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Jun 24 2019

Erdoğan fatigue: Istanbul rerun was slap in the face

In the aftermath of the March 31 elections, in which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling party lost the country’s biggest municipalities, Turkey’s election council decided to cancel the Istanbul result with no real legal basis, putting the country on notice that the rerun vote would serve as a presidential referendum.

Istanbul, the country’s financial and cultural hub, is a sprawling mega-city that is home to almost one in five Turkish citizens and produces almost a third of the country’s GDP. More than 84 percent of potential voters performed their democratic duty on Sunday, many with Erdoğan undoubtedly in the back of their minds. This was a referendum on a leader who in the last quarter of a century has risen to power and ended up a near-dictator; a referendum on his vision for government, his style, methods and intentions. In the end he received a “kick from the ballots”.

If Istanbul is a microcosm of Turkey, this election result symbolises the country’s voice, effectively slamming the brakes on Erdoğan’s years-long drive to increase his power and govern through oppression. The margin of victory for mayor-elect Ekrem İmamoğlu, about 13,000 votes on March 31, increased by 806.426, as he took more than 54 percent points of the vote, doubling Erdoğan’s 1994 total and rendering the president a lame duck.

It is a clear sign of Erdoğan fatigue. Turkey’s leader shouldered an immense political and social engineering project and in the past decade managed to make considerable progress, while also injecting heavy doses of polarisation and violent anger into Turkish society. As he became increasingly isolated at the top, Erdoğan made increasingly poor decisions. It may sound like a contradiction, but what accelerated him into this dead-end was the very presidential system that endowed him with super authority, following the April 2017 referendum.

The yes-men gathered around Erdoğan weakened him, choosing unconditional loyalty and sycophancy, never challenging their dear leader and severing his last ties with reality. The new system sacrificed the legislative branch, the judiciary and the media for personalised power, exacerbating abuse and arbitrary rule, and by early 2018 signs of Erdoğan fatigue had begun to surface.

The trigger for electoral rebuke delivered by Istanbul voters was the election council’s May 6 decision to annul the initial result and revoke İmamoğlu’s mandate; a decision made under pressure from Erdoğan. Indeed, the decision was an expression of Erdoğan’s near absolute power, but it backfired, massively. Maybe for the first time in his political career, Erdoğan failed to keep his finger on the pulse of the people.

Justice has now been unarguably served. The next mayor of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality is Ekrem İmamoğlu. He has increased his vote share and acquired leverage against Erdoğan’s desire for a dictatorship.

The vast gap between the two candidates marks a political earthquake. Turkey’s political scene has been irrevocably altered, and nothing will ever be the same again. Yes, Erdoğan received a small slap in the June 2015 elections, but his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) still came out on top in that vote. Moreover, today the system is deadlocked by a deep political crisis.

Ever the opportunist, Erdoğan has tried and destroyed almost all potential political alliances. He is out of options and ammunition, and left with an AKP that is unhappy, uneasy, fearful, bickering and rotting from the inside out. Beyond that, Erdoğan’s decisions have brought the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) back into a position of power, along with ultra-nationalist networks that have set up shop at key positions.

Following the June 23 earthquake, Erdoğan’s faces two primary options: rapprochement with the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and dialogue with his former AKP colleagues in a bid to return the party to its founding spirit, or doubling down on his tyrannical alliance with the MHP and dark nationalist forces. He must also decide, perhaps as soon as this week, whether to return to the U.S. embrace and make a U-turn on the S-400 deal, or deepen Ankara’s relationship with Russia.

Once again, the Kurdish issue will be crucial. Erdoğan is well aware that this is Turkey’s most urgent issue. Even if his hubris led him astray, Erdoğan is living through the bitter experience of dropping the ball on the solution to the Kurdish issue, whether he knows it or not. Would he turn to the Kurds once again? It may be too late. He has created such a state of affairs with his faulty decisions that nobody trusts him anymore, as has long been the case beyond Turkey’s borders. The anti-Kurdish forces he gathered around his government will not look kindly on him making a sharp turn in the direction of the Kurds after these election results. If he insists, his political alliances could blow up in his face.

Extremely difficult days await Turkey’s leader, but he deserves this outcome. He is the one mainly, if not solely, responsible for the destruction of Turkey’s democracy. Still, he has the power to push forward with this adventure. Whatever he decides, let us hope it does not place any further strain on the country’s deeply worn social fabric.

Lastly, we commend İmamoğlu and wish him success.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.