Losing Istanbul Twice: Erdogan’s Humbling Moment
Dr Yatharth Kachiar

President Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (also known as AKP by its Turkish acronym) conceded a major defeat in the re-run of Istanbul mayoral elections on June 23 indicating a tectonic shift in Turkey’s politics. In the re-run election, Ekrem Imamoglu, the candidate of Turkey’s grand old Republican People’s Party (CHP) crushed AKP’s Binali Yildirim, former Prime Minister and close ally of Erdogan, by a margin of 800,000 votes.

The re-run took place after AKP challenged the results of March 31 elections in which Ekrim Imamoglu had defeated the AKP candidate by a narrow margin of 14,000 votes. 1 Instead of accepting the results, the ruling party called on the Turkish Supreme Electoral Council to conduct fresh elections citing technical irregularities without any credible evidence. Interestingly, AKP challenged only the results of Istanbul mayoral elections while leaving the Istanbul district elections undisputed where it had performed well. 2 Although AKP has lost major urban centers of Turkey in the municipal elections of 2019 including Izmir and capital city Ankara, it is the loss of Istanbul which has proved fatal to the invincible image of President Erdogan and the ruling party.
Here, it is important to ask why the municipal elections of Turkey and the defeat of AKP in Istanbul has created such a furor inside as well as outside Turkey, and what does this defeat signify for the future of Turkey and world politics?

Importance of Istanbul Mayoral Election

President Erdogan fully grasped the importance of Istanbul when he told his party members two years ago that “if we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey.”3 Istanbul is Turkey’s largest city with about a fifth of Turkey’s 82 million population and accounts for a third of its $748 billion economies. In 2018, the Istanbul municipality had a budget of over USD 4 billion.4 More than that, Istanbul was the seat of the Ottoman Empire and therefore, symbolic of the country’s great heritage. The city still has an unremarkable hold over the collective imagination of the country and is considered as the economic and cultural capital of Turkey. The population of Istanbul is largely composed of migrants from all over the country who maintain strong linkages with their hometowns. This is precisely the reason why any changes, political or cultural, embraced by people in Istanbul have a reverberating effect all over the country.

AKP has managed to keep Istanbul under its fold for more than two decades. In fact, President Erdogan launched his political career as a mayor of Istanbul in 1994. AKP as a party rose to prominence in Turkish politics through a strategy of “grassroots mobilization and local governance”.5 It is ironic that today the party represents the most authoritarian phase in Turkey’s political history. Since assuming power in 2002, AKP has systematically dismantled the democratic institutions, silenced any kind of dissent which includes the imprisonment of popular opposition leader Selahattin Demirtas of pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), shut down media houses which refused to toe party line, closed numerous civil society organizations, sacked over thousands of civil servants, and ultimately changed the political system of the country from a parliamentary form to a Presidential one without any checks and balances in order to maintain power and to fulfill the whims of a single person, President Erdogan.6

Over two decades of control of Istanbul has allowed AKP to develop and maintain strong patronage networks based on privileges and dependency. By doling out huge infrastructure projects to conglomerates closely aligned with President Erdogan, AKP has multiplied the riches of its allies. By securing contracts for its allies, AKP has also increased its resource base which has helped the ruling party in carrying out campaigns in support of its policies during election time and otherwise and also in subduing the media houses. 7 It is no surprise that during the campaign for the Istanbul mayoral election, the opposition faced an uneven playing field in which the mainstream media was completely controlled by the ruling party. Therefore, the loss of Istanbul not only means disrupting these patronage networks but it will also give the opposition access to years of records that might have potentially disturbing accounts of corruption and cronyism by AKP.8

Further, it was the involvement of high profile personalities such as President Erdogan himself in the Istanbul mayoral election which brought even more limelight to an already crucial race. It was a political blunder and strategic miscalculation on the part of President Erdogan who from the very beginning made the Istanbul mayoral election a measure of his own power and prestige. Before the March 31 election, President Erdogan campaigned relentlessly in support of the AKP candidate Binali Yildirim.9 Moreover, it was the uneven competition between a newbie in politics Ekrem Imamoglu of CHP and Binali Yildirim, one of the founding members of AKP which made the contest more interesting. Before the elections, not many people had heard of Ekrem Imamoglu, who served as the former CHP mayor of a small district Beylikduzu in western Istanbul. He hails from a conservative family from Trabzon, the Black Sea region of Turkey.10 On the other hand, Binali Yildirim is a well-known face in Turkish politics. Apart from being the founding member of AKP and a staunch Erdogan loyalist, he served as the Prime Minister of the country for two years and has also managed important portfolios like Transport and Communication Ministry under the AKP government. He resigned from the post of speaker of Parliament in February 2019 to contest the mayoral elections. 11

How did AKP Lose Istanbul?

As Bill Clinton’s chief election strategist James Carville said during the 1992 Presidential elections, “it’s the economy, stupid.”12 In Turkey as well, the foremost factor behind AKP’s loss of Istanbul and other important urban centers is the dismal performance of the Turkish economy in the past few years.13 The growing Turkish economy since 2002 onwards due to the construction boom in the country is one of the major factors behind AKP’s success at the helm of the Turkish Republic for over 16 years. In order to invest in mega projects, the government of President Erdogan frequently resorted to providing debt to major infrastructure companies in Turkey. However, in the past two years, the prospects of repayment of these debts by major companies in Turkey have become uncertain threatening the economic stability of the country. Turkish Lira plunged by more than 40 percent last year when the foreign investors pulled their money out of the country. The resulting inflation and rising consumer prices have created distress among all sections of society. In addition, at present, the unemployment level in Turkey has crossed over 14 percent further eroding support for AKP.14

It was the inclusive campaign fought over the questions of bread and butter by Ekrem Imamoglu which diffused the politics of polarization played by AKP. Political slandering, like accusing the CHP candidate of being Greek and having ties with the PKK (Peshmerga) and Fethullah Gulen, was adopted by both President Erdogan and Binali Yildirim throughout the campaigning. 15 On the other hand, Ekrem Imamoglu’s focused on the local issues, connected with the masses through keeping fast during Ramadan, and ran an open and inclusive campaign which provided a fresh alternative to the people of Istanbul after years of divisive political rhetoric by AKP. 16 Most importantly, it is important to understand that in the re-run election, the overwhelming margin of victory for Ekrem Imamoglu is a reflection of electorate’s commitment towards democracy and rule of law and a complete negation of authoritarian style with which President Erdogan and the ruling party is conducting politics in Turkey.

Also, Imamoglu effectively brought together the fragmented opposition in Turkey including the CHP as well as the right-wing secular nationalist, the Good Party (iyi Party), and gained the support from pro-Kurdish HDP. The support from the HDP was a game changer for CHP during the elections especially considering its historical baggage of relying on the army to eliminate any movement, such as Islamist, Kurdish, or leftist, which goes against the Kemalist principles. In the era of alliance making, CHP has shed its previous inhibitions and embraced the pro-Kurdish HDP to gain Kurdish votes and fight AKP. The jailed HDP leader, Selahattin Demirtas, called on his followers to support Ekrem Imamoglu in the election.17 The contradictory policies followed by AKP with regard to the Kurds further cut down its vote share and helped the opposition in enhancing its appeal among the masses.

Since 2015 when it discarded the negotiations with the PKK, AKP is struggling to find a balance between the ultra-nationalist narrative which it is presenting to the masses as well as its political need to woo the Kurdish voters. By forming an alliance with the ultra-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) to maintain its majority in the parliament, President Erdogan has further constrained his options with regard to the Kurdish issue. Before the re-run elections in Istanbul, the AKP government permitted the lawyers of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to visit him in prison for the first time since 2011. By accepting the long pending demand of Kurdish leaders and activists, AKP was hoping to persuade the Kurdish voters before the re-run elections. The jailed PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan also delivered a message before the elections asking the Kurds to remain neutral in the fight between AKP and CHP in Istanbul.18 However, this kind of political appeasement not only failed to move the Kurdish voters but was also not well-received by AKP’s conservative-nationalist mass base.

Possible Scenarios after Losing Istanbul

There is no doubt that the defeat of AKP in Istanbul shattered the image of invincibility of the ruling party and President Erdogan in Turkish politics. However, the path ahead for Ekrem Imamoglu and Turkish democracy is tougher than expected. There are already reports that in order to prevent the municipalities dominated by the opposition to administer efficiently, AKP is pursuing a broader strategy in which the power of mayors across the country is going to be cut down.19 In May 2019, Ministry of Commerce came up with a circular which “took away mayoral authority to appoint the heads of municipality run business enterprises and handed it over to district councils instead”, most of which are controlled by the AKP.20 In Ankara, where CHP candidate Mansur Yavas broke AKP’s grip over the capital city is facing lawsuits from the state legislators for being involved in “malfeasance during his time as a lawyer.”21

However, despite AKP’s plot to undermine the power of mayors across the country, the defeat of AKP in major urban centers of Turkey does give the required window of opportunity to the opposition. The opposition can very well use this opening to dismantle the patronage networks established by the AKP and erode its major source of power in Turkish politics. At the same time, the growing dissatisfaction with the AKP rule gives an opportunity for the new players to emerge and fill the mounting vacuum in Turkish politics. In this regard, the emerging challenge for the AKP is coming from within the party with former President Abdullah Gul, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and former finance minister Ali Babacan taking a lead to form a breakaway party.22

In order to weaken any challenge to his hegemony, President Erdogan will be pushed to make some difficult changes in his policies like undertaking economic reforms, restoring the independence of Central Bank, reallocating the Finance Ministry from his son-in-law to a more apt successor, rebuilding the relations with the West, and easing his autocratic tendencies. None of this will be easy as these reforms have the possibility of jeopardizing AKP’s alliance with the ultra-right MHP in the parliament. Since Turkey is not facing another election before 2023, therefore there is a possibility that to maintain its alliance with the MHP and strengthen its hegemony over Turkish politics, AKP under President Erdogan further squeezes the democratic institutions in Turkey, undertake certain foreign policy risks by increasing the nationalist fervor against the West to gain support within the country.


No matter what path President Erdogan chooses for Turkey in the coming months, the defeat of AKP in the re-run mayoral elections in Istanbul raises the hope for the country’s shattered democracy. At the same time, it was a humbling moment for one of the world’s towering populist authoritarian leader. Turkey’s democracy has always been far from perfect because of its illiberal features and authoritarian tendencies of the AKP to consolidate its hold on power. However, today Turkish democracy is an example of how difficult it is to write off democracy, liberal or illiberal, especially when it is ingrained into the political culture of a country and is accepted by the majority of masses as a legitimate way of governing the collective life.

Rise of authoritarianism even in an illiberal democracy will trigger a counter pro-democratic reaction. The case of Istanbul re-run election and the resilience of democratic forces in this particular election offer insights not only for Turkey but also for the forces fighting against polarizing and populist authoritarian politics all over the world.

  1. Cagan Koc, Selcan Hacaoglu, “Erdogan Dealt Stunning Blow as Istanbul Elects Rival Candidate”, Bloomberg, 23 June 2019, URL: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-06-23/yildirim-concedes-istanbul-mayor-s-race-to-imamoglu
  2. Turkey's election board orders recount in 18 Istanbul districts, The National, 3 April 2019, URL: https://www.thenational.ae/world/europe/turkey-s-election-board-orders-recount-in-18-istanbul-districts-1.844547
  3. Henri Barkey, “'If we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey': why the mayoral election is so critical to Erdogan's hold on power”, The National, 20 June 2019, URL: https://www.thenational.ae/opinion/comment/if-we-lose-istanbul-we-lose-turkey-why-the-mayoral-election-is-so-critical-to-erdogan-s-hold-on-power-1.876754
  4. Pinar Tremblay, “Istanbul on brink of bankruptcy”, Al Monitor, 8 April 2019, URL: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/04/turkey-istanbul-metropolitan-municipality-goes-bankrupt.html
  5. Melvyn Ingleby, “Cracks Are Deepening in Erdoğan’s Ruling Party”, The Atlantic, 22 April 2019, URL: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/04/istanbul-erdogan-political-career-akp/587698/
  6. Nate Schenkkan, “What Istanbul’s New Mayoral Elections Mean for Turkey’s Future”, Foreign Affairs, 21 June 2019, URL: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/turkey/2019-06-21/what-istanbuls-new-mayoral-elections-mean-turkeys-future
  7. Carlotta Gall, “Erdogan’s Opponents Promise Scrutiny of Istanbul’s Books After Turkey Elections”, The New York Times, 3 April 2019, URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/03/world/europe/turkey-istanbul-erdogan-ekrem-imamoglu.html?action=click&module=inline&pgtype=Article&region=Footer
  8. Carlotta Gall, “Cars, Contracts and Debt: What Istanbul’s Mayor Found in 17 Days”, The New York Times, 9 May 2019, URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/09/world/middleeast/istanbul-mayor-election-erdogan.html
  9. Kemal Kirisci and Omer Taspinar, “Order from Chaos: Erdoğan’s tactical gamble in Istanbul proves a strategic mistake”, Brookings, 27 June 2019, URL: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/06/27/erdogans-tactical-gamble-in-istanbul-proves-a-strategic-mistake/
  10. Cagan Koc, Taylan Bilgic, Asli Kandemir, “The Man Who Defied Erdogan to Take Istanbul Says It’ll Be ‘Great’”, Bloomberg, 24 June, 2019, URL: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-06-24/the-man-who-defied-erdogan-to-take-istanbul-says-it-ll-be-great
  11. Meet Binali Yildirim, Istanbul's mayoral candidate, TRT World, 21 June 2019, URL: https://www.trtworld.com/turkey/meet-binali-yildirim-istanbul-s-mayoral-candidate-25431
  12. Chris Cillizza, “It's NOT the economy, stupid!”, CNN, 17 September 2018, URL: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/09/17/politics/trump-economy-poll/index.html
  13. Mustafa Sonmez, “Voters’ economic confidence dips ahead of key Istanbul vote”, Al Monitor, 31 May 2019, URL: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/05/turkey-voters-economic-confidence-dips-ahead-istanbul-vote.html
  14. Peter S. Goodman, “For Erdogan, the Bill for Turkey’s Debt-Fueled Growth Comes Due”, The New York Times, 24 June 2019, URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/24/business/turkey-erdogan-istanbul-election-economy-inflation.html
  15. Kadri Gursel, “Erdogan’s election machine is rusty and worn out”, Al Monitor, 13 June 2019, URL: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/06/turkey-erdogans-election-machine-gets-outworn-rusty.html
  16. Cagan Koc , Taylan Bilgic , and Asli Kandemir, “The Man Who Defied Erdogan to Take Istanbul Says It’ll Be ‘Great’”, Bloomberg, 24 June 2019, URL: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-06-24/the-man-who-defied-erdogan-to-take-istanbul-says-it-ll-be-great
  17. Megan Specia, “ In Istanbul Election Do-Over, Erdogan’s Opponents Unify”, The New York Times, 7 May 2019, URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/07/world/europe/istanbul-election.html?searchResultPosition=4&module=inline
  18. Turkey: PKK leader calls for neutrality in Istanbul mayoral vote, Al Jazeera, 21 June 2019, URL: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/06/turkey-pkk-leader-calls-neutrality-istanbul-mayoral-vote-190621103213675.html
  19. Istanbul’s new mayor warns Erdogan against curbing his powers , Financial Times, 28 June 2019, URL: https://www.ft.com/content/0529efda-99b4-11e9-9573-ee5cbb98ed36
  20. Amberin Zaman, “Opposition retakes Istanbul mayor's office to find powers shrinking” , Al Monitor, 26 June 2019, URL: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/06/istanbul-prepares-swear-in-ekrem-imamoglu.html
  21. CHP mayoral candidate Yavaş indicted on misconduct charges on eve of local polls, Hurriyet Daily News, 12 March 2019, URL: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/chp-mayoral-candidate-yavas-indicted-on-misconduct-charges-on-eve-of-local-polls-141845
  22. Kadri Gursel, “Why Erdogan’s historic Istanbul defeat is irreparable”, Al Monitor, 24 June 2019, URL: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/06/turkey-why-erdogan-historic-istanbul-defeat-irreparable.html

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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