Can Istanbul's New Mayor Help Remake Turkish Democracy?

Can Istanbul's New Mayor Help Remake Turkish Democracy?

Ekrem İmamoğlu of the Republican People’s Party waves to supporters as he arrives at his victory rally after Justice and Development Party candidate Binali Yıldırım conceded defeat in the Istanbul mayoral rerun election on June 23, 2019.

SourceChris McGrath/Getty

Why you should care

Because Istanbul Mayor-Elect Ekrem İmamoğlu has sparked new hope for better governance in Turkey.

It’s easy to get hyperbolic when it comes to election outcomes in one of the world’s largest and most unstable nations like Turkey. But Ekrem İmamoğlu’s election on Sunday as the mayor of Istanbul was big. How big? Istanbul, a city of almost 16 million, is Turkey’s largest and the center of its economy. It’s also been controlled by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its Islamic predecessors for a quarter century — ever since the nation’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, launched his own improbable political career with a victory in Istanbul’s mayoral election in 1994, and began his march to consolidate power over the country.

To top things off, İmamoğlu, 49, won in Istanbul not once, but twice, and in the face of incredible opposition. The repeat election, designed to undo İmamoğlu’s narrow win in the original March contest, was a major gamble by Erdoğan and AKP leaders. The electoral rerun has produced not only the same results but also a landmark victory that threatens Erdoğan’s political future. “We want to start a new chapter, a new era,” Istanbul’s new mayor proclaimed at his victory speech on Sunday night, and İmamoğlu’s victory — with 54 percent of the vote — has given many new hope that democracy in Turkey might be salvageable after all.

Imamoglu’s victory has punctured the aura of invincibility surrounding Erdogan.

If İmamoğlu is seen by many as the antidote to the Erdoğan era, then it’s also worth noting that the two men have more in common than just the president’s old job. Both come from the country’s conservative Black Sea coast; like Erdoğan, who once surged in popularity in Istanbul with his pragmatic focus on addressing pollution, traffic and garbage collection, İmamoğlu has earned a reputation as a competent administrator in his stewardship of Istanbul’s middle-class Beylikdüzü district.

The focus of İmamoğlu, a former construction company head who didn’t enter politics until 2009, on good city management has helped him overcome a climate of intense political polarization. The soft-spoken, bespectacled politician also strikes a more conciliatory tone than other Turkish leaders. İmamoğlu talks about the importance of working together to tackle issues from sewage and poverty to refugees and affordable public transport for young people. He has made concerted efforts to reach out to the city’s Kurdish minority and also to the religious and working-class voters who tend to support the AKP and who are skeptical of his Republican People’s Party (CHP), which for years has struggled to shake off its reputation as the overly secular middle-class party. İmamoğlu has made public demonstrations of his piousness — fasting for the holy Islamic month of Ramadan and reciting passages from the Quran. And he has worked hard to bypass the AKP’s dominance of the Turkish media landscape both the old-fashioned way (walking the streets and meeting voters one at a time) and the new-fashioned way (disseminating social media videos of his conversations).

İmamoğlu’s efforts earned him a surprising but narrow upset of former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, a candidate hand-picked by Erdoğan, in the election last March, a victory that was challenged by the AKP over ballot-counting issues and that was controversially annulled by an electoral board. Following İmamoğlu’s more convincing victory in Sunday’s rematch (by about 777,000 votes), thousands of supporters took to the streets, honking car horns, waving flags and chanting “Mayor again! Mayor again!” “Today 16 million Istanbullus have refreshed our belief in democracy,” İmamoğlu told supporters in a televised speech, while Erdoğan tweeted his congratulations.

İmamoğlu’s victory has punctured the aura of invincibility surrounding Erdoğan, as former allies are already set to launch breakaway parties in response to the increasingly authoritarian leader. Winning in Istanbul, however, is not just a morale booster for the newly energized opposition: It changes control of the city’s $4 billion municipal budget, a tool that the AKP has used effectively to build patronage networks and dependency relationships to ensure its political dominance. İmamoğlu also becomes a lightning rod for those starting to doubt Erdoğan’s leadership in a country that is struggling with corruption, inflation and a failing economy, not to mention a rallying cry for those disillusioned by Erdoğan’s attempts to limit judicial independence and tighten control of the media and internet.

But don’t expect a political revolution anytime soon. The AKP still controls 25 of Istanbul’s 39 districts and a majority in the municipal assembly. And Erdoğan still has a strong political base, around 44 percent, and is not up for reelection until 2023, which gives him plenty of time to shore up disaffected portions of the electorate. But don’t expect a strongman like Erdoğan to change course too much, says Merve Tahiroglu, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. “Erdoğan is Erdoğan,” she says. “He’s not going to become an all-embracing liberal leader overnight, and even if he does, people don’t trust him.”

For the moment, İmamoğlu’s victory demonstrates that there is a strong desire for change after 17 years of AKP rule. “It clearly shows that you cannot kill Turkish democracy overnight, and this is a message that should reverberate around the world,” says Tahiroglu of the club of populist authoritarian leaders that Erdoğan belongs to. “This is a very historic moment for not just Turkey but hopefully for Turkey’s neighborhood as well.”

OZYNeed to Know

Quick briefings and smart previews you can't live without, making sure you not only survive but can thrive at the water cooler.