Four immediate consequences of Erdogan’s loss of Istanbul

Yes, I was wrong. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will go, as he keeps losing one election after another.

Workers pick up the garbage next to a billboard reading "Thank You Istanbul" and portraying AKP ruling party mayor candidate Binali Yildirim and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Istanbul, on April 2, 2019 (photo credit: BULENT KILIC / AFP)
Workers pick up the garbage next to a billboard reading "Thank You Istanbul" and portraying AKP ruling party mayor candidate Binali Yildirim and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Istanbul, on April 2, 2019
(photo credit: BULENT KILIC / AFP)
You always said Erdogan won’t leave if he loses an election,” said a senior AKP official to me on the night of the June 23 election.
Yes, I was wrong. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will go, as he keeps losing one election after another.
In the eyes of millions in Turkey, Erdogan was invincible. That is no longer the case. Erdogan did not just lose Istanbul for the second time on June 23, he lost his image as undefeated.
On May 6, when the Turkish Supreme Election Board decided to annul the mayoral elections for Istanbul, Erdogan was happy that a revote was accepted by the public without much fuss. Ramadan was also an amazing opportunity for Erdogan to rally his base. He had successfully repeated general elections before and turned the tide, so why not now?
The polls showed Erdogan’s gradual loss day by day. The gap between the two candidates on March 31 was about 13,000-14,000 votes, while now it has surpassed 800,000. The opposition won 9% more votes than the government in Istanbul’s repeat election. Erdogan campaigned with the entire state apparatus on his side, including most media outlets, venues, and funds. Out of 39 subunits of Istanbul on March 31, AKP had won 23. Fast-forward to June 23 and AKP holds a majority in only 11 districts.
Istanbul’s mayoral seat is the heart of politics for Erdogan. First, because that is where he started his political life. Second, it is a source of major income for AKP’s crony system. Third, Istanbul, with its 16 million population, is the reflection of Turkey. Istanbul is a city of immigrants. Only about three million of its current population is from Istanbul. The majority of Istanbul voters were either born outside of the city or view another city as their original hometown. “Losing Istanbul means losing Turkey” is a slogan Erdogan repeated frequently. He is right. On June 23, Erdogan lost Turkey officially and undeniably.

WHAT CAN we expect from this loss?
First, Erdogan lost two crucial groups: significantly pro-AKP, Islamist or pious voters and Kurds.
For example, the heart of Istanbul, Fatih, named after the Ottoman conquest of the city, saw a 1.8% increase in voter turnout. The area is home to several religious orders, and is known for its pious residents and businesses. From March 31 till June 23, Imamoglu’s vote share increased 5.5%, while his opponent’s decreased by 4%. In the meantime, the Felicity Party (another Islamist party) lost half of its voters (its vote share was 1.75%). All of this shows that a good portion of Islamist voters realigned themselves against Erdogan.
A similar trend is visible among Kurdish voters in Istanbul. Erdogan had planned that with diligent door-to-door campaigning, these two groups could be convinced to vote for him. It did not happen. In March these groups were not casting their ballots in protest; rather, they were voting against Erdogan. They are ready for change, and now they have an alternative. On June 23, people spoke louder, as the government played deaf to their pleas.
Second, Erdogan lost Istanbul by 9%, Ankara by almost 4% and Izmir by almost 20%. Even though living in his 1,100-room palace in Ankara has isolated the president from the public significantly, the reality can no longer be sugarcoated. Turkey’s love and dedication for Erdogan is fast diminishing and almost over.
The loss of popularity for a populist leader means tightening security. Although most people expect Erdogan to soften up his tone, I expect he will be flexing his muscles.
In the last two to three years, Erdogan has lost significant numbers of credible technocrats and well-rounded experts around him. His advisers have been doing all that they can to make matters worse for Erdogan. From foreign policy to domestic construction policies, he has signed on to grandiose, expensive policies which have failed.
Lack of voter support means loss of legitimacy for Erdogan, and he cannot afford critical voices to speak about his failed policies and their accumulated costs.
Third, we can expect Erdogan to curtail municipal powers through presidential decrees. This is already in place, where touristic locations that are under special protection have had their local management policies completely reformed. All powers about zoning, for example, in the Cappadocia region are now in the hands of the president. A similar trend is expected for major cities, which are a significant source of income.
Istanbul particularly is a lucrative area, which has been used for 25 years with little oversight. For example, last year’s municipal reports show that AKP’s mayor spent millions of dollars of funds on goods and services which could have been purchased much more cheaply.
If these powers are all in Ankara, there will be no oversight agency to monitor their activities.
Finally, as the recession deepens, unemployment increases significantly in Turkey, particularly among young educated adults. The cost of living, inflation and food prices all have increased exponentially, and the government has shown no signs of drawing up a proper fiscal plan to correct its mistakes. To the contrary, Erdogan’s latest financial appointments show he cares more about protecting his own family members and pleasing his own party elites than caring for the health of national economy.
Justice has been a major quest for the Turkish public, as Erdogan’s government has turned domestic laws into its own plaything. Erdogan and his men deeply fear that they will be prosecuted. In order to minimize such a risk, they change the laws and regulations frequently – just so that their own acts will be considered lawful. Hence, I expect injustice to spread fast in the short run.
Erdogan needs to understand he cannot win with a losing hand. Difficult days are ahead for Turkey, but this time AKP elites cannot remain immune to the trauma.

The writer is a visiting scholar of political science in Los Angeles at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and a columnist for Al-Monitor.com