as well, the far-right nationalist MHP, with several million votes; the leftist HDP – which is generally seen as linked to Kurdish areas – which also gets several million; and the recently formed Good Party.


Erdogan’s AKP not only triumphed overall in the last municipal elections, he also got 52% in the June 2018 presidential elections and 51% for the referendum in 2017. At the end of the day, the opposition divides half the cake and the AKP generally gets most of the other half.


Except in Istanbul, this time. The feeling is that this election could reduce Erdogan’s power. It could be a “disaster” for him, The Guardian said. “Radical love” smothers Erdogan, Euronews thought. A new star is born, Ahval reported.


There is no doubt that Imamoglu has done many things that his CHP predecessors were unable to do. He attracted Kurdish voters. The Independent interviewed “Ahmed,” a Kurdish voter who has changed his vote three times in recent years, voting for the AKP and the HDP, and now CHP. 


Why? Because the AKP, once upon a time, seemed to promise Kurds a new opening away from the ethno-nationalist policies of the CHP. But after a ceasefire ended between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Kurdish cities were subjected to curfews and destruction in battles. 


Some Kurds turned to the HDP, and now in a forlorn hope to the CHP.


The AKP even tried to reach out again to millions of Kurds in Istanbul. Oddly, the government seemed to relax conditions for the imprisoned PKK leader, Ocalan, with him suddenly able to communicate a statement calling for “neutrality” in the elections. 


It’s convenient, after decades in isolation, to have the imprisoned leader be able to write a letter to voters when the government has slammed the group as terrorists. Voters, it seems, understood what was happened and voted as they saw fit.


Voters, after seeing one election result overturned, perhaps understood the depths to which the government will go. 


Every election in Turkey comes with its new round of bluster and extreme calls to patriotism, or new media reports of operations in northern Iraq or Syria – something to show the powerful government’s vigor ahead of the vote. 


Sometimes, there is the necessary bluster in front of Europe, or a new spat with the US that suddenly appears.


“It’s just about elections,” the experts and analysts explain. But then one wonders if voters don’t see through this. If the foreign press is told that threats by Turkey to invade new parts of Syria are just “for elections,” surely the voters might wonder if their country should be invading other countries just for votes.


Imamoglu has a difficult road ahead, as does the CHP if it ever hopes to return to power. Turkey’s society has been remade by its leading party. This accelerated since 2015, when the PKK ceasefire broke down and Turkey began preparations for operations in northern Syria. The ruling party called two elections that year, in June and November.


In 2016, there was an attempted coup and up to 150,000 public employees have been fired in the wake of it and some 70,000 arrested. 


The New York Times revealed this week that 4,000 judges have been purged. The government has targeted every aspect of society, trying to change the education system, the army and reduce the former secular policies of the state; and after almost two decades, a whole generation has been raised in a new country. 


How does a country go back from that when its press has fundamentally changed, with many journalists also being imprisoned or on trial and human rights groups targeted?


Istanbul’s election could be a bell-weather, but it could also be a kind of momentary change in the weather before the overall trend continues. 


There doesn’t appear to be evidence that the rest of Turkey – where many voters reside in Turkey’s equivalent of America’s “red states,” the conservative right-leaning heartland – will change. 


That being said, the alliance that helped change Istanbul politics – including Kurds and former Kemalist secularist nationalists, liberals and disaffected AKP voters – is a real alliance that came together in the country’s most populous city.

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