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Is Istanbul the Last Leg that Turkish Democracy Stands On? Explained.

Source: Flickr

Turkish people are going to the polls once again. After granting Erdogan an unconstitutional third term as the president, voters are going to choose local authorities this time. Although many people consider Turkey an authoritarian regime, the country is still yet to be put in the same category as countries like Russia and Iran. As a competitive authoritarian regime, Turkey still holds free elections that could be more fair, given that the disproportionate power that the government holds is highly problematic. However, it is still possible to make a political change through elections in the country as the opposition was able to unseat Erdogan’s mayors in the capital city, Ankara, and the largest city, Istanbul, after more than 20 years. The victory of the united opposition in Ankara and Istanbul during the previous local elections was a pivotal moment that led to the use of the same strategy for the 2023 general elections. Yet, Erdogan once again secured a majority in the Parliament and a third term for himself as the president in what was believed to be the most important election in Turkish history.  

Erdogan’s victory in 2023 led to the collapse of the Nation Alliance, an electoral cooperation of six major opposition parties. To defeat Erdogan, the Nation Alliance employed the same strategy that it did during the local elections in 2019. The alliance united behind one joint candidate for president, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, while also participating in the parliamentary elections with a joint list of five parties. Yet, the strategy failed, leading to the collapse of the alliance. This time, unlike in 2019, major opposition parties, notably the nationalist Good Party and the pro-Kurdish DEM Party, are running their own candidates in Istanbul and Ankara. Incumbent Istanbul and Ankara mayors, Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas are running as candidates of the main opposition center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP). In 2019, Imamoglu was the joint candidate of multiple parties and got 48.77% of the vote, while Erdogan’s hand-picked candidate ex-Prime Minister Binali Yildirim got 48.61% of the vote. The difference was around 13,000, which was such a slim margin considering that more than 8 million people voted in Istanbul. Erdogan’s governing AKP challenged Imamoglu’s narrow victory, and the not-very-independent Supreme Electoral Council ruled in favor of the AKP, ordering a re-run. The re-run decision angered the opposition voters and mobilized Imamoglu’s base. The difference between Imamoglu and Yildirim increased from 13,000 to over 800,000, with Imamoglu getting more than 54% of the vote.

Ever since the re-run, Imamoglu emerged as the natural leader of the opposition, appealing to a wide range of ideologies. Some people call him “the new Erdogan” since Erdogan was the Istanbul Mayor before being elected as the Prime Minister. Imamoglu is believed to be the only opposition figure that is popular enough to win over Erdogan. Erdogan’s regime views his increasing popularity as a threat, which is the reason why Imamoglu is facing a political ban and jail time after a highly politicized court ruling. Erdogan chose Murat Kurum, ex-Minister of Urbanization, to challenge Imamoglu. Yet, all of Erdogan’s cabinet, including Erdogan himself, is campaigning on behalf of Kurum in Istanbul. Cabinet ministers campaigning for a mayoral candidate is not only legally problematic but also shows how much is at stake for Erdogan.  

Next week’s local elections are not going to affect Erdogan’s government directly but it will impact the ways in which Erdogan governs the country. Defeating the opposition in 2023 boosted his confidence, and beating Imamoglu in Istanbul could make him conclude that he no longer has legitimate challengers. Imamoglu won Istanbul twice in 2019. His first term as the Mayor of Istanbul, the biggest city in Europe, was fairly successful as he tried to roll back corrupt practices Erdogan’s party maintained for years in the city.

For Erdogan, it is Istanbul or nowhere. It is known that he wants to change the constitution to get rid of the constitutional barrier keeping him away from running again in 2028. If Imamoglu wins again in next week’s elections, there is a great possibility that he is going to be the one to challenge Erdogan, or Erdogan’s candidate if Erdogan doesn’t rerun, in 2028. The Istanbul Mayor must win to energize the divided opposition and send Erdogan, and the rest of the world, a clear message: Istanbulites’ resilience in Turkey is strong enough to endure the damage Erdogan’s 22-year rule caused. 



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