Istanbul Elections: Turkish Democracy Knocked Down, But Not Knocked Out
Requesting a rerun of the mayoral election in İstanbul was a gambit for President Erdoğan and the odds do not look favorable. Particularly after the emergency rule following the coup attempt in July 2016, many observers of Turkey came to the view that it would be impossible to hold real elections in Turkey in the future as it is the case in authoritarian regimes around the world. Others, including myself, argued that, while elections in Turkey had become extremely unfair, they were real and competitive with the opposition having a real chance of winning.
The municipal elections held on March 31 proved the latter as the opposition bloc won in most of the metropolitan cities including İstanbul, Ankara and İzmir. Understanding what led to this outcome is important for analyzing the dynamics of the upcoming rerun elections in İstanbul. With the recent changes in the election law, parallel to the transition from a parliamentary system to a presidential one, two political blocs have emerged in Turkey: the incumbent People’s Alliance led by Erdoğan’s AKParty and the Nation’s Alliance led by the main opposition CHP. As a result of the identity-based voter behavior, shift of votes from one bloc to another is very limited regardless of the performance of the incumbent. However, this does not mean that voters of these blocs do not have a choice: They do have a choice to stay home to demonstrate their frustration. Therefore, in very close races such as the one in İstanbul voter turnout has become a crucial factor.
In the municipal elections held on March 31, the Nation’s Alliance’s candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu enjoyed additional support from the pro-Kurdish HDP, which brought his potential vote very close to that of the People’s Alliance’s candidate Binali Yıldırım. Both alliances faced defections among their potential voters. On the AKParty side, identity politics as well as the economic situation led to defections. First of all, some AKParty voters stayed home in protest of the economic performance of the government. Neighborhood-level analysis shows that defections among the AKParty voters in neighborhoods where conservative Kurds who generally vote for the AKParty are concentrated were higher. Conservative Kurds were disillusioned by not only the economic performance of the government, but also the way it has chosen to deal with the Kurdish problem. They could have been mobilized if the candidate of the Nation’s Alliance had employed a jacobinist language bordering Islamophobia, but İmamoğlu did just the opposite by publicly demonstrating that he is a devout Muslim himself. İmamoğlu faced defections as well mainly from the pro-Kurdish HDP ranks. While the HDP as a party supported İmamoğlu, not all of their voters went out to vote for him as they were indifferent about the outcome.
Knowing that voter turnout will determine the outcome of the upcoming rerun in İstanbul, the Binali Yıldırım camp has been aiming to mobilize their voters by using their almost monopoly in the Turkish press to defame the opposition candidate İmamoğlu in various ways from accusing him to cooperate with the PKK terrorist organization to claiming that he is a crypto Greek whose ultimate goal is to convert İstanbul back to Constantinople. They also have been paying specific attention to conservative Kurds to win back their vote. İmamoğlu, on the other hand, has been portraying the decision to rerun the election, which he had won, as unjust not only to him, but to everyone who voted, both to mobilize his own voters and to disillusioned voters of the People’s Alliance. His message, that the injustice must be corrected, is simple but powerful.
While this is still a close race, İmamoğlu’s arguments are more solid, his base appears better mobilized and all of the publicly available opinion polls shows İmamoğlu leading. While his victory in the first election was a surprise, his defeat would be a surprise this time.
These developments show that, while Turkish democracy is wounded, it is not dead. Like a boxer that can be knocked down but not knocked out, the Turkish society is demonstrating strong resilience against all odds. Writing off such a dynamic and resilient society would be a mistake for the transatlantic community.