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Erdogan’s Party, Opposition Squabble Over Istanbul in Local Elections

A warning by voters in local elections mark the resilience of Turkey’s democracy.

After the local election marred by uneven playing field, unfair competition and media embargo against opposition candidates, voters sent a strong message to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party in major cities, registering their growing disillusionment with his governance style and fear-mongering amid hardening economic hazards.

According to preliminary results, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost Ankara after an uninterrupted 25-year rule of the city. In Istanbul, the situation is still contested, though both government candidate Binali Yildirim and opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu declared victory. Amid vote count, the state-run Anadolu news agency stopped information flow for hours, fueling the fears of voter fraud.

In the early hours of the morning on Monday, Imamoglu said he has a lead of 27,919 votes ahead of his rival. The Anadolu agency has stopped publishing the results for at least four hours.

Not long after Imamoglu’s remarks, AKP city head Bayram Senocak also claimed victory for AKP candidate Yildirim. He said Yildirim won Istanbul with 3,870 more votes.

In Ankara, Mansur Yavas, the joint candidate of the Nation Alliance, won the 50,89 percent of the votes while Mehmet Ozhaseki was only able to garner 47,05 percent. So far now, almost all votes were counted, except in Istanbul, the major source of controversy over who won the city.

Across Turkey, the People’s Alliance forged by the AKP and Nationalist Action Party (MHP) won 51,6 percent of the votes while the major opposition alliance by the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) and nationalist Good (IYI) Party acquired more than 37 percent. President Erdogan said his alliance won 16 metropolitan cities, 24 cities, 538 districts and 200 other mayoral seats.

Other than Ankara, the AKP also lost Adana, another major city in southern Turkey. The CHP candidates won southern and western coastal cities of Mersin, Antalya, Aydin, Mugla and Izmir as expectedly.

The entire political drama of the night was reduced to a single major question: Who did win Istanbul? Regarding the contest over Turkey’s largest city, President Erdogan’s initial remarks subtly resembled a conceding speech. Either consciously or in an off-script fashion, he acknowledged that “while our people took the metropolitan municipality away, it gave us the districts” in Istanbul.

What his remarks meant that his party seemed to fall short of the needed votes to get Istanbul metropolitan municipality, the crown-jewel of the whole election. Yet, his obscure admission stood in stark contrast to an earlier press statement by AKP candidate Yildirim who claimed a victory in Istanbul in a celebratory tone. Aware of the discrepancy between two remarks, Erdogan’s presidential advisor tried to downplay the difference. There was no contradictory element, Fahrettin Altun noted, between Erdogan and Yildirim’s accounts of the election result.

In Ankara, however, there was less controversy. Yavas has been elected mayor of Ankara in clear repudiation of the government’s decades-old grip over the city. His triumph took place against a myriad of odds and challenges. It must be borne in mind that the majority of the polls showed him as the favorite candidate in the city where residents have grown disgruntled by the government’s handling of city affairs.

The major fear was whether the government would recognize the result. As of now, such concerns were not unfounded given that the AKP’s announcement to appeal the outcome.

The election results would signal the harbinger of a large-scale change in Turkey’s battered political landscape, marking the resilience of the Turkish democracy after a punishing period of emergency rule, a sweeping purge and the government’s relentless clampdown on social and political opponents. It was the strongest rebuke to President Erdogan to this day.

His gamble to transplant two outside figures — Yildirim, Parliament Speaker and former Prime Minister, Ozhaseki, former Kayseri mayor — as candidates in Istanbul and Ankara respectively proved to be immensely risky. Yildirim was associated with his hometown Izmir, while Ozhaseki immersed in politics in the central province of Kayseri for his whole life before his ascent to the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning in the current cabinet.

To pick up outside names was certainly to invite controversy as well as backlash from the local residents of Istanbul and Ankara where people regarded the choices as the president’s direct engineering of local governance through his point men. And to the detriment of the whole project, both figures occasioned reluctance and exhibited a lack of will. This subtle reticence was read as a fact that their nomination took place against their very own will and choice.

In his usual after-election speech, President Erdogan conceded that his party fared poorer than expected. Although he savored winning of the majority of the municipalities — 778 — across Turkey, the loss of Ankara, and probably Istanbul, too, was nothing less than a watershed moment. It was a defining element of this election. Istanbul stands as the next battleground as both the government and opposition squabble over the final result.

Another key element of the election was the complete breakdown of trust in the state-run Anadolu news agency. It simply left people quivering in their homes with a mixed feeling of exasperation and anger.

Imamoglu strongly condemned the state-run agency for its foot-dragging. He called on his supporters to not to leave polling stations to prevent any rigging and fraud.

What made people further anxious was the Anadolu’s announcement of a recount of the invalid votes in Istanbul, Ankara and Igdir. It caused shudders among the opposition as voters were well aware of the implications of it from April 2017 presidential referendum, a controversial episode in which 2,5 million unstamped ballot papers were accepted by the Supreme Election Board (YSK) after a last-minute interference by the government. A similar concern set in, and anxiety seemingly dogged people on social media.

The People’s Alliance already appealed the result in Ankara, setting the stage for a protracted battle over Yavas’ historic victory. The vote ended on Sunday, but the struggle in its aftermath did not.

Kurds Retake Cities From Government

Not long after the failed 2016 coup, the Turkish government strangled the central tenet of democracy in the Kurdish southeast in blatant disregard of people’s will by removing elected mayors from nearly 100 municipalities. On Sunday, the Kurdish voters repudiated the government interference and placed mayors back in their seats.

In Diyarbakir, pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) candidate Adnan Selcuk Mizrakli won 62,95 percent of the votes, 12 percent more than the party won in the 2014 elections. His triumph came as a rebuke to the authorities as previous co-mayors were imprisoned over controversial terrorism charges. In the eastern province of Igdir, HDP won the mayoralty against a formidable alliance between the AKP, MHP and IYI Party.

The HDP, however, saw some strongholds such as Bingol, Bitlis and Sirnak slipped from its grip. Still, given the conditions across the region, the HDP’s performance was no less remarkable.

An Echo of 1994 Elections

In the 1994 local elections, Islamist Welfare (Refah) Party unsettled Turkey’s political landscape with two upset victories in Istanbul and Ankara. Voters delivered mayoral seats to Erdogan, Turkey’s current president, and Melih Gokcek, who served as the mayor of the country’s capital city for five five-year terms until he was asked by Erdogan to resign two years ago in a major intra-party reshuffle within the AKP.

From a historical perspective, the 1994 polls was a hinge moment in Turkey’s political history and paved the way for the stunning rise of the Welfare Party (Refah). From then on, the Islamist party, under the leadership of charismatic Necmettin Erbakan, defied all the obstacles set up by self-proclaimed guardians of the secular political system before leading a coalition government, however brief, in the mid-1990s.

In this respect, the takeover of Istanbul and Ankara in 1994 heralded a new political chapter in Turkey’s modern history and set the foundations of the political reality of today’s Turkey — that is the story of AKP and Erdogan. People unmistakably draw a parallelism between 1994 elections and today’s vote. If the local elections 25 years ago served as a launchpad for Erdogan’s ascent to power, today’s vote could well be the beginning of his undoing, however prolonged that process may be.

It need not great prudence to see how the local government heavily weighed on the political evolution of the Islamist AKP and its predecessors. If we situate all Islamist parties springing from Welfare Party in the continuum of a single political experience — political Islam — it would not be an overstretch of imagination to conclude that despite interventions either by courts or the military in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was the uninterrupted experience of municipal government that gave its structural coherence and endurance to AKP and its ruling elites.

The AKP cadres amassed a considerable amount of know-how and experience in running large cities, something that they later successfully translated into national politics when they formed a government after coming to power in 2002. Behind the first AKP government, there was an eight-year experience of governing Istanbul, Ankara and Konya, Turkey’s major metropolitan cities with vibrant economies.

It became a great social and economic experiment by trial and error as the AKP deciphered codes of governing in every sense. Beneath the vagaries of daily politics, the AKP elites also dissected the ways of enriching themselves and their cronies through establishing vast patronage networks.

The tide of history stands to be changed if the YSK confirms the opposition’s victories in Istanbul and Ankara. The battle over Istanbul, however, is far from over. And the fight over the soul and essence of the Turkish democracy, too. Still, the opposition’s resurgence at the ballot box across the country marks a huge win for the Turkish democracy, even if it means a personal loss for the president.

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