Istanbul votes in closely watched re-run of mayoral election seen as democratic test for Erdogan's party

Turkish president says election is 'matter of survival for the country' after shock win for opposition candidate in March 

Sebnem Arsu
Sunday 23 June 2019 14:00
A woman votes at a polling station in Istanbul during the mayoral election which is viewed as a test of Turkish democracy and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's popularity
A woman votes at a polling station in Istanbul during the mayoral election which is viewed as a test of Turkish democracy and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's popularity

In one of Turkey’s most closely watched elections to date, Istanbul residents took to the ballot boxes on Sunday for a re-run of the mayoral vote for the country’s commercial and cultural capital.

The vote is widely regarded as a litmus test for the Justice and Development Party, AKP, government after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his nationalist election ally called the Istanbul election “a matter of survival for the country”.

“I voted in light of all issues that concern Turkey,” Leyla, 34, a housewife said. “Today’s vote is very important for Turkey as it is for Istanbul. It is important because there needs to be a change, the government should learn a lesson.”

Turnout for the re-election was expected to be high. On 31 March, opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu marked a surprise win, bringing an end to AKP rule over one of Europe’s largest metropolises after 25 years, the prior result having been annulled in favour of the governing party.

But Mr Imamoglu’s appointment was was shortlived. The country’s High Board of Election approved government claims of election irregularities, setting off a re-run of the vote.

The 49-year-old politician for the CHP, Republican People’s Party, originally garnered around 13,000 more votes than his experienced rival, Binali Yildirim, 69, out of 10 million voters.

Various election surveys show Mr İmamoğlu winning again on day-to-day municipal issues. Bekir Agirdir, the general director of Istanbul-based Konda Research and Consultancy Agency that estimated Mr Imamoglu would win by a 9 per cent margin in the rerun.

But Mr Erdogan, in a meeting Thursday with international journalists dismissed such polls and voiced confidence Mr Yildirim would win.

Home to 16 million of Turkey’s 82 million population, Istanbul is the country’s economic powerhouse and melting pot, welcoming domestic migrants from across Anatolia. Voters said they were feeling the stress of declining economic fortunes.

The Turkish Lira has slumped by 30 per cent since last year amid high unemployment and inflation.

“It’s a package of all issues from worsening economy to our daily hardships that make my vote – this is definitely not a local election,” said Leyla Kandemir, 55, a house wife, after casting her vote in the Beyoglu district, converted into a polling station for the day.

“Whichever result comes out of this election, it will reach out to the government as people’s warning for a better management in future,” her daughter, Emine Kandemir, added.

It remains unclear how Mr Erdogan and the AKP will react if they lose the election again. Mr Erdogan has repeatedly called the CHP a “terror” supporter for building an election alliance with the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party, HDP, that Ankara deems is the political wing of the PKK, an armed pro-Kurdish group, even as Mr Yildirim courted the same Kurdish voters.

But many credit Mr İmamoğlu with having creating a masterful campaign that brought him to national political prominence. Young, savvy, coming from a religiously conservative background, focusing on service-based grassroots politics, and able to effectively engage the masses, the father of three marks a split from the elitist image of his party that Turkey’s powerful devout masses have long despised.

“The economy or all others events in the country are important here as well as the candidates,” Seyhmus Aslan, 40, a property broker said, while heading to his polling station with his family.

Many contrasted Mr İmamoğlu’s campaign, using the slogan, “everything will be beautiful” with the AKP’s mostly negative campaign.

“Imamoglu’s campaign was a highly inclusive one whereas the AKP and its ally, Nationalist Movement Party, chose an adversarial one, creating a demon out of the opposition and its supporters,” said Ersin Kalaycioglu, a professor of political sciences at Istanbul’s Sabanci University.

Some members of Mr Erdoğan’s party sought to downplay either election outcome.

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“It is a far-fetched argument that the Istanbul election is a test for the future of our government,” said Abdullah Guler, AKP Istanbul deputy said in a phone interview.

“The people of Istanbul now will vote in line with their personal priorities but, more importantly, in loyalty to the political party they support.”

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