The landslide victory of Ekrem İmamoğlu, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) mayoral candidate for Istanbul, has dominated foreign press coverage of Turkey in the two weeks since votes were cast in the rerun on June 23.
This was at least partly a product of the immense significance the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had placed on the Istanbul contest – firstly by describing the mayoral elections as a “matter of national survival” before the initial vote on March 31, then by forcing through a rerun on spurious grounds after losing Turkey’s largest and most lucrative city.
Adding to the drama were the ruling party’s increasingly desperate measures to hold on to the city, culminating in an apparent move to enlist the assistance of Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), commonly referred to by AKP politicians and friendly media outlets as “terrorist chief” and “baby killer”.
Given the series of momentous and remarkable events that paved the way for his 800,000-vote victory in the June 23 vote, it was not surprising to see İmamoğlu’s win heralded by international media as a crippling blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
A succession of headlines has proclaimed past setbacks the “beginning of the end” for the Turkish president, whose party’s death knells were rung most recently after it lost its majority in the June 2015 national elections.
The AKP’s powers of endurance since then have not prevented a new series of headlines predicting the same, though there is the feeling this time that the AKP’s proneness to unforced errors and the severity of economic and foreign policy pressures have left it more vulnerable than ever.
It’s too early to say whether the reports of the ruling party’s imminent demise have been exaggerated or not, but there has been ample time for some of the highest hopes around İmamoğlu’s victory to be disabused.
Much was made of the CHP candidate’s inclusive campaign, softly spoken manner and so-called “radical love” strategy that aimed to win over voters from the rival, conservative parties.
But everything’s relative, and it didn’t take a historic feat to come out as the conciliatory side when your rivals are declaring the opposition as terrorists and weaponizing footage from the Christchurch attack for votes.
Plenty of foreign outlets have İmamoğlu pegged as a future rival for Erdoğan’s presidency, though the new mayor has a long way to go before proving himself the visionary to untangle the country’s Gordian knots.
İmamoğlu has continued to be conciliatory, in the sense that he has made statements and symbolic gestures to please the various groups that backed him while keeping the door open for religious conservative voters.
So, he spoke to Turkish nationalists during his victory speech when he dwelled on Turkey’s “inviolable territorial integrity” and gave a nod to secularists by declaring himself a “project of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s Republic”.
Later, he would take care not to dent his credentials with conservatives by inviting an imam to pray in his new office and refusing calls to resume alcohol service at municipal leisure facilities decades after Erdoğan canceled them when he became mayor.
The political rationale of this, from a candidate who promised to represent the entire city of 16 million people, is sound. Yet it bears risks, as the backlash from CHP voters who had expected their man to make a swift mark on the city showed.
Meanwhile, the outreach to conservatives was acknowledged by some media figures from that social group, including former AKP deputy Yasin Aktay, who offered İmamoğlu grudging praise in a column for pro-government outlet Yeni Şafak for adopting “the model and paths the AKP has been following for years”.
Yet Aktay and others were quick to point out the contradiction this could elicit with hardline secularists in the main opposition party like former Istanbul deputy Barış Yarkadaş, who blasted the idea of judges wearing headscarves in a televised interview days after the Istanbul victory.
The ruling party and its media wing had more ammunition to fire off at the opposition after LGBTI+ Pride Week, taking aim at the CHP municipalities for “encouraging homosexuality” in a “race to celebrate Pride Week”.
An AKP government was the first to grant official approval for the Pride March in 2003, and the event continued annually until 2015, when it was placed under a de facto ban amid a broader period of repression. The latest pronouncements on the subject appear to be a move to alienate conservatives from the CHP and pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), whose municipalities have supported Pride.
İmamoğlu’s call for a meeting with Selahattin Demirtaş, the jailed former co-chair of the HDP, was enough to keep hopes alive that the temporary alliance formed with the Kurdish movement over the local election campaign can be made to last.
News reports on the resumption of a Kurdish peace process that crashed to a halt in 2015, leading to years of repression of the country’s biggest minority, if true, indicate that the ruling party is looking to boost its credentials with Kurdish voters.
How the AKP hopes to do that, in spite of its coalition with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, the years of groundwork to build a network of permanent military checkpoints in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, the ongoing confrontation with Kurdish militants in Syria, and the ever-present risk of tone-deaf statements from Erdoğan, remains to be seen.
It should be noted that the ruling party still commands a sizable portion of votes from the demographic, and jailed Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader Abdullah Öcalan’s call for Kurdish voters to follow a “third way” raises the possibility of a tactical shift from some politicians away from the opposition. The HDP presented its support for the opposition alliance in local elections as a tactical move against the ruling bloc, and the CHP is still remembered for voting in favor of legislation allowing the lifting of parliamentary immunity, a move that led to the jailing of Demirtaş and many more HDP politicians.
With the long list of deep rifts holding social groups in Turkey apart, İmamoğlu was able to find one issue that commands near-unanimous agreement in the country over his first weeks as officially ratified mayor: Turkey’s million-strong population of Syrians, hosted in the country under “temporary protection” status.
Research from Kadir Has University has said 60 percent of Turks are unhappy with the situation of over 3.5 million Syrians in their country, and other surveys have said around 80 percent want the refugees to return home. CHP mayors have addressed the situation by directly targeting the Syrians in Turkey with beach bans.
While in his televised interview on Monday İmamoğlu steered clear of such overt racism, his framing of the issue as a question of “protecting the people of Turkey”, and his focus on Arabic-language signs he said were denigrating the culture of the city, were a disappointment for some who had interpreted the “radical love” rhetoric as a disavowal of all forms of discrimination.
The need for a leader who can defuse tensions over the 3.6 million Syrians in Turkey was starkly demonstrated days after the CHP mayor’s interview when a mob was incited against the Syrian community over an apparently false rumor that spread on social media.