Atakan Uzun takes a look a back at the recent at local election in Istanbul.Has the victory of Ekrem Imamoglu sown the seeds of a return of democratic values or is it just a chink in the armor of the current regime?
The recent Istanbul election results have created a sense of excitement across Europe and the wider world as a stepping stone to democracy in Turkey. This is primarily the result of the victory for Ekrem Imamoglu and the centre left Republican People’s Party (CHP) over president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). This result caused huge controversy over the last couple of months due to Erdogan rerunning this election after it originally took place on the 31st March. But are the Istanbul election results a sign of a path to democracy in Turkey?
Background to Istanbul election
The Istanbul election took place between two mayoral candidates, Ekrem Imamoglu of the CHP and former prime minister Binali Yildrim of the AKP on the 23rd June. It originally took place on the 31st March along with the other mayoral candidates all over Turkey. However, after the victory of Imamoglu and the CHP on the 31st March, Erdogan called for a rerun of the Istanbul mayoral candidate, saying that he found irregularities in voting for the election. In reality, it seems that Erdogan didn’t find any irregularities and it looks as if it was used as an excuse to rerun the election in a city where he made his name in politics and has been a stronghold for the AKP since its establishment in the early 2000s. In 1994, as a former amateur league footballer, Erdogan was elected as mayor of Istanbul. Since that period and the establishment of the AKP, Istanbul has always been a stronghold for Erdogan and the AKP. In that particular election, Imamoglu won by around 25,000 votes over Yildrim. Due to the huge attention that this election rerun was attracting all over Turkey, a live TV debate was held in Turkey for the first time in two full decades.
Analysing the Istanbul election rerun results
The Istanbul election rerun results were hugely significant for any hope of a path towards restoring democracy in Turkey which it has lacked ever since the ruling of the AKP. Imamoglu won by an even bigger margin with just under 55% of the vote, almost 10% ahead of his opponent, Yildrim. In the election on the 31st March, Imamoglu was reported to only have won the by around 0.2%. This margin increased massively in the space of 3 months. What could be the reasons for this swing in Imamoglu’s favour? First of all, the Turkish youth opted to support Imamoglu over Yildrim. Does this mean that there is division in Turkey between supporters of Erdogan and more moderate supporters? It possibly means that Turkey is more divided than many people in the wider world believe. Another reason for the apparent drop in support for Yildrim could be the fact that Erdogan opted a rerun. The Turkish electorate may have been dissatisfied with this deadlock and opted to support Imamoglu.
As is the case in many countries, there seem to be a shift in traditional politics which leads to surprise in election results. One example would have been the election of Alexis Tsipras and Syriza in the Greek elections in 2015. This could argue that the election of Imamoglu as mayor of Istanbul resembles the surprise result of the Greek election in 2015. Another reason could be the low turnout for the Kurdish population of Turkey. Many Kurdish voters would have traditionally opted to support Erdogan’s AKP over the CHP. The turnout for these voters was particularly low. As well as that, the turnout for the Syrian population was also low with these voters also surprisingly opting to usually support Erdogan. The main reason for this surprise victory would be the dissatisfaction from the Turkish population at the authoritarian leadership of Erdogan and the AKP and their vote for change resembled this frustration. Erdogan also crucially lost the capital city, Ankara to Mansur Yavas of the CHP. Does the Istanbul and Ankara election results also resemble a division in Turkey between the overall population?
Division in Turkey?
The main question is, does the Istanbul and Ankara election results demonstrate that there is division amongst voters in Turkey? In fact, this division has always existed in Turkey. This dates back to the 20th century under president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who secularised Turkey and granted equal rights to both men and women. Ataturk was opposed to the Islamisation of Turkey and wanted Turkey to be a secular nation. He also built ties with many European nations with many labelling Ataturk as one of the greatest of his generation. Even his nemesis, Winston Churchill had great respect for the leadership of Ataturk. Ataturk certainly modernised Turkey only for this to be destroyed under Erdogan and the AKP. Because of Ataturk, one set of secular voters (mostly CHP supporters) would be centre left voters and more modern. In comparison to this, supporters of the AKP would be religiously conservative and centre right. This division has existed for over a century and is only being brought to the limelight over the past few years. Ever since the Gezi Park protests in 2013, the division between the population in Turkey has been evident. The results of the Istanbul and Ankara elections demonstrate that the division is beginning to slowly swing in the favour of secular centre right CHP after years of AKP dominated Turkey.
So are the Istanbul election results a path to democracy in Turkey?
One may argue that while the Istanbul election results aren’t a path to full democracy in Turkey, the results are certainly a stepping stone to democracy in its touristic capital, Istanbul. The Ankara results could also be seen as a path to democracy in Turkey after years of AKP domination. There are many reasons for these Istanbul and Ankara election results being significant for democracy being restored in Turkey. First of all, there hasn’t been a live TV debate in the run up to any election in Turkey in two decades. This demonstrates the attention that this election was attracting and also demonstrates that the AKP are beginning to notice the swing in support for the CHP. The media contributed hugely to the attention that this election received all over Europe. Many media outlets have reported on the election results as have their European counterparts who have also have praised the election results with politicians such as Guy Verhofstadt and Jeremy Corbyn endorsing the results. The celebrations in Turkey after the election results went further with the opposition supporters (CHP supporters) impersonating Erdogan during election celebrations. This is even a sign of a path to further democracy in Turkey. Many years ago, people would have feared undertaking in any of those actions with the threat of being arrested. The way these elections were run is also a sign of a path to democracy in Turkey with many election results over the years being fixed for Erdogan’s AKP to win. Without any doubt, with free elections in Turkey as well as support for Erdogan’s AKP decreasing, change in Turkey is certainly on the horizon.
Despite the Istanbul election results, there is still a long way to go for full democracy to be restored in Turkey. However, it seems that democracy has taken a hopeful step in the right direction with the results in Istanbul and Ankara.
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