Istanbul setback means an unpredictable future for Erdogan

I must begin with a confession that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would “let go of Istanbul” wasn’t my bet from the outset. The metropolis of 15 million was his political cradle and his mesmerising story of political survival has always been about Istanbul.

It is Turkey’s hub of finances, media, intelligentsia and cronyism that bears his fingerprints all over. If — it is still an “if” — he lets go of Istanbul, Erdogan will have unleashed a wave of dynamics that shatters his seemingly invincible rule.

What overshadowed my bet was the element of surprise that has remained hidden in the ever-fluid Turkish politics; it can pop up at the most unexpected of times. That the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) handed in the certificate of mayorship to the 48-year-old man from the Black Sea coast, Ekrem Imamoglu, caught many seasoned, cynical observers of Turkey unprepared.

In the crisis-ridden country, we were all delivered another curve ball. Yet one can’t be too cautious when writing analysis about Turkey.

It may be safe to say that the YSK stood up to immense pressure from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) circles. YSK’s institutional wisdom may have been endorsed by other dynamics within the state that led to its declaration of Imamoglu as the winner.

However, caution is called for. An “extraordinary appeal” by the AKP and its ally, the Nationalist Movement Party, is pending. It may lead to another surprise — a cold shower for the opposition — that Istanbul finds itself as the arena of a rerun of the vote.

For Erdogan the damage is done. Despite that his party had an overall 52% of the national vote, the defeat was highly personal for him. When — or if — the Istanbul vote is finally judged by the YSK, Erdogan will have lost six of the seven biggest cities in Turkey, meaning a significant loss of control over a very large portion of the economy.

This major change will reflect on all ongoing projects, as well as future ones, in those municipalities. Partisan employment and party loyalties will be directly affected, sooner than expected. Deepening economic crisis in extremely centralised Turkey will cause sharp rifts between the opposition mayors and the president.

Four major shifts posing challenges to Erdogan must be added to the current state of things.

First, local elections display a move of votes in blocks from AKP’s Islamist ground to rigid nationalist parties. This will narrow Erdogan’s political playground.

Second, the “Istanbul effect,” which apparently gave a sigh of relief for the tightly pressured segments of the country, shows that the main opposition has a historic window of opportunity to defuse tension and polarisation in Turkey.

The soft-mannered Imamoglu resembles, in many aspects, the late Turgut Ozal, who 35 years ago with an all-embracing message across the ideological and ethnic divides had taken Turkey out of the military rule’s nightmare. How Imamoglu acts will define the path on whether Turkey will return to normalcy.

Third, the silent bloc within the AKP, discontented with the hubris and iron rule of Erdogan, has without a doubt noted that he is stumbling and stands increasingly weaker against the tremors of the sharp economic decline. His foes, former President Abdullah Gul and former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, the engine behind Turkey’s success story in early millennium years, are expected to introduce a new movement, either through a rebellion within the AKP or with a new party.

Fourth, Erdogan’s choice to ally himself with the oppressive circles (hard-core nationalists and anti-Western militarists) may have worked to purge and persecute the Gulenists but has backfired regarding Kurdish voters, whose tactical approach left Erdogan with the loss of many cities in western and southern Anatolia. A tough lesson for Erdogan is that 15% of Turkish population resists all sorts of oppression, no matter how hard, but maybe a lesson that comes too late.

So, what’s next? Erdogan has two choices, confrontation or conciliation.

The first was summarised by Stratfor as: “The national government can make life difficult for opposition-led local governments in Ankara or Istanbul by withholding funding for critical programmes and infrastructure. Naturally, such a standoff would provoke anger among the government’s many domestic detractors and deepen the country’s polarisation to an even greater degree but the AKP’s control over Turkey’s media networks will help it maintain control over the narrative… What’s more, the AKP could force through parliamentary decisions and executive decrees that would give Erdogan even more power at the expense of municipal governments.”

Erdogan may opt for the second. Extremely aware of the fierce economic storm approaching and that it may lead to his further fall, he keeps busy talking about “Turkey alliance.” It may be seen as the signal that this powerful chameleon aims for a national unity government, including all the political parties except the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, and hopes to preside over it.