Erdogan’s Fumble in Istanbul Puts the 2023 Presidential Election in Play

Ömer Taşpınar

AFP Photo: Bulent Kilic

One thing worse than losing an election is losing the same vote twice – and the second time around with an even wider margin. This is what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, succeeded in doing on Sunday night, as results confirmed that the opposition candidate and new darling of Turkish democrats, Ekrem Imamoglu, had won the “redo” Istanbul municipal election in a landslide. The ruling party candidate, Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister and close ally of Erdogan, conceded the race shortly after returns showed his opponent had garnered 54 percent of votes, against 45 percent for Yildirim’s incumbent party. But this was not only Yildirim’s loss; it also puts Erdogan’s 2023 presidential re-election bid in serious jeopardy.

By cancelling the original election, Erdogan was playing with fire. In the absence of the rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and a free press, the ballot box had become the only institution to enjoy a certain level of legitimacy. Even Erdogan recognized this. Indeed, the autocratic populism and nationalism he championed were predicated on the mantra that he represented the will of the nation through elections. Istanbul voters disagreed in a sobering rebuke.

The AKP lost the original election on March 31 but appealed to overturn the results on a technicality. In reality, the mayoral vote was canceled because the narrow loss was simply unacceptable to Erdogan. The ruling in favor of repeating the election came from the Supreme Electoral Council, in the latest of a series of strikingly autocratic moves by the Erdogan government. No one was surprised, of course, by the decision – not in a country where the most popular opposition leader is in jail, 1,400 civil society organizations have been closed and 140,000 civil servants have been fired. This is the new Turkey Erdogan created as he transformed the Turkish state from a parliamentary system into a presidency – but more like an imperium – without prudent checks and balances.

If the decision to repeat the March election was a tactical blunder, the presidential system Erdogan established has proved to be a strategic miscalculation. By switching the state from a parliamentary system into a presidential one, Erdogan not only condemned himself to the requirement of a 50 percent-plus majority in national elections, but also inadvertently achieved something all autocrats avoid: unifying the opposition. Before the inauguration of the presidential system, the opposition was notoriously divided. Today, the new system has paved the way for coalitions between opposition parties that are strong enough to stand a chance against the AKP. There is little doubt that Imamoglu’s meteoric rise in Istanbul will culminate with a run against Erdogan in the next presidential election, scheduled for 2023. There are now rumblings that that national vote may even be brought forward.

The AKP’s cancellation of the Istanbul election was also sheer folly because it turned Imamoglu into, first, a victim, and then a hero. Never before in the history of Istanbul’s municipal elections has a candidate managed to win with such a majority as did Imamoglu. And he did so by unifying almost the entire spectrum of Turkish politics, ranging from Turkish to Kurdish nationalists. Turks love victimhood, and Imamoglu, the son of a center-right political family from the Black Sea region, played that role with dignity when his first victory was stolen. But instead of turning this into an aggressive attack against Erdogan, Imamoglu once again ran a campaign based on bread-and-butter issues, and with a message of empathy for the poor and in support of national reconciliation. In a society tired of Erdogan’s angry and polarizing tactics, Imamoglu’s strategy proved refreshingly kinder and much welcomed.

The AKP, for its part, ran a confused race. Yildirim first promised generous subsidies and perks to Istanbul residents: cheaper access to transportation, water, internet and schools, and a massive job-creation program. The problem was, some of those pledges looked suspiciously like Imamoglu’s own platform. Also, while Erdogan was first absent from the hustings, probably in an effort to depolarize the election and make it about Istanbul’s problems rather than his own legacy, in the closing stages of the campaign he couldn’t help but re-emerge in full-attack mode.

His accused Imamoglu of being a “crypto-Greek,” of having sympathies for US-based dissident Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, of stealing the original election and of having ties with Kurdish terrorists. Then came the ultimate contradiction, when the AKP tried to convince Istanbul’s large Kurdish community to stay home on election day. It did so by apparently asking Abdullah Ocalan – the leader of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, better known by its PKK acronym – who is serving a life-sentence, to write a letter telling them to stay neutral. But all these moves – desperate and contradictory – proved too little too late.

At the end, a deteriorating economy, a unified opposition and a very effective candidate proved insurmountable for the AKP. Imamoglu’s landslide may very well be the beginning of the end for Erdogan. As a former mayor of Istanbul himself, he knows all too well that whoever controls Istanbul eventually controls the country.

Ömer Taşpınar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.