The Istanbul elections always have a significance beyond Istanbul. With its social diversity, economic dynamism and population of 16 million, Istanbul's political atmosphere affects all of Turkey. Istanbul has significant symbolic value for the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as well because Erdoğan's political career brightened during his role as the mayor of Istanbul. The June 23 municipal elections in Istanbul signify a new direction in Turkish politics. For the first time in the last 17 years, Turkey's opposition parties and coalition managed to come together around Ekrem İmamoğlu of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and won an election against the AK Party.
İmamoğlu's coalition took over the municipality of Istanbul from the governing AK Party and demonstrated that President Erdoğan and his party are not invincible. This was a gain for Turkish democracy because many commentators argued that Erdoğan would not allow the election results if his party was defeated.
President Erdoğan and the People's Alliance candidate Binali Yıldırım instead congratulated Ekrem İmamoğlu and expressed their hope for a successful mayoral experience during the next five years.
Binali Yıldırım is a very experienced politician who has served as the head of the Turkish Grand National Assembly, prime minister, minister of communication and long-term adviser to President Erdoğan since he was mayor of Istanbul. Yıldırım is known as a person of grand projects who has always been loyal to Erdoğan.
Despite his qualifications, warm and moderate personality, Yıldırım's campaign failed to attract younger generation voters, Kurds, and undecided AK Party voters. The opposition coalition transformed themselves to adapt to the changing nature of Turkish politics and changing electorate. Such a change and moderation would not have occurred if there was not the predominance of the People's Alliance in Turkish politics.
On the other hand, the dynamics of Istanbul politics does not completely represent the rest of Turkey. The People's Alliance's political discourse which was successful in other parts of Turkey turned into a liability in Istanbul's local context.
Ekrem İmamoğlu had a successful campaign period. He was not a typical CHP candidate. He appealed to conservative right-wing candidates as well as the traditional secular-nationalist constituents of the CHP. He emphasized a more inclusive political discourse than the earlier CHP candidates, pulling the votes of the majority of the Kurds as well as the secular Turkish nationalists.
In the rerun election, İmamoğlu also gained the support of undecided voters who previously supported the AK Party but hesitated to vote in the March 31 elections. Binali Yıldırım's campaign was unsuccessful, especially in attracting a resentful AK Party electorate and the younger generation voters.
An important factor behind the failure of Yıldırım to attract those voters was related to the Higher Election Council's (YSK) decision to cancel the earlier elections.
AK Party officials failed to convince the Istanbul electorate about the rationale behind the cancellation of the March 31 elections. Legally the cancellation decision may be right, but the Istanbul electorate interpreted this move as an intervention agaibnst their "political will" and reacted against such a strep. The result of Istanbul's municipal election is the victory of Ekrem İmamoğlu, more than the CHP.
İmamoğlu managed to attract supporters from all segments of Turkish society by acting and by pursuing a political discourse that is very inclusive and constructive. The AK Party's earlier campaign based on the "survival" discourse created some resentments among the Kurds in Istanbul. Despite the change of discourse in the rerun elections, Yıldırım's campaign was unable to attract the support of the Kurds.
Istanbul's municipal elections will have a lasting impact on Turkish politics. Especially the future of President Erdoğan's political career will be shaped depending on how he will respond to the loss of the Istanbul municipality to a relatively new politician, Ekrem İmamoğlu. There are still four years for the regular schedule of the presidential polls.
If President Erdoğan and his party make the necessary changes by adapting themselves better to the new political milieu in the coming months this may turn into an opportunity for a renewal of his party. If President Erdoğan and his party fail to respond to the expectations of the Turkish people, he may even lose broader support in the coming elections.
In the past 20 years, Erdoğan has successfully managed to transform and adapt his political style to changing political realities. He is expected to take bold steps in a similar direction after his party's loss of Istanbul as well. In the meantime, İmamoğlu will do his best to demonstrate to the Turkish people that he is the future of Turkish politics.
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