Erdogan’s loss is more than Istanbul

Erdogan’s loss of Istanbul has four crucial elements that go beyond just the mayoral seat

What is next for Turkey? (photo credit: REUTERS)
What is next for Turkey?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Erdogan’s loss of Istanbul has four crucial elements that go beyond just the mayoral seat.
On election night, the Anadolu Agency news service, tasked with publishing election-result updates, simply stopped reporting Istanbul’s vote count once it was clear that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate lost.
Several AKP elites told me in confidence, “Istanbul will end at the court, and Erdogan will not let Istanbul go” less than six hours after the polls closed. This has since been the underlying rhetoric of AKP media, while the opposition was compelled to ask the same disturbing question: Will Erdogan allow Ekrem Imamoglu, who won majority of the votes, to assume his post as the mayor of Istanbul? Having to ask such a question is a problem all its own.
This election became a major blow to Erdogan’s popularity. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) had a mayor in only one of 10 major cities since 2014. Now they won six. These four, Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Antalya, account for 50% of Turkey’s wealth. Cities with more than 60% of Turkey’s GDP now have CHP mayors. Istanbul, with 15 million residents, has 30% of the overall wealth. Erdogan’s journey to an all-powerful presidency started in 1994 as mayor of Istanbul. Erdogan lost the city to a man whose name was not known to most Turks until three months ago.
The election was unique, as Erdogan for the first time in his political career said he did not trust the opinion polls. So polls were not shown to people. Erdogan held eight rallies in Istanbul on the last day of the campaign. AKP was planning on a close victory in Istanbul.
Erdogan’s opponent, Imamoglu won Istanbul in 2019, as Erdogan did in 1994, with little to no media presence. Imamoglu resonated with Istanbulites’ most vulnerable emotion: the sense of belonging and loss in this mega city.
Why did Erdogan lose Istanbul, which he frequently refers as his love? It is crucial to understand, because as Erdogan correctly stated, losing Istanbul would mean losing Turkey.
There are four main reasons for the loss of Istanbul:
• The first is due to the loss of AKP’s core conservative voters. AKP, representing Turkish Ikhwan, or Muslim Brotherhood, invested heavily in reversing the secular curriculum into an Islamic one. It backfired. Now Istanbul has a youth bulge with little to no skills for the job market. AKP elites have been observing their sons and daughters reaching adulthood and discarding Islamic lifestyle. The elites struggle to justify their corrupt rags-to-riches stories along with pious morals to the youth. 
The youth are fed up with the government’s hyped-up Islamic rhetoric and ever-growing lavish lifestyle. It is also significant that most of Erdogan’s visible inner circle, i.e., cabinet, is not made up of Ikhwanis. Different religious order leaders are coaxed to openly endorse Erdogan, but they are not sufficient to convince the youth that political Islam is a viable path.
“Dawa [Islamic cause] is traded in for iPhone” is the common sentiment. Islamists, particularly young, expected-to-be Islamists, are disillusioned.
• The second reason for the loss is the increased demonization of Kurds, or Kurdophobia. Erdogan’s campaign rhetoric, based on survival, frequently targeted pro-Kurdish party members, whose leadership has been incarcerated since November 2016. Kurdish vote is estimated at around 5% in Istanbul. After months of hearing that they were not good enough citizens, most Kurds backed the opposition, following a call from imprisoned Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas.
• The third reason is the crony system in Istanbul that favors big businesses and AKP’s handpicked companies. A handful of companies have become mega-cartels in the last decade as small businesses watched their livelihood plummet. Rising food prices are daunting for middle- and low-income families. All aspects of the economy have suffered from horribly planned, exorbitant mega-projects.
Were they really necessary? No one can tell, but people have to pay for it, because government has promised payment to the companies that have built those bridges, airports and even hospitals. The crony system, which used to have some benefits of trickling down to the poorest of Istanbul, has now become exclusively for the top echelons. Middle-class merchants of Istanbul have been mostly left out of the game.
• The last reason is Turkey’s exit from democracy. A populist leader has to remain popular. Erdogan has been gradually losing popularity, and the loss of Istanbul is one of the consequences. Yet we were not allowed to measure the loss of popularity. As Erdogan grabbed more power, he became more hostile to different sections of society. In a minimally functioning democracy, these alienated groups would accumulate into a challenge against the government.
While the erosion of support was real, the public was given another illusion. Government agencies became the ultimate filter for any image in the public eye, from satire to soap operas. Any possible sign of disobedience was diligently punished. Turkey imprisons the highest number of journalists, along with hundreds of academics, lawyers and other voices of dissent.
Today, the competition among mainstream media outlets is about who is the most dedicated and flattering to Erdogan. We can only see Erdogan being praised. His paid-to-clap fans are bused to his rallies, and only “well-behaved” women and men are allowed to play the role of journalist in his press corps. Erdogan won every election largely due to mastery of the system, and as the election rules were being calibrated before, after and during the process.
As Erdogan garnered all political power in his hand, he also gradually lost the support of the people. Legitimacy of his rule is eroding as election results are challenged on superfluous claims. The ballot box was the only remaining justification Erdogan had to claim he represents the will of the people. Losing Istanbul might be the biggest loss of Erdogan’s political career.
The writer is a visiting scholar of political science at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and a columnist for