Imamoglu’s victory is shifting the dichotomic paradigms of Turkish politics

By not accepting defeat during the Istanbul elections on the 31 March, by a mere 13K majority, AKP might have prepared its own doom. The victory of Imamoglu is shifting the paradigm away from the traditional dichotomies that explained Turkish politics so well in the past.

The results of the rerun of the Istanbul mayoral vote surpassed the expectations of the most opposition friendly forecasts. Almost all of the public surveys, including the ones run by and for the government, saw that the rerun wouldn’t help Binali Yildirim. But nobody foresaw a difference more than 6 per cent between the candidates. Even that hyper-optimistic survey was later reviewed and Yildirim was said to be narrowing the gap. The majority grew from a mere and contested 13K votes to over 800K, from less than 1 per cent to 9.3 per cent.

This will certainly become one of the most commented mayoral elections in the world. And surely, any attempt to understand all the “why’s and how’s and what-now’s” of this historic election and squeeze it into a single article will have its shortcomings. But it seems the following observations will be shared in all future analyses:

  1. The almost axiomatic preposition that “Erdogan will never hold an election he would not win,” is no longer a valid one.
  2. The “Secular-Religious,” “Turkish-Kurdish,” and “Centre-Periphery,” dichotomies are no longer suitable tools for understanding Turkish politics.
  3. The fear for coalition governments that traumatized voters of 1990s might have been overcome.
  4. The assumption of those who are sceptical of the Kurdish political movement that Kurds blindly follows Abdullah Ocalan’s dictates is no longer valid.

Impact of Erdogan

The first unexpected change was the disappearance of President Erdogan from the campaigning squares.

After bending the rule of law and the rules of reason just to get the results of the March 31 mayoral election for Istanbul cancelled, one would expect the Turkish President Erdogan and his team double their efforts to win the rerun election. After all, the original election was recorded as the first time in Turkish history that a president had campaigned against a mayoral candidate, and he campaigned relentlessly! In fact, Erdogan held more rallies in Istanbul than the opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu despite the fact that he had to campaign for the rest of the country also. Of 102 rallies he held, 16 were in Istanbul, two of them being mass rallies with more than a million participants. Initial leakages after the cancellation suggested that Erdogan would hold provincial rallies in every one of the 39 provinces of Istanbul during the run-up to June 23 election.
He didn’t…

Well, at least until the last week…

One possible explanation and which is also the one that is largely speculated is that Erdogan’s over-presence on March 31 local elections did not do him any favour; on the contrary, his voice was no longer a heart winner and his over-involvement in a mayoral election disturbed the sceptics in his power base even more. His candidate Binali Yildirim, for example, did everything to distance himself from Erdogan, and Erdogan’s election coalition partner Devlet Bahceli. These distancing attempts included a public reference to Kurdistan, and to the office of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church. When the parties negotiated on the name of the host of the live debate on TV, Yildirim insisted on names that would sound as remote to Erdogan as possible.

Erdogan turned back to the ring at the last minute with his classical divisive rhetoric, securitizing narrative, and demonizing tactics. Together with him, Abdullah Ocalan was also brought into the picture, inviting the Kurds, not to take sides in the elections, a clear call for abstaining from voting, which would benefit AKP.

None of these helped…

In fact, the unexpectedly high majority won by Ekrem Imamoglu can be attributed to the reappearance of Erdogan. The vote mobility was so high that if the Higher Board of Elections had cancelled not only the mayoral election, but all municipal elections, the main opposition party would win 13 more district municipalities, and would have a clear majority at the city assembly, which Imamoglu will lack. CHP would win in conservative districts like Eyup, Fatih and Uskudar where Erdogan’s AKP had been the favourite for the last 25 years (perhaps use “quarter of a decade” for more emphasis but 25 years is also suitable.

What next?

Prophecies that the defeat in Istanbul will bring about the end of one-man-rule in Turkey are over-optimistic. In the long run, this may be the case, but before then, Turkish democracy will be shaped under influence of centripetal and centrifugal forces; forces of unification and forces of diversification, if you wish.

The centripetal forces will induce emergence of a two-party system in the country, forcing CHP, IYI Party and HDP opposition into some kind of marriage of convenience and AKP and MHP into a more settled coalition than they already have.

The centrifugal forces, on the other hand, will induce emergence of new parties within centre right and centre left, a leadership race within CHP between the new star Ekrem Imamoglu and the current leader Kemal Kilictaroglu, and a request of legitimacy from HDP for its unconditional support in the mayoral elections. The same centrifugal forces may well force HDP and MHP to change camps.

These forces will clash under conditions of economic crisis, collapse of municipal clientelism, a rising struggle for power between the central government and major municipalities, and a looming identity crisis that will be triggered by S-400 missile deal between Turkey and Russia.

A first move will come from AKP defectors Abdullah Gul and Ahmet Davutoglu. Whether they will move together and form an alternative party in the centre right, or two political parties, one in the form of a political party, another in the form of a grassroots movement calling for a return to the parliamentary system is going to be decided with the same centripetal and centrifugal forces…

The old paradigm has already shifted, but the new paradigm is yet to be defined.

© 2017 Turkey Institute