The Meaning of Erdogan’s Defeat in Istanbul

The Turkish president believes that whoever wins on the Bosporus goes on to rule the country. Will his rival Ekrem Imamoglu make it all the way?

The Meaning of Erdogan’s Defeat in Istanbul
Ekrem Imamoglu makes a speech in Istanbul following municipal elections in March 2024. (Yasin Akgul/AFP via Getty Images)

On Dec. 14, 2022, on the day he expected a court ruling on his political future, Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, who was reelected three weeks ago for the Republican People’s Party (CHP), made an open call for a gathering at the seat of the municipality in Sarachane. He was sentenced, pending appeal, to more than two years in jail along with a ban from politics for calling members of Turkey’s Supreme Election Council “fools” at a press meeting. 

Later that day, he gave an impassioned address to his supporters. “The day will come, and those who politicize the judiciary too will need justice,” he said, quoting from an old speech by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In 1998, the then-mayor of Istanbul also addressed thousands in Sarachane, following a similar court ruling that eventually sent him to prison. 

Decades apart, two mayors from different sides of the political spectrum received jail sentences for their public statements that only consolidated their support among voters. The main difference is that the judiciary today is controlled by the man who came first.

Imamoglu’s meteoric rise and growing popularity appear to have rattled the Turkish president. Following his first election as mayor of Istanbul in 2019, he embarked on social projects in the city’s underdeveloped districts despite stonewalling by the central government, crippling inflation and a plummeting Turkish lira. Well-equipped student residences, an expanding network of railway services, affordable kindergartens and free transport for mothers with small kids have helped him earn the trust of traditional Erdogan voters. 

Imamoglu prides himself on having won every election he has contested as a candidate against Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). With four mayoral victories under his belt (including those in the Beylikduzu district of Istanbul and in the canceled first Istanbul vote in 2019), he stands out as a potential challenger for the presidency in 2028. 

Like Erdogan in his early years, Imamoglu is more popular than his party leader and is setting his sights on becoming Turkey’s next head of state. In the 2023 general election, Erdogan won with 51% of the vote, renewing his mandate decisively against his closest rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the CHP. Despite a flagging economy, widespread corruption and twin earthquakes that claimed more than 50,000 lives, Kilicdaroglu failed to convince enough voters. Against the candidate of a disparate and ultimately shambolic electoral alliance, Erdogan reemerged as a leader symbolizing stability. Yet the AKP has been steadily bleeding votes for years, especially when Erdogan himself is absent from the ballot.

In late March this year, the AKP faced an unprecedented electoral shock, losing local governments in major strongholds such as Bursa, Afyonkarahisar and Adiyaman to the CHP, the Kemalist opposition party. For decades, the CHP had been largely confined to Turkey’s secular coastal towns, unable to penetrate AKP heartlands in Anatolia. Riding the wave of the previous mayoral elections, marked by victories in the country’s biggest cities including Ankara, the CHP retained all but one of the provincial municipalities, adding 14 more. 

Aside from traditional AKP voters making a low-stakes protest against the government, the CHP’s success is due to locally favored candidates. These include incumbent mayors, most notably Ankara’s Mansur Yavas, who seem to have delivered for their constituents. 

Disillusioned after last year’s catastrophic defeat, opposition voters have fresh reasons for optimism. A total of nearly 80% of Turkey’s GDP is now generated in opposition-governed municipalities.

In Istanbul, Imamoglu’s unstoppable political rise is in part the AKP government’s own doing. Erdogan, more than anyone else, believes in the old adage in Turkish politics: Whoever wins in Istanbul goes on to rule Turkey. He has so far tried everything to stop that from happening.

On March 31, 2019, as local election results were coming in through the state-run Anadolu Agency (AA), the CHP secured massive wins in major cities, including in Ankara after decades of failure. Late into the night, all eyes were on Istanbul as the CHP’s Ekrem Imamoglu steadily closed the gap with his AKP rival, former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. When both candidates stood at 48.7% of the votes, AA stopped updating results, prompting suspicion that it was withholding an opposition victory. It was the first of a series of missteps by the Erdogan administration that backfired spectacularly, catapulting Imamoglu to a political stardom nobody saw coming. 

Unwilling to cede Turkey’s biggest city to the opposition, Erdogan’s team called for a rerun of the election. The election council duly accepted. Overriding Imamoglu’s narrow but clear win, the decision was indicative of Erdogan’s tightening grip on public institutions, which infuriated the electorate. In June, with the backing of protest voters, Imamoglu won by a vast distance, more than doubling Erdogan’s 1994 mayoral victory margin in the city. He thus ended 25 years of AKP domination in the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IBB).

“I voted for change,” says Abdullah Yaz, 40, an entrepreneur in the education sector who, like others interviewed for this story, requested to use a pseudonym to discuss their voting patterns. A former Erdogan voter, he first crossed the aisle in favor of Imamoglu in 2019. “Istanbul had turned into a mass of concrete, beset with corruption and crony capitalism. I wanted it to stop.” 

He criticized the government’s “urban regeneration scheme” to make Istanbul more earthquake-resilient, which entails gentrification with high-rise buildings replacing modest ones. “Are people aware that they need sidewalks?” he added, referring to how the new buildings occupy urban spaces never designed for them. “No parking, no green space to breathe, no infrastructure, just higher buildings. All of that is socially unsustainable.” 

Looking back on Imamoglu’s term in office, he’s glad for the change in power. “Otherwise, every district we live in in Istanbul would have been swallowed in more concrete,” he said. The densely populated metropolis is only 2.2% green space, the lowest figure among the world’s major cities. Imamoglu boasts of increasing that area by three and a half square miles. 

Beren Celik, 28, is a staffer at a private university who lives in Eyupsultan, one of the 12 districts the CHP has recently taken over from the AKP. Near her home there is now a park with a children’s playground, cafe and library, in an area where she used to fear walking. She too first voted for the CHP to help elect Imamoglu in 2019, ending her support for the AKP.

Soon after he eventually conceded defeat in Istanbul in 2019, Erdogan referred to the new mayors of Istanbul and Ankara as “lame ducks,” a forewarning of roadblocks in AKP-dominated municipal assemblies on municipalities’ budgets, strategic plans and investments. Indeed, AKP members of the 312-strong IBB assembly rejected Imamoglu’s plans to increase the number of affordable bread kiosks, fix the chronic taxi shortage and hand over some of the IBB’s housing properties to disadvantaged residents of the city. 

In April 2020, the Ministry of Interior blocked the IBB’s donations to help struggling communities in the wake of the pandemic. Most notably, state banks denied loans to the municipality for metro projects, leading Imamoglu to seek funding from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the French Development Agency. In a recent interview, he said that the EBRD could not understand why the president repeatedly left out the new metro line project from the government’s investment program.

Imamoglu’s municipal program has so far largely focused on addressing people’s immediate needs amid the cost-of-living crisis: food, employment, student accommodation and public transport to name a few. Such populist initiatives had thus far been monopolized by the AKP and helped retain voter loyalty — hence the party’s efforts to block Imamoglu’s projects. Back in 1994, Erdogan’s mayoralty in Istanbul began with his campaign promise of free water supply to families with five or more children, a demographic that had overwhelmingly voted for him. Under subsequent AKP mayors, the outskirts of the city flourished, with significant funds channeled from the central government. With economic conditions worsening on Erdogan’s watch, people in those very neighborhoods are now on the receiving end of Imamoglu’s social services.

There also seemed to be a concerted effort to limit the municipality’s influence among the wider public. The government took possession of the formerly IBB-controlled Galata Tower, a key historical landmark, as well as Gezi Park, the birthplace of the biggest protests against Erdogan to date. The assembly also blocked the IBB’s bid to take control over the historic Sirkeci and Haydarpasa train stations, chipping away at the municipality’s executive powers. Such hindrances will be more difficult now because the newly reelected IBB assembly has a CHP majority. 

The AKP’s recent campaign slogan nationwide was “gercek belediyecilik” (real municipal work), as if to say non-AKP mayors’ activities have been no more than PR stunts. For the last five years, Imamoglu’s team in Istanbul has been carefully curating public communications online and offline, advertising projects on billboards, metros and ferries. 

Celik, a frequent public transport user, says her options increased with a new, diverse network of tram and metro lines becoming operational. Meanwhile, Imamoglu and his administration are exposed to a constant barrage of negative coverage in pro-AKP media such as Sabah and Yeni Safak. Their favorite mantra is “algi operasyonu” (disinformation operation), meaning whatever Imamoglu says he does is nothing but an effort to mislead the public.

Imamoglu is not the first victim of a heavily biased press. In the run-up to his election as Istanbul mayor in 1994, Erdogan rightly complained about how Milliyet, a strong player in the mainstream media, ignored his Welfare Party. Rusen Cakir, a seasoned journalist and expert on political Islam, once talked about how he was persistently mobbed in Milliyet’s newsroom when he pitched stories on the rise of the party and the Islamist movement. His editors only published news that showed Welfare in a bad light, and ignored anything that could do the opposite. During his campaign, Erdogan was lambasted by newspapers from left to right.

It all backfired at the ballot box, when the Welfare Party, led by Erdogan’s mentor Necmettin Erbakan, painted the map of Anatolia in its colors, including Istanbul and Ankara. The “army of bearded, hijabi voters” from the “slums of Istanbul,” long belittled by the secular establishment, changed the course of Turkey’s history. The party came first in general elections the following year, with Erdogan gaining ground as the country’s future leader.

Yaz considers himself a centrist with no ideological allegiance. Coming from a conservative Muslim background, he found a promising appeal in the early years of the Erdogan era. He loyally voted for the AKP as it shifted to the center-right: “They emerged as a party integrated with the rest of the world. They had a strong team, introduced lots of freedoms and the economy was doing well.” In 2011, nearly half of the country seemed to be on the same page as him.

Starting in 2013, the year when the nationwide Gezi protests sparked off authoritarian measures from the government, Yaz began to lose faith. He noticed high-skilled workers escaping Turkey and the country’s image declining abroad, with fewer foreigners showing interest in coming to the country.

Yaz is one of the millions of Turkish voters who switch parties in local elections first, short of a radical move but nevertheless voicing resentment toward the government. Like Celik, he voted for Imamoglu only a year after voting for Erdogan in 2018.

The AKP’s recent defeats showed cracks in a party that is in power but has grown out of touch with the public. Ahead of the elections, the AKP Afyonkarahisar candidate and his family were seen atop a mammoth luxury vehicle, waving at a crowd that was all smiles, flanked by a security detail clad in black. It was a far cry from the rallies of the Welfare Party in the ’90s, dominated by low-price cars made by the Turkish Automobile Factory. The AKP’s Ankara candidate, meanwhile, declared a vast list of real estate properties across the capital. In 2023, Ankara topped a list for growth in housing prices worldwide, followed by Istanbul. By considerable margins, both candidates lost to the CHP, long seen as the party of the elitist establishment.

In Istanbul, the AKP candidate Murat Kurum’s gaffes were tone-deaf. Speaking to the press, he made light of the IBB’s distribution of free milk for children and its restaurants offering affordable meals, saying they were not achievements to be proud of. Producing 7,500 meals daily, the restaurants are built in disadvantaged districts where the AKP is generally strong, some of which switched in the last election. Hundreds of thousands of kids in Istanbul receive the IBB’s free milk. These are considerable reliefs for the city’s low-income residents, as Turkey, for years, has been in the top five countries for food inflation worldwide.

When Imamoglu defied cabinet members who rallied in the streets of Istanbul to attract votes for the AKP, Kurum mocked his opponent’s past as a tradesman: “You’re not qualified enough to be let in ministry buildings. They’d hire you as a kofte seller at best.” The son of a civil engineer who had a career in the former Ministry of Public Works, Kurum seemed to forget that as a child in Istanbul’s modest Kasimpasa, his party leader Erdogan sold candy and bottled water for pocket money.

The results in Istanbul also speak to a dearth of political talent in Erdogan’s one-man party. Over the years, Erdogan has gradually eliminated all of his former comrades with real political leverage — such as Abdullah Gul, his presidential predecessor, and Suleyman Soylu, the popular interior minister — surrounding himself with a circle of unthreatening yes men. So far, his personality cult has buttressed his mandate. Yet in the five years following the loss of Istanbul, and only 10 months after a general election victory, Erdogan simply could not produce a stronger candidate than Kurum to topple his biggest rival. Imamoglu has conveniently filled the vacuum left by Erdogan’s weakening party base, carefully building a track record of public service.

Portraying the 2013 Gezi protests as a “civilian coup” against his premiership and the failed military coup in 2016 as an attempt on his life, Erdogan built a narrative of victimhood aided by conspiracy theories that elevated him to a hero’s status among his supporters. From these trials he crafted an image as a selfless strongman serving his country at all costs, while pledging allegiance to him personally became the norm in his party. He has become a unique Turkish leader, enjoying deep loyalty and longevity second only to Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

Given his victory in the general elections last year, it is easy to see Erdogan and his government as invincible. However, with Imamoglu’s growing popularity against the backdrop of a vast number of CHP victories across the nation, the opposition has been given a historic mandate. Thirty years ago, Welfare Party mayors including Erdogan worked tirelessly to move beyond the fringes and win people’s hearts. Turkey’s era of political Islam shows signs of coming full circle, losing cities first and maybe the presidency next.

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