Until this month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party, or AKP) have appeared unstoppable. He has ruthlessly consolidated power and, after thwarting a coup attempt in July 2016, he has crushed even the most symbolic challenges. Elections and governmental balance of power have increasingly seemed like formalities under Erdogan’s erratic but increasingly authoritarian presidency.
Now that status quo seems poised to change. A little over a week ago, Erdogan’s first concrete setback came when Ekrem Imamoglu, an opposition politician, won the contest for the mayor of Istanbul. The job carries more status than actual power, but it’s the perch from which Erdogan launched his own political career, and the victory has potent symbolic impact. Imamoglu originally won a narrow victory in March; Erdogan forced a rerun, which Imamoglu handily won on Sunday, June 23.
Imamoglu now has a platform on which to experiment with his message of good governance and renewal. What are the implications of his surprisingly strong challenge for the tight grip of the ruling party nationwide?
Missteps for the Authoritarian President
After Imamoglu’s original victory on March 31, the government’s decision to repeat the elections was clearly a mistake in and of itself. Polling showed overwhelming opposition to the prospect of recounts, which were initially ordered by election officials. The Supreme Electoral Council’s conflicting decisions—like approving recount after recount in Istanbul, but then arbitrarily refusing recounts in other cities where the opposition parties lost with even narrower margins, and, finally, ordering a rerun of the entire election—added to the perception that the mayor-elect, Ekrem Imamoglu, was being robbed of his victory.
There were signs of dissent within Erdogan’s powerful inner circles. When the Supreme Electoral Council, entirely composed of Erdogan appointees, finally decided in favor of a rerun, seven members voted in favor, but four members, including the chairman, voted against. Some of Ankara’s key power players—including Sumeyye Erdogan, the president’s daughter and consigliera, as well as the candidate himself, former premier Binali Yildirim—were said to be opposed, too.
Erdogan’s rise began when he won the election for Istanbul’s mayor in 1994, and, even at the peak of his power, he kept a constant interest in the city’s affairs. Erdogan was the chief, if not sole, advocate of the election rerun. (The tactic worked for him when his party didn’t perform as well as he had hoped in the 2018 parliamentary elections, and Erdogan forced a do-over.) The decision this year was Erdogan’s alone, and he has only himself to blame for its results. The defeat was historic: for the first time in a quarter century, Turkey’s two largest cities, Istanbul and Ankara, will be governed by secular leaders. It was also dramatic: in just a few months, the opposition’s victory margin increased from 12,000 to 806,000—a sixty-seven-fold increase.
On Thursday, however, Abdulkadir Selvi, a columnist for Hurriyet, the country’s newspaper of record, and one of Ankara’s best-connected insiders, published a scoop, which, if true, implies that Erdogan is either not getting the message or not willing to live with it. In the post-election debrief, Erdogan is said to have put the blame on the party’s dissenters and defectors, and insisted that the party should hold onto Istanbul at any cost.
Allegedly, Erdogan’s preferred solution was to find a way to sideline his rival. His apparent plan was to take the opposition mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, to court over his much-publicized contretemps with a local governor who denied him the use of an airport lounge, arguing that a criminal conviction would provide a legal basis for his removal from office. This sparked a shouting match with the AKP’s chief counsel, Hayati Yazici, who is also Erdogan’s personal lawyer and one of his longtime allies. Erdogan is Turkey’s democratically elected president, but his reflexes increasingly resemble those of an unaccountable autocrat, which should be worrisome to his allies and opponents alike.
After a quarter-century, Erdogan’s aura of invincibility is fading away. The country’s economic troubles, its tensions with the United States, and the ambitions of Erdogan’s ex-allies, like Abdullah Gul and Ali Babacan, are not. Erdogan is undoubtedly a master artist of politics. He has found his way out of quagmires many times before, and he may manage to do it once again. How he could do so now, however, is not easily apparent.
In the meantime, a new political star is born. Only a few months ago, Ekrem Imamoglu was a largely obscure local mayor, running one of Istanbul’s thirty-nine districts. When his name was first announced as the challenger to Binali Yildirim for the top post, which has authority over the entire sprawling city of Istanbul, even veteran journalists would not have been able to pick him out of a lineup. Now, he is a household name across the country—he is the upbeat, affable, charming man who managed to defeat the behemoth without much else than his sheer willpower, endless optimism, and message of inclusion.
In Imamoglu, Erdogan has found his match; and Erdogan seems to know it better than anyone.
Challenges within the Ruling Party
Since Erdogan’s ascent to the presidency, there has been subtle but significant competition among senior officials angling to establish themselves as the next person in the line of succession. Although there are several names in contention, there are two that stand out: the finance minister, Berat Albayrak, and the interior minister, Suleyman Soylu. The rivalry between the two men is an open secret in Ankara.
For a long time, the U.S.-educated Albayrak looked like the heir apparent. Before entering politics, Albayrak was a top executive for Ahmet Calik, one of Erdogan’s favorite oligarchs, and his strong connections in the business community made him a valuable asset. From 2015 to 2018, Albayrak served as the energy minister, gaining valuable experience on the international stage; he was then appointed finance minister in 2018. Perhaps most importantly, however, his marriage to Erdogan’s eldest daughter, Esra, gave Albayrak the highest currency in Turkey’s political marketplace.
In contrast, Soylu is a renegade. A political veteran, Soylu began his career in Suleyman Demirel’s True Path (DYP), a secular, center-right party where he quickly emerged as a rising star. A few months shy of his thirtieth birthday, Soylu became his party’s Istanbul chairman, one of the most powerful positions in Turkish politics. In the 2002 elections that carried Erdogan to power, Soylu was at the top of his party’s ticket, but failed to win his seat because his party missed the 10-percent parliamentary threshold with less than a half of a percent.
For the next decade, Soylu was one of the most vocal, if not most powerful, figures in the opposition, and even rose to his party’s top spot in 2008. Then, he made a confusing U-turn: first, he broke with his party and backed the 2009 constitutional changes that paved the path for Erdogan’s election into a presidency with near-imperial powers in 2014. Then, in 2012, he formally joined Erdogan’s AKP, and ultimately made it to the cabinet: he’s served as the interior minister since 2016. As the interior minister, Soylu became part national security tzar, part partisan attack dog, propelled by a convert’s zeal and backed by familiar names of Turkey’s “deep state” in the 90s, including his own mentor, Mehmet Agar.
In this elections confrontation, Albayrak and Soylu have taken different paths to the same destination. After Erdogan, Albayrak was reported to be the staunchest advocate of a rerun from the very beginning. Although Albayrak himself never went on the record, the think tank Bosphorus Global, which he helped to found and fund—and is still believed to run—openly lobbied for it. In contrast, Soylu remained on the sidelines until Erdogan made up his mind and became his most visible enforcer once he did.
Albayrak might be the first casualty of AKP’s failed gambit in Istanbul. Erdogan’s son-in-law holding the keys to the treasury created terrible optics, and Albayrak himself looked out of his depth. At the height of Turkey’s currency crisis last spring, he was sent to the United States to assure investors, and ended up only spooking them more. “It was an absolute shit show,” one fund manager told Axios. “I’ve literally never seen someone from an administration that unprepared.”
The already embattled son-in-law now faces a second crisis: a little-known news website dropped an explosive story shortly before the elections, one which alleged an affair between him and Turkish supermodel Ozge Ulusoy. The details were as damning as they were salacious: late-night trysts on a superyacht, a fistfight between Albayrak and his brothers-in-law, and a rumored cabinet shuffle in the horizon. On Thursday, Erdogan met with Ali Babacan, the former economic minister who is said to be planning to form his own party. If Albayrak has indeed fallen out of favor, replacing him with Babacan would both win over investors and eliminate a potential challenger. It is impossible to confirm the veracity of the alleged affair or predict what Erdogan has in store for his son-in-law, but, even if they are baseless, the fact that these rumors are finding coverage despite Turkey’s tightly controlled media environment is taken by many as a signal that it is open season on Albayrak, meaning that his stock is falling while his arch-rival Soylu’s is rising.
The Demise of Nationalism?
As soon as the repeat elections were announced, the government made a few symbolic gestures, obviously aimed at shoring up the Kurdish vote, leading many observers, including me, to argue that this was how AKP planned to win. First, Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was allowed to meet with his lawyers for the first time since he was placed in isolation after the collapse of the peace talks. Then, in an interview, Yildirim broke from the status-quo tough talk on the Kurdish matter—denying that there even is a Kurdish nation—by stating that “Kurdistan does exist.” Finally, days before the election, the government released a letter from Ocalan, rebuking the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP)’s endorsement of the opposition candidate, Imamoglu, and calling on the Kurds to “remain independent.”
Ocalan’s letter got wall-to-wall coverage on pro-government media. Those same Erdogan-backed media forces even went as far as to bring Ocalan’s brother, Osman, who is wanted on an Interpol “Red Notice,” onto the state television network for an exclusive interview to make its pitch to the Kurds. These overtures, however, dramatically backfired. The opposition’s Kurdish voters were not convinced by Erdogan’s gestures, and Erdogan’s nationalist allies were antagonized by them. Many observers cite these failures as the reason for the opposition’s landslide victory.
Many Kurds view Ocalan as their national leader, and the HDP has traditionally treated him with deference, much to the chagrin of the rest of the opposition. After his party’s electoral victory in 2015, which almost dethroned Erdogan, one of the first names mentioned by HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas was that of “our dear leader Ocalan”: a recent Washington Post op-ed by Demirtas pointed to Ocalan as the key broker for peace between Kurds and the Turkish state. This time, however, the HDP broke from its traditional posture, almost unanimously, and reiterated its endorsement of the opposition candidate.
Meanwhile, Erdogan’s nationalist allies have found themselves in a peculiar place. Their alliance with Erdogan was mostly a result of his post-2015 pivot to nationalism, the cornerstone of which was a pledge to get tough on the Kurdish political movement. Now, they were caught in a catch-22: were they to berate the Kurds for not doing as Ocalan says, or break with their allies, days before an election, for that same reason?
Erdogan’s defeat was bad, but the nationalists on both the Turkish and the Kurdish side might have lost even worse. For the first time in recent history, it looks possible, if not likely, for the Kurdish opposition to pull itself out of the shadow cast on it by Ocalan and the PKK, which would create many new opportunities in the political space. If HDP’s Selahattin Demirtas, who has already made himself many fans among Turkey’s secular leftists, can seize on this momentum, he can become Turkey’s next kingmaker.
On the right, the same holds true of Meral Aksener, the former interior minister whose mutiny against Devlet Bahceli, the longtime leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, began with much fanfare but mostly flatlined after her lackluster performance in last year’s presidential elections. To survive Aksener’s challenge, Bahceli did a surprising about-face, and teamed up with Erdogan, despite having spent the past decade lambasting him. Now, his party seems to be collapsing under the weight of his contradictions: polls from after the elections show their MHP party’s support at an all-time low. For the nationalists defecting, the obvious home in the opposition is Aksener’s IYI Party; their joining IYI’s ranks could be the jolt that nationalist politics needs to come back to life.
So, what next? Although there is room for optimism, a dash of realism is also helpful. Erdogan is not going anywhere: he is still in power, at least until 2023. Winning in Istanbul does not necessarily translate into a riptide everywhere else: in the Anatolian heartland, Erdogan still remains wildly popular.
As Washington Institute’s Soner Cagaptay pointed out in the Washington Post, Istanbul had also voted against the 2017 presidential referendum that solidified Erdogan’s power, and the parallels between the two elections give a solid basis for the claim that the Turkish public is turning against Erdogan’s presidential system. Indeed, the opposition’s two leaders, Kemal Kilicdaroglu and Meral Aksener, are openly calling for a reset that would revitalize the legislature while curbing executive powers.
In theory, such a maneuver might also serve Erdogan by allowing him to dissociate from his nationalist allies. The government’s crackdown on rights and liberties, its heavy-handed approach to the Kurds, and its turn away from the West have all aligned nicely with their platform. However, Erdogan may still choose compromise over confrontation. If he turns to a more conciliatory stance, he might perhaps seize on a break-off with the nationalists to rebrand himself as a born-again democrat.
Such a shift, however, is neither easy nor without risk. Erdogan has no natural allies in the opposition. It is difficult to envision who would accept an alliance with him, and the cost to Erdogan such an alliance would entail. Furthermore, the nationalist hardliners are nestled deep in the state. They have seized on their alliance with Erdogan to install themselves into key posts in the police, military, and intelligence, which have traditionally been their power base, and, even if Erdogan was to break with their party, he cannot easily dislodge them from the state. Erdogan and the nationalists were rivals before they became allies. There is no reason why they can’t go back to the way things were.
As my colleague Emir Gurbuz and I argued in World Politics Review, an opposition victory is not the game-changer for Turkey’s relations with the United States either: the Turkish public’s widespread suspicion towards the United States transcends partisan lines. Even Turks who consider Erdogan their enemy do not view America as their friend.
So, is the opposition’s victory much ado about nothing? Most certainly not. Carnegie Europe’s Sinan Ulgen is correct that Imamoglu’s victory is a pivotal moment that could transform Turkish politics. The schism between Demirtas’s doves and Ocalan’s hawks could finally rescue Kurdish politics from the shadow of military threat. If Kurdish politics opens up, it would also allow for the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, to evolve into a truly center-left party, without worrying about running afoul of its own security-minded voters. Similarly, disgruntled nationalists could give Meral Aksener a boost, or one of Erdogan’s ex-allies, like Abdullah Gul, could finally throw their hat in the ring.
But the truth is that we simply don’t know what the impact of Imamoglu’s election will be. The opposition has won a crucial battle; but the war continues, and it is far from over.
Cover Photo: Supporters of Ekrem Imamoglu celebrate in front of the Istanbul municipality building after the opposition won the election for Istanbul mayor in Istanbul, Turkey. Source: Burak Kara/Getty Images