Whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey: Erdogan loses Istanbul but can he rule till 2023?

The next national election is not due till 2023. But can Turkey’s strongman hold on to his office till then ? After 16 years in power, Erdogan and his party show chinks in the armour

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Ashis Ray

Armed forces’ involvement and influence in administration at the very least dilutes, more likely dislodges democracy. Yet, there were mixed feelings about the uniformed species’ role in Turkey as guardians of secularism in the country. This watchdog pursuit retreated in 2003 with the emergence of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party or AKP in office and a consequent tilt towards Islam.

For 16 years Erdogan as prime minister, and then president, tightened his grip on Turkish politics, proving forecasters of all hues wrong about his ability to remain in office, including seeing off an attempted coup d’etat in 2016. He, however, suffered a significant setback on 23 June.

His party’s candidate in the crucial mayoral election in Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city, lost to Ekrem Imamoglu. Indeed, the result in a re-run of voting, after Erdogan objected to the original result in March, reconfirmed the first outcome by a much bigger majority. AKP had previously ruled Istanbul for a quarter of a century.

Imamoglu prevailed even in religious precincts of the city. His healing touch in a climate of confrontation and divisive politics struck a chord. He united a disparate opposition, including drawing in the secular nationalist Iyi party. Imamoglu can now be deemed to be a powerful alternative to Erdogan in Turkey’s national polity.

With the all-important metropolis of Istanbul in the fold, opposition parties will in the foreseeable future control all major urban areas of the country other than Bursa. This means cities which collectively account for a distinctly greater part of Turkey’s GDP. This means the resources AKP had access to and which helped to catapult it to centre stage will in all probability diminish.

“Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey,” Erdogan asserted and virtually forced the country’s election board to order a re-poll on the basis of unsubstantiated claims of malpractice. But the bravado backfired.

Imamoglu swept the election by the biggest margin in Istanbul’s history for 35 years. In the brief period he administered the city before facing a second ballot, his team uncovered corruption linked to tenders worth US $4 billion awarded to Erdogan’s family. AKP leaders may now also query the seemingly unpopular centralisation of authority triggered by the transition to a presidential system last year.

To become mayor of Istanbul is considered to be a potential launchpad to Turkey’s presidency. This was the case with Erdogan. Consequently, the defeat of his former prime minister Binali Yildirim in the contest has given rise to speculation that this could finally be the beginning of the end for Turkey’s embrace of orthodox Islam.

Erdogan’s hardline on a wide section of the opposition as a response to the coup may have troubled his people. It has certainly concerned countries in Europe and North America. Turkey possessed a relatively independent judiciary. But thousands of judges were purged after the coup and replaced by pro-Erdogan justices. Besides, all concerned function in an atmosphere of tension. Under Erdogan, Turkey has also sunk like a stone in international human rights and press freedom indexes.

But as always, more importantly, an underperforming economy is probably the primary cause of the public’s discontent. Indeed, Turkey’s economic woes could worsen if the United States carry out its threat of economic sanctions because of Ankara placing an order for the Russian S-400 missiles system, despite being a member of the western military alliance North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

The opposition in Turkey has been muzzled ever since Erdogan came to power. But Imamoglu’s win could have a cataclysmic effect. A national election is not due until 2023; there’s already talk, though, that Erdogan may not succeed in holding on that long. Indeed, Erdogan’s predecessor as president is about to unveil a breakaway party. That is bound to split the conservative vote.

That said, Erdogan has proved to be remarkably resilient. It would thus be a mistake to hastily write him off. But for the first time since his ascent there is optimism among those who wish to see a reversal to secularism in Turkey.

The bottom line, though, is the Islamisation that has become embedded in Turkish society will not evaporate in a hurry even in the event of an Erdogan exit. Also, the military may not be as adamant about maintaining a distance from religion as before. In fact, it didn't do anything material to challenge Erdogan’s conservatism. From a standpoint of democracy this was the correct stance, notwithstanding the withering of the secular fabric. But it also amounts to a less progressive Turkey.

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