Istanbul’s Mayoral Election Rerun a Dismal Failure for Erdogan

By James Carstensen | June 25, 2019 | 8:44pm EDT
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Photo: Turkish Presidency)

Berlin ( – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s gamble in calling for a re-do of last March’s mayoral election in Istanbul failed dismally this week, after his opponent achieved even more votes the second time around.

Turkey-watchers speculate that the increasingly autocratic Erdogan may respond by using his powers to try to rein in the local governments in major cities no longer controlled by his Justice and Development Party’s (AKP).

In the Istanbul rerun, Ekrem Imamoglu of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) beat the AKP candidate, Binali Yldirim, by a margin of more than nine percent – significantly more than Imamoglu’s original 0.16 percent margin of victory in March.

The March election was marked by major setbacks for the AKP, which lost control not only over the capital, Ankara, but also over Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest and most historic city – and the city which Erdogan himself ran as mayor from 1994-1998.

The AKP demanded a full recount of the Istanbul votes, claiming the process was “tainted,” prompting Turkey’s Supreme Election Board (YSK) – a body whose independence has been questioned in the past – to order a rerun.

The move appears to have backfired: The YSK early this week confirmed that that secular and liberal Imamoglu had beaten his rival by 54.21 to 44.99 percent – the biggest margin of victory secured by any mayoral candidate in the city in 35 years.

The results has been hailed in Western capitals as a return to democracy in Turkey, where the international community has been increasingly concerned about a shift towards authoritarianism since Erdogan, formerly the prime minister, became president in 2014.

In particular, the European Union has been deeply concerned about Erdogan’s crackdown following a failed coup attempt in 2016, which saw 150,000 people detained. He went on to consolidate sweeping executive powers for himself following a narrowly-won constitutional referendum in 2017.

Citing these and other issues, the E.U. put Turkey’s chances of joining the bloc on indefinite hold.

Albert Goldson, executive director of the Cerulean Global Capital Council thinktank, said Erdogan’s resounding defeat in the Istanbul election has deeply shaken his AKP party, and “will weaken Erdogan’s ability to impose illiberal tactics against the opposition.”

“This has provoked a political domino effect heading into the 2023 presidential election that could unseat Erdogan,” he said.

“This was a thorough misjudgment and Erdogan took a defeat and turned it into a disaster,” said Alan Makovsky, senior fellow for national security at the Center for American Progress.

“What made a difference was that people who voted for Erdogan’s party voted for Imamoglu,” he said at a discussion hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), adding that the election underscored the fact that Erdogan has lost his “political Midas touch.”

What the outcome means for the future of Turkish politics remains uncertain, with some speculating that Erdogan may seek ways to apply pressure on Imamoglu.

Although the new mayor represents the opposition CHP, Erdogan’s AKP still maintains majority in the Istanbul municipal council.

Under Turkey’s presidential system, Erdogan is free to issue regulations and could do so to circumscribe the power of the municipalities, which typically get 50 percent or more of their budget from the central government.

FDD senior fellow Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish lawmaker, foresaw a “long term battle” between Erdogan and mayors.

Erdemir said there was a risk that could backfire as the election re-vote had, as “people could put the blame on the president for incapacitating municipalities.”

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said despite the victory for the opposition, it would be foolish to be optimistic, as Erdogan is likely to punish Istanbul for voting the wrong way, rather than respect the outcome.

“Erdogan is no democrat, and there is nothing more dangerous than an autocrat with a bruised ego,” he said. “The AKP still controls the broader government, security forces, and press.”

Rubin said Erdogan will want to show that the opposition cannot deliver, using tools such as interrupting municipal funding, conducting spurious audits, or even arrests.

“Erdogan’s chief goals remains the same: The creation of a second republic which will turn its back once and for all on Ataturk’s secular reforms, and the empowerment of his own family members as a sort of republican monarchy,” Rubin charged.

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