Whoever Wins Istanbul’s Mayoral Election, There’s Trouble Ahead for Erdogan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Maxim Shipenkov/Pool via Reuters)

Growing public disaffection and deepening rifts in the Turkish president’s coalition present an existential threat to his 16-year rule.

Tomorrow, for the second time this year, residents of Istanbul will go to the polls to determine who will be the city’s mayor. Some observers see the vote as the latest test of whether Turkey will shed what remains of its more democratic recent past and move firmly into the orbit of Russia and/or China. But it also marks the moment when many Turks have for the first time become willing to entertain, or even embrace, the notion that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s control over the country is finally weakening — and even a victory on Sunday won’t cover up the cracks in the foundation.

Erdogan’s preferred candidate, Binali Yildirim, 63, was prime minister before a constitutional change two years ago eliminated the position. The principal opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, 49, was the Republican People’s Party (CHP) mayor of an outer Istanbul district and is viewed by many as a fresh face and voice of optimism. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Soner Cagaptay, a seasoned Turkey watcher, casts Imamoglu as an “underdog that represents a chance for change” and notes that Erdogan was described the same way when he ran in — and won — the Istanbul mayoral race in 1994, kicking off his meteoric rise in national politics.

For most of the last quarter century, Erdogan and his allies within the Justice and Development Party (AKP) have run Istanbul, which as of 2017 accounted for more than 31 percent of Turkey’s gross domestic product. (By contrast, the share of GDP accounted for by Ankara, the country’s capital and second-largest city, was a mere 9 percent.) Unfortunately for Erdogan and Yildirim, whereas the city prospered greatly throughout the last decade and much of this one, the current deep recession and accusations of rampant corruption have resulted in a population no longer satisfied with the AKP’s stewardship. Few residents want to hear Yildirim’s promises for the future or Erdogan’s attempts to duck responsibility for current woes.

One early sign that the AKP’s fortunes were beginning to ebb came in March, with the first vote for mayor. Imamoglu triumphed, albeit with a margin of victory of less than 1 percent. Weeks later, after Erdogan, Yildirim, and party officials alleged that irregularities had corrupted the process, the Supreme Electoral Council made the highly controversial decision to annul the vote. Imamoglu, who had already been sworn into office, was replaced with a caretaker, and a new vote was ordered.

Polls suggest that Imamoglu and CHP’s coalition will win again on Sunday, this time by a larger margin. Yildirim performed poorly in a recent one-on-one debate, further damaging his prospects, and Erdogan’s team has taken note. After spending the prior weeks avoiding much of his customary harsh and at times outlandish campaign rhetoric, by and large criticizing Imamoglu only while participating in state ceremonies, Erdogan is now engaged in fierce retail politicking and barnstorming. He has accused Imamoglu’s supporters of being in bed with Fetullah Gulen, the cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania who most Turks believe masterminded a failed 2016 coup. He has hinted that the upstart is a tool of the PKK, the Marxist–Leninist Kurdish group which has committed acts of terror both inside Turkey and across the border in Syria, and would effectively serve as a lapdog for Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and other of Turkey’s external rivals.

What has been largely overlooked, however, is that Erdogan, who once masterfully wielded total control over the AKP, is facing growing resistance within the party and his larger coalition. When the economy was booming, most everyone inside the party was happy as a clam. But after nearly a decade and a half of growth, the country is mired in a recession that only seems to be deepening. Discontent is spreading and blame appears focused on Minister of Finance and Treasury Berat Albayrak, the president’s über-influential son-in-law. In a rebuke to Albayrak, former finance minister Ali Babacan is drawing up new economic-policy proposals to arrest the slide. Other AKP veterans, including former president Abdullah Gul and former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, already critical of Erdogan’s leadership, were also taken aback by the successful effort to annul the March vote.

Meanwhile, a few U.S.-based scholars, such as Svante Cornell of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Burak Kadercan of the Naval War College in Rhode Island, have explained how Erdogan since 2015 has come to rely upon support from the AKP’s ultra-nationalist coalition partner, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), and its leader, Devlet Bahceli, in order to stay on top. Bahceli was reportedly among those most insistent on demanding a revote and urging Erdogan to take a more aggressive, adversarial policy toward the West. According to Cornell, “Erdogan may be trying to ride the nationalist wave, but the past two years show that he has lost control over it. . . . It is only a slight exaggeration to state that Erdogan remains in power at the mercy of the nationalists.”

The Turkish government now faces an existential threat. A second Imamoglu victory on Sunday could ultimately result in dozens of AKP MPs’ walking out to form a new center-right party. Were Bahceli to give the order, MHP members would quit too, and new presidential and parliamentary elections would have to be called. Even if Yildirim pulls off an upset win, it won’t quell the growing internal tensions; at most it will only postpone the likely day of reckoning.

As a longtime Turkish friend put it to me this week: “The damage is done for Erdogan.”

Jason Epstein is the president of Southfive Strategies, LLC. He was a public-relations consultant for the Turkish embassy in Washington from 2002 to 2007.

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