AKP loses Istanbul – twice
On the evening of 23rd June, Ekrem İmamoğlu, the candidate of the Nation Alliance (Milli Ittifak) and member of the Republican Peoples Party (CHP) won the mayoral election in Istanbul for the second time. His slogan was simple: “Everything will be very good!” He had overtaken his rival Binali Yıldırım from the AKP already during the first round on 31st March with 13,729 votes, but after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared, “no one should put on airs as a winner with a lead of just 13,000 to 14,000 votes” and put pressure on the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) so as to declare the Istanbul results as invalid. New elections were thus announced on the 6th of May.
In the short period between the first and the second election İmamoğlu and his PR-team worked day and night to make very clear that he was deprived a clear victory and that voting for him in the second round would be a vote in defence of democracy. In fact, the predominant message of his second election campaign was occupied by condemning the illegitimacy of the election’s annulment. Thus nearly no concrete political questions were discussed during that period. By this strategy he made sure to keep the support of his initial voters and win over those voters of the AKP, who have at least some sense for the rule of law. Surveys show that this strategy was crowned by success. İmamoğlu managed to increase his votes between three to ten per cent in every district of Istanbul. This was especially surprising in areas like Fatih, Eyüpsultan or Üsküdar, which are known for their conservative voter base. Since the general turn out increased less than one per cent, it can be assumed that İmamoğlu’s gains were mainly at the expense of the AKP. The massive price increases on food and other daily goods can be seen as the main reason for the dissatisfaction of the conservative, lower class basis with the AKP. Not due to his non-existing economical or social program, but due to his self-presentation as a pious Muslim İmamoğlu was able to win the trust of some parts of the religious urban population. The same is valid for the new CHP-mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş. As a former member of the ultra-nationalist MHP, he was made candidate in order to cut the ground from under the AKP-MHP coalitions feet.
The AKP tried to spread its own version of why the elections had to be repeated in Instanbul. While trying to substantiate some form of irregularity, the AKP Deputy Chair Ali İhsan Yavuz made very clear that the main reason wasn’t fraud but discontent with their loss. During a press conference on 17th April he said: “The fraud didn’t necessarily happen but it definitely happen something, we just couldn’t see it.” Even though the YSK confirmed in its report that actually nothing extraordinary had happened and that no votes were stolen, as the AKP candidate was claiming, the election was repeated. Against the expectation of many commentators, the AKP accepted its defeat immediately this time even before the results were officially confirmed. İmamoğlu increased his lead up to 800.000 votes.
Ekrem İmamoğlu – a democratic populist
The CHP candidate, who wasn’t a very well-known political figure before the local elections, became a symbol for the opposition, not only in Istanbul. It was reported on the 23rd June, that they were cases in some cities of Turkey were people went to local poll stations in order to give their vote for İmamoğlu, just to find out that the elections were limited to the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. A telling instance of the polarization and impact of the events. Since Erdoğan became mayor of Istanbul in 1994, the city had been under the rule of the AKP. It was Erdoğan who coined the saying “Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey”. This is at least true for his own carrier and explains why the AKP didn’t want to let go the city that easily.
But who is in reality the shooting star candidate of the CHP-Iyi Party (“Good Party”) Nation Alliance, who successfully challenged the AKP’s hegemony? İmamoğlu comes like President Erdoğan from the Black Sea region and moved later on to Istanbul. His family runs several businesses, one of them is the construction company İmamoğlu İnşaat. Apart from that, he used to hold the position as the Istanbul representative for the Trabzonspor football team. This position allowed him to establish contacts with the fan base of the sport club, as well as with the companies sponsoring the club. As to his political career, İmamoğlu first became involved into politics as a member of the Anavatan Partisi, which was trying to merge Turkish nationalism with Islamic traditions, during his college time, though; he became a member of the CHP. He was nominated as the CHP-candidate for the district Beylikdüzü in Istanbul in the local elections in 2014 and became the new mayor with 50,8 per cent. Interestingly, not very much is known about his political activities during the time as mayor of Beylikdüzü, but the general critic states that he continued projects of his AKP- predecessor and presented them as success of his own.
In December 2018 İmamoğlu published his five goals for Istanbul during his first speech as a candidate for the local elections. These were (1) solving the traffic problem, (2) fighting urban poverty and reducing the living costs in the city, (3) solving the risks concerning earth quakes and city planning (4) pulling industry to Istanbul and solving unemployment (5) raising the quality of living through expansion of free-time facilities. Especially the first point was mentioned very often during his campaign. He promised public transport for free or at a reduced price to several social groups like students, mothers etc. Another important point was raised during the television duel one week before the second election. İmamoğlu said that the central government hasn’t done enough to coordinate the Syrian migrants living in Istanbul and other big cities of the country. He would solve the problems arising from this failed politics.
Concerning the migration issue İmamoğlu made contradictory statements both during his campaign and after his second victory. In his campaign speeches he emphasized, “all different voices, colours, faiths would be regarded as an opportunity rather than a risk for the city“. On the other hand, during the television duel he remarked that “the streets of Istanbul are in danger, they think that their bread is stolen from their hands.”. Unfortunately this went unnoticed, was overshadowed by more salient political issues despite the fact that Istanbul is now home to more than half a million Syrian refugees. In the following debates, İmamoğlu was even praised for his inoffensive handling of this issue. Compared to the general fashion of how the refugees are treated, his stand seemed to be progressive indeed. The CHP is known for it’s strongly anti-migrant and especially anti-Syrian politics. The CHP mayor Tanju Özcan in Bolu for example declared in April, he would cut all benefits for Syrians because they would already live in luxury. In other regions, like in Bursa Mudanya, the CHP mayor Hayri Türkyılmaz banned Syrians from going to the beaches, arguing that they would make other people uncomfortable. Sadly enough it didn’t take long until İmamoğlu shifted too to this common course. In his first interview on television after the second elections, he said: “There are many Syrians that work unregistered. We have to protect our people’s interests. They cannot change Istanbul’s colour recklessly.” In order to fight against ghettoization of Syrians, he would work together with the Turkish police. One of the major reasons why İmamoğlu won in the conservative district of Fatih was the hope created that he would send the refugees back to Syria. That means that even though İmamoğlu himself didn’t address this issue during his campaign directly, the voters were relying on the CHP’s general position. An incident in Istanbul’s district of Ikitelli on the 29th of June demonstrates, how such politics pave the way for lynchlaw against Syrians. After a false rumour was spread that a Syrian boy harassed a Turkish girl, a mob took to the streets and attacked Syrians and their shops. Instead of condemning these attacks, two days later İmamoğlu added even more fuel to the fire. He moaned that in some parts of the cities, shop owners would hang up signs in Arabic. He said “This is Istanbul, this is Turkey and we have to protect its identity.”
Apart from that, all of his plans remain unfortunately rather vague and imprecise. It becomes clear that he tried to tackle as many populist questions as possible, utilizing his charming and friendly appearance to promise solutions for all of them without actually presenting concrete plans. Speaking of the television duel, one remark of his is particularly telling of this approach and its concomitant problems. The moderator asked both of the candidates, “Imagine me as a brother of yours, with Kurdish origin and love to the Turkish Republic, how would you convince me to give you my vote?” Instead of recognizing the structural oppression of the Kurdish or any other minority in Turkey and using the opportunity given by this question to position himself against any form of racism, he just said “I’m not interested in someone’s origin, everyone is a citizen.” The AKP candidate Binali Yıldırım answered the question exactly the same way. What might appear as well-intentioned, is in fact nothing else than saying “But all lives matter!” and thus denying racism pilloried by the “All lives matter”-movement – or in the case of Turkey, denying the fact that Kurds are still politically and culturally oppressed.
Above all, the current wave carrying İmamoğlu to high esteem among the Istanbulites and the opposition across the country is based on his pronouncement to confront the system of corruption that the AKP established during its 25 years of government in the municipality of Istanbul. This brings him good reputation even beyond the boarders of his own country. In nearly all European media, he’s seen as the pioneer of democratization in Turkey. Time will show if he is interested in ending the corruption in general or just in changing the receiving ends. In either case, right after he was officially declared mayor for the second time, he signalised his willingness to work in accordance with the central government in Ankara.
The mix of a natural talent to rousing speeches in front of masses on the one hand and the charm of a relative newcomer in high politics on the other made him an important figure that symbolizes the hope for the beginning of the AKP’s end. However, as mentioned above, his political programme remains too unclear to make any reliable predictions on how Istanbul will be affected by his governance.
Strategy of the Left
If it wasn’t for the massive support of the left and the HDP, which didn’t put up candidates in the big Western cities, İmamoğlu wouldn’t have won the elections. However, by promising unconditional support for the CHP candidate, the HDP leadership neglected the chance to negotiate its own demands. Critical voices remarked that only through the votes of the CHP members of parliament it was possible in May 2016 to lift the immunity of HDP deputies, followed by their imprisonment. The reason why the rank and file of the HDP nevertheless voted for CHP candidates was not due to a political support for the CHP’s ideology, but due to the deep longing to see the AKP losing.
Already after the first round on the 31st March a newly awakened hope and dynamic was visible especially among the youth. The May Day demonstration in Istanbul was one of the biggest rallies since many years. However, it needs to be noted that parts of the left still struggle to draw a clear line between the Kemalist ideology, that represents the fundamental values of the Turkish state and a real progressive, political alternative. As generally recognised, İmamoğlu didn’t win the HDP’s base politically, but was only able to unite the anti-AKP opposition because of his personal charisma and the fact that he remained as the only alternative after HDP pulled back. The possibility to run an effectively depoliticized electoral campaign must be seen as limited to the spring of 2019 and can’t be continued until a potential snap election. The problems of the country need to be taken seriously, a task that populism and free public transport can’t solve.
The majority of the left supporting the CHP candidate presented its decision as an important step in the struggle against fascism. By fascism they simply mean the authoritarian government of the AKP in an unofficial coalition with the MHP. Thus not only the complex term “fascism” gets devalued but also the strategic debate on how to unite against a real fascist threat becomes unnecessary. At the same time, those who hesitate to support the alleged “anti-fascist” camp were immediately suspected of working for the other side. This made a democratic debate about the election strategy in the left nearly impossible and excluded critic from the beginning.
As for the AKP it is currently struck by internal fraction building with the leading faction around Erdogan fearing a split. This could be the beginning of the AKP’s dissolution. While European mainstream media imagine a potential return to democracy in Turkey, the leading figures of the split made already clear that they just aim to defend the initial politics of the AKP in the early 2000s. Thereby this new party could make a good coalition party both for the weakened AKP and the CHP, which is still muzzy from its recent electoral victory and far away from a realignment to the left. But anyway, the leader of the MHP ruled out the possibility for general snap elections and this contains potential for the radical left. Relieved from the pressure of supporting a nationalist bourgeois force like the CHP against “fascism”, it has now the time and the opportunity to realign itself and re-evaluate the state of its own organisation and programme. As suggested above, the refugee issue contains an increasing potential for conflict and none of the existing parties, including the left, can offer a solution. At the same time, the foreseeable self-destruction of the AKP is rooted in the emergent economical crisis phasing the country and whoever would be able to solve it could win the support of the impoverished masses.
The HDP has been galvanizing support amid leftists and parts of other socially oppressed and marginalized groups in Turkey since the Gezi protests in 2013. But the heavy repression it faced by the state since it entered the parliament in June 2015 paralysed the party and made democratic decision-making processes harder. The unconditional support for the CHP in the West of Turkey is an expression for that. The HDP focussed on winning back the municipalities on the pre-dominantly Kurdish areas in the Southeast, where the central government dismissed and imprisoned elected HDP mayors and replaced them with AKP-mayors. This reasonable decision shows at the same time, that the big strength of the HDP, being a progressive alliance for the whole country, is for now deprioritized. At this point it’s worth noting the following. The AKP’s cheap attempt to prevent the Kurdish voters from supporting Imamoglu during the second election round by publishing a letter of the PKK-leader Abdullah Öcalan turned out to have the opposite effect. Two days before the election took place, a letter was transmitted by the completely unknown academic Dr. Ali Kemal Özcan who visited Öcalan on the prison island Imrali. In the letter he made an ambiguous statement, which was interpreted by the government as a call to remain impartial. In fact, Öcalan just emphasized that the HDP should follow its own politics. Until today it remains unclear: (1) when the letter was written because it didn’t contain any date, (2) why it was published two days before the elections and (3) why not Öcalan’s lawyer, who usually publish his statements but a complete stranger transmitted it. Shortly after this declaration, the HDP leadership made clear that they won’t change its decision and would adhere to their call to vote for Imamoglu. In the hours following this statement, Turkish politics went completely mad. The fascist chairman of the MHP Devlet Bahceli himself judged the HDP for not taking Öcalan’s letter seriously and even President Erdogan repeated the content of the letter during an interview. He tried to present the statement as a power struggle between the HDP’s former co-chair, the imprisoned Selahattin Demirtas, and Öcalan, what both of them denied. The actual outcome of this incident was the opportunity for the HDP to make publicly very clear that the party makes its own decisions and doesn’t take commands from the PKK’s leader. This was probably the biggest unintentional gift that the government could ever grant to the HDP. Apart from that, the AKP-MHP alliance shot itself in the foot, because the majority of the Kurdish voters had already made their decision and this cheap attempt to win them back just showed once more how desperate the government were.
It is comprehensible that 25 years of AKP rule in Istanbul intensified the desire for change. But however promising the CHP might appear today by taking its violent, undemocratic and oppressive rival into consideration, there is no shortcut to a truly democratic regime. Since the introduction of the presidential system in 2018, the vast majority of state power is in the hands of President Erdoğan. As his political capital decreases, a crisis of legitimacy that will open up an array of opportunities is of course highly possible. This was already seen in the results of the referendum in 2017, when Erdogan only managed to win because the polls were manipulated and the opposition wasn’t able to put enough pressure on the state institutions in order to count the votes again. The progressive weakening of the ruling bloc offers new opportunities for the left, given that illusions with the CHP are abandoned and a political alternative can be established. It is worth noting that it was due to the hesitation of the CHP that the referendum results weren’t denounced. A real political alternative must serve not only as a platform for uniting different ethnical groups, but to come up with a political programme focusing on a democratic constitution and the abolishment of the presidential system.
During the 1970ies, the radical left set high hopes in the CHP, which was back then much more left-wing orientated than today. Its electoral alliance with the Republicans and its ability to build its own structures did not allow it, though, to take hold of the state apparatus. By supporting fascist groups through the deep state structures the newly developed bourgeoisie orchestrated the coup d’état and imposed its strategy. Today’s situation somehow resembles that historical conjuncture.
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