Istanbul Mayoral Election: Does Erdogan’s Loss Mean Democracy Will Be Restored?

On June 23, 2019, Istanbul had a re-run mayoral election that made room for potential positive change in the near future.

In March, the opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, won the Istanbul elections by a margin of 13,000 votes. The High Electoral Council denied Imamoglu victory on ambiguous legal grounds. On June 23, Istanbul electorates stood in solidarity with Imamoglu, for the sake of democracy and democratic principles, and he increased his majority to about 800,000 votes. Imamoglu received 54% of the votes. In contrast, Binali Yildirim of the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), supported by the President Erdogan and major media outlets, received 45% of the votes.

What does Imamoglu’s success mean for Istanbul and Turkey on a greater scale?

Despite the recent elections being municipal and Istanbul not being the capital, the mayoral elections received national and international attention. With a population of over 16 million people, the only city that connects the West and the East by land and the centre of tourism, Istanbul is the heart of Turkey.

The current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, started his political career in Istanbul as mayor, in 1994. Since his founding of AKP in 2001, President Erdogan has been victorious in 2002, 2007 and 2011 general elections and has served as prime minister. He has been president since 2014.

Since 2002, AKP has been victorious in all elections, with high margins. Over the years, there has been a shift in Turkish politics; power has become more concentrated, with AKP cementing itself as a political power house. Since Erdogan became president, Turkey has witnessed an aggressive political regime. Citizens have become afraid to exercise their basic civil rights, owing to a drastic increase in journalists being arrested, academics limited in political publications, a loss of jobs and a growing number of judges and prosecutors dismissed.

AKP’s – and specifically Erdogan’s – call for a do-over is a sign of fear and the end of their administration. This is evident in President Erdogan’s unusual preoccupation with a municipal election; during the do-over, he was more involved with Binali’s campaign in Istanbul. Losing the capital Ankara was a sign of their shortcoming; the loss of Istanbul meant the loss of the main source of capital and Turkey as a whole. In short, Istanbul means Turkey.

The outcome of the mayoral election restored hope in Istanbul and the rest of Turkey. A hope for restitution of democratic values, human rights, the rule of law and fundamental freedoms. This was established, according to Washington Post, due to Imamoglu’s usage of a new language and message that Istanbul and Turkey as a whole has been long craving: unification, patience and tolerance. In contrast, the AKP, and  Erdogan specifically, has been using a language and message of militancy, resistance and categorization. Overall, Imamoglu promised a return to normalcy (June 25, 2019). If AKP and Erdogan do not change their political agendas by the presidency elections in 2023, the political hegemony of Erdogan may come to an end.