Istanbul Elections: Failure Of Polarising Tactics In Turkey


Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan casts his ballot at a polling station in Istanbul, Sunday, June 23, 2019. Polls have opened in a repeat election in Turkey's largest city where Erdogan and his political allies could lose control of Istanbul's administration for the first time in 25 years. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

For President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, losing control of Istanbul, Turkey's economic and political powerhouse, at the local elections yesterday is a big blow, possibly the most stinging defeat of his political career. If the AK Party hadn't pushed for the cancellation of the March election, it would have been easier to recover from a narrow defeat in Istanbul and several other major cities, including Ankara and Adana. Now, however, after a defeat of a far more significant margin, the ruling party is in a much weaker position.

Istanbul's importance

The elections have been viewed widely as a referendum. By leading the campaign on behalf of his party, President Erdogan also put himself in the centre stage.

Had the president stayed away and left the campaigning to his local candidates, some may not have viewed this election as a failure on his part. Instead, he campaigned heavily on the ground, especially before the original elections on 31st of March but also a few days before the re-do on 23rd of June.

Istanbul elections and the previous Turkey-wide elections on 31st of March were local elections. President Erdogan and the AK Party will still be in power after this blow, for another four and a half years, barring an early election. However, losing local government in most urban metropoles comes with a very heavy price.

Take Istanbul, for example, which as the country's largest city, accounts for one-third of Turkey's GDP and one-fifth of the country's population. Forty-three per cent of all tax revenues nationwide come from the city.

The city's municipality, according to some estimates, has direct control over a budget of almost $11 billion including the budgets of its subsidiaries. Before the sharp fall in Turkish lira's value in the last couple of years, Istanbul's GDP bigger was than the economies of Finland, Egypt, Portugal and Greece, that is according to the 2017 data of Turkish Statistical Institute. With its over $166 billion-strong economy, it is still a larger economy than many regional countries.

Traffic passes commercial properties and skyscrapers in the Levent district of Istanbul, Turkey, on Friday, April, 27, 2012. Turkey's economy, the eighth largest in Europe at $772 billion, will grow by at least 4 percent this year, according to government forecasts. Photographer: Kerem Uzel/Bloomberg

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Istanbul's more than 15 million population is comprised mostly of immigrants from across Turkey, the city is also a smaller but representative version of Turkish politics. That was one reason why both Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition's candidate and Binali Yildirim, candidate of the ruling AK Party, chose to campaign across Turkey, rather than just in Istanbul.

For President Erdogan, there is also symbolic importance of losing Istanbul, for it was there he started his political career and rose to prominence by becoming the city's mayor in 1994. Though, Erdogan has never won an election by scoring as high as Imamoglu, who got 54 per cent of the vote yesterday.

Three main reasons for the double defeat

By rejecting the Justice and Development Party's (AKP) candidate in Istanbul, the Turkish electorate has sent three clear messages to President Erdogan.

The first one is that a significant portion of the electorate in Istanbul didn't think the decision to cancel the election was justified. The fact that the opposition consolidated its base and that there was a notable swing from the ruling AKP to the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) was a strong indication of this. The original election on March 31st was cancelled because the High Election Council ruled that some polling station officials were not appointed from among public officials, as required by the law.

The Turkish electorate has also twice rejected how President Erdogan and his government are handling the country's economic problems. Turkey has been facing a significant downturn, with forecasts suggesting the economy will contract in 2019 and a more prolonged recession lies ahead. President Erdogan's foreign policy choices, which put Turkey increasingly at odds with the U.S. and Europe, have hit the value of the Turkish lira and exacerbated the problems on the economic front.

Turkish police officers in riot gear watch as members of the pro-Kurdish party HDP, or Peoples' Democratic Party, stage a sit-in, Monday, Feb. 11, 2019, in Istanbul. The group gathered in support of lawmaker Leyla Guven who has been on a hunger strike for months. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

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Failure of political polarisation

More importantly, the electorate also rejected political polarization. President Erdogan and his party's discourse, especially before the original election at the end of March, was highly polarizing. Erdogan and the pro-government press relentlessly accused opposition parties of siding with terrorists. He basically said you are either with us or with those who conspire with the terrorists. President Erdogan put nationalism and largely anti-Kurdish rhetoric centre stage and declared that the election was a matter of survival for Turkey.

One of the main reasons for this nationalist turn and polarizing discourse was the attempt to frame the public debate away from the severe economic downturn and failures foreign policy adventures as well as open public hostility towards the Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Adopting a polarizing approach, Erdogan thought he had a stronger hand running on the issues of security and nationalism, given the AKP's alliance with the ultra-nationalists of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Following the collapse of the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in 2015, President Erdogan veered sharply to the right, adopting a more anti-Kurdish discourse than even hard-line nationalist leaders.

During his 17 years in power, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan benefited strongly from the political polarisation in Turkey. Initially, polarisation had been stirred up by the secularist-nationalist opposition. They tried to marginalise Erdogan's AK Party for not adhering to the principles of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and lately for not being tough enough against the Kurds.

The tactic of political polarization didn't yield to the intended results for Erdogan during this year's local elections when the AK Party lost several major cities. President Erdogan not only failed to bring all nationalist voters to his alliance but also deeply alienated the Kurdish voters, who voted strongly in favour of the opposition in Istanbul and beyond thereby tipping the scales against Erdogan's favour.

Ekrem Imamoglu, the candidate of the secular opposition Republican People's Party, CHP, waves to supporters at a rally in Istanbul, late Sunday, June 23, 2019. The opposition candidate for mayor of Istanbul celebrated a landmark win Sunday in a closely watched repeat election that ended weeks of political tension and broke the long hold President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party had leading Turkey's largest city. (Onur Gunay/Imamoglu Media team via AP)

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The defeat of President Erdogan's AK Party in Istanbul made clear that the government failed to divert the attention away from the economy and other pressing issues. This was despite the AK Party's almost full control of Turkey's media landscape.

During the renewed election campaign, the AK Party candidate Yildirim a more moderate tone concerning the Kurdish issue and dropped the discourse about nationalism, anti-Kurdish sentiments and the survival of the Turkish Republic. President Erdogan, on the other hand, decided to remain mostly absent of the political campaign until last week of the campaign.

AK Party's decision to court the Kurds, which both sides considered a key constituency, came a bit too late, however, and the campaign message was very confusing. Contradicting his own nationalistic discourse, just a few weeks earlier, the AK Party candidate Yildirim, spoke of Kurdistan, existing as a recognised region in the first national assembly of the Turkish Republic. The official Turkish public broadcaster, on the other hand, interviewed a former senior leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), while Nechirvan Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Region of Iraq was invited by President Erdogan to Turkey.

A hastily published letter by Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, advising the Kurdish movement to retain their political independence in the face of a political divide between the government and the main opposition, didn't also result in swaying the Kurdish votes away from the opposition.

A lot will depend on what lessons President Erdogan's and his AK Party would draw from the recent local elections. If they realise the limits of political polarisation and try to strike a more unifying tone, as was the case for the initial period of the AK Party rule, then President Erdogan and his party might be able to start winning back hearts and minds of urban Turks, who moved away from the AK Party.

Otherwise, President Erdogan might need to face Ekrem Imamoglu as a rising candidate for the Presidential elections scheduled to take place in 2023.

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Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan casts his ballot at a polling station in Istanbul, Sunday, June 23, 2019. Polls have opened in a repeat election in Turkey's largest city where Erdogan and his political allies could lose control of Istanbul's administration for the first time in 25 years. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

For President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, losing control of Istanbul, Turkey's economic and political powerhouse, at the local elections yesterday is a big blow, possibly the most stinging defeat of his political career. If the AK Party hadn't pushed for the cancellation of the March election, it would have been easier to recover from a narrow defeat in Istanbul and several other major cities, including Ankara and Adana. Now, however, after a defeat of a far more significant margin, the ruling party is in a much weaker position.

Istanbul's importance

The elections have been viewed widely as a referendum. By leading the campaign on behalf of his party, President Erdogan also put himself in the centre stage.

Had the president stayed away and left the campaigning to his local candidates, some may not have viewed this election as a failure on his part. Instead, he campaigned heavily on the ground, especially before the original elections on 31st of March but also a few days before the re-do on 23rd of June.

Istanbul elections and the previous Turkey-wide elections on 31st of March were local elections. President Erdogan and the AK Party will still be in power after this blow, for another four and a half years, barring an early election. However, losing local government in most urban metropoles comes with a very heavy price.

Take Istanbul, for example, which as the country's largest city, accounts for one-third of Turkey's GDP and one-fifth of the country's population. Forty-three per cent of all tax revenues nationwide come from the city.

The city's municipality, according to some estimates, has direct control over a budget of almost $11 billion including the budgets of its subsidiaries. Before the sharp fall in Turkish lira's value in the last couple of years, Istanbul's GDP bigger was than the economies of Finland, Egypt, Portugal and Greece, that is according to the 2017 data of Turkish Statistical Institute. With its over $166 billion-strong economy, it is still a larger economy than many regional countries.

Traffic passes commercial properties and skyscrapers in the Levent district of Istanbul, Turkey, on Friday, April, 27, 2012. Turkey's economy, the eighth largest in Europe at $772 billion, will grow by at least 4 percent this year, according to government forecasts. Photographer: Kerem Uzel/Bloomberg

BLOOMBERG NEWS

Istanbul's more than 15 million population is comprised mostly of immigrants from across Turkey, the city is also a smaller but representative version of Turkish politics. That was one reason why both Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition's candidate and Binali Yildirim, candidate of the ruling AK Party, chose to campaign across Turkey, rather than just in Istanbul.

For President Erdogan, there is also symbolic importance of losing Istanbul, for it was there he started his political career and rose to prominence by becoming the city's mayor in 1994. Though, Erdogan has never won an election by scoring as high as Imamoglu, who got 54 per cent of the vote yesterday.

Three main reasons for the double defeat

By rejecting the Justice and Development Party's (AKP) candidate in Istanbul, the Turkish electorate has sent three clear messages to President Erdogan.

The first one is that a significant portion of the electorate in Istanbul didn't think the decision to cancel the election was justified. The fact that the opposition consolidated its base and that there was a notable swing from the ruling AKP to the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) was a strong indication of this. The original election on March 31st was cancelled because the High Election Council ruled that some polling station officials were not appointed from among public officials, as required by the law.

The Turkish electorate has also twice rejected how President Erdogan and his government are handling the country's economic problems. Turkey has been facing a significant downturn, with forecasts suggesting the economy will contract in 2019 and a more prolonged recession lies ahead. President Erdogan's foreign policy choices, which put Turkey increasingly at odds with the U.S. and Europe, have hit the value of the Turkish lira and exacerbated the problems on the economic front.

Turkish police officers in riot gear watch as members of the pro-Kurdish party HDP, or Peoples' Democratic Party, stage a sit-in, Monday, Feb. 11, 2019, in Istanbul. The group gathered in support of lawmaker Leyla Guven who has been on a hunger strike for months. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Failure of political polarisation

More importantly, the electorate also rejected political polarization. President Erdogan and his party's discourse, especially before the original election at the end of March, was highly polarizing. Erdogan and the pro-government press relentlessly accused opposition parties of siding with terrorists. He basically said you are either with us or with those who conspire with the terrorists. President Erdogan put nationalism and largely anti-Kurdish rhetoric centre stage and declared that the election was a matter of survival for Turkey.

One of the main reasons for this nationalist turn and polarizing discourse was the attempt to frame the public debate away from the severe economic downturn and failures foreign policy adventures as well as open public hostility towards the Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Adopting a polarizing approach, Erdogan thought he had a stronger hand running on the issues of security and nationalism, given the AKP's alliance with the ultra-nationalists of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Following the collapse of the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in 2015, President Erdogan veered sharply to the right, adopting a more anti-Kurdish discourse than even hard-line nationalist leaders.

During his 17 years in power, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan benefited strongly from the political polarisation in Turkey. Initially, polarisation had been stirred up by the secularist-nationalist opposition. They tried to marginalise Erdogan's AK Party for not adhering to the principles of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and lately for not being tough enough against the Kurds.

The tactic of political polarization didn't yield to the intended results for Erdogan during this year's local elections when the AK Party lost several major cities. President Erdogan not only failed to bring all nationalist voters to his alliance but also deeply alienated the Kurdish voters, who voted strongly in favour of the opposition in Istanbul and beyond thereby tipping the scales against Erdogan's favour.

Ekrem Imamoglu, the candidate of the secular opposition Republican People's Party, CHP, waves to supporters at a rally in Istanbul, late Sunday, June 23, 2019. The opposition candidate for mayor of Istanbul celebrated a landmark win Sunday in a closely watched repeat election that ended weeks of political tension and broke the long hold President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party had leading Turkey's largest city. (Onur Gunay/Imamoglu Media team via AP)

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The defeat of President Erdogan's AK Party in Istanbul made clear that the government failed to divert the attention away from the economy and other pressing issues. This was despite the AK Party's almost full control of Turkey's media landscape.

During the renewed election campaign, the AK Party candidate Yildirim a more moderate tone concerning the Kurdish issue and dropped the discourse about nationalism, anti-Kurdish sentiments and the survival of the Turkish Republic. President Erdogan, on the other hand, decided to remain mostly absent of the political campaign until last week of the campaign.

AK Party's decision to court the Kurds, which both sides considered a key constituency, came a bit too late, however, and the campaign message was very confusing. Contradicting his own nationalistic discourse, just a few weeks earlier, the AK Party candidate Yildirim, spoke of Kurdistan, existing as a recognised region in the first national assembly of the Turkish Republic. The official Turkish public broadcaster, on the other hand, interviewed a former senior leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), while Nechirvan Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Region of Iraq was invited by President Erdogan to Turkey.

A hastily published letter by Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, advising the Kurdish movement to retain their political independence in the face of a political divide between the government and the main opposition, didn't also result in swaying the Kurdish votes away from the opposition.

A lot will depend on what lessons President Erdogan's and his AK Party would draw from the recent local elections. If they realise the limits of political polarisation and try to strike a more unifying tone, as was the case for the initial period of the AK Party rule, then President Erdogan and his party might be able to start winning back hearts and minds of urban Turks, who moved away from the AK Party.

Otherwise, President Erdogan might need to face Ekrem Imamoglu as a rising candidate for the Presidential elections scheduled to take place in 2023.

I am a researcher on Turkey, Kurds and Syria. I work as a journalist based in London. I am also a Non-Resident Scholar with Middle East Institute in D.C. I had advised t...