​​​​​​​Remaining realistic when evaluating Turkey’s election results

Though the dust has yet to settle after Turkey’s March 31 local elections, in particular the outcome of the race for Istanbul mayor, I’d like to share a few observations.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and by extension his regime, has a complex obsession with Istanbul. Above all it is symbolic. Istanbul’s municipal government is where Erdoğan began his political career, where his roots deepened. His regime has internalised the observation he made some time ago: “If we trip in Istanbul, we will stumble in Turkey.”

In every sense, Istanbul is the locomotive of the nation. The megacity has been a conduit for the regime to concentrate considerable economic, political, and symbolic power. The municipal government is one of the essential powerhouses of this system. It seems unlikely the regime would be willing to share such a fertile resource with the opposition.

A related issue is the corrupt dealings that have been ongoing for 25 years in Istanbul’s municipal government since Erdoğan became mayor of the city in 1994. If these irregularities were to be exposed it would amount to political suicide for the regime.

In the end, there is a very real possibility that Istanbul will remain, in one way or another, under the control of the regime. To assume that this will result in a domestic and foreign crisis of legitimacy would be misguided.

Within the country, the people who would be in a position to hold the regime accountable are the same people who have consistently refused or failed to confront the regime at key moments over the past five years, including the extensive corruption scandal in December 2013, the dismissal of the commission appointed to investigate the coup attempt of July 2016, and allegations of election fraud that mired the referendum in April 2017. As the country’s citizens have been subject to countless instances of duress and lawlessness, the opposition has failed to stand up to the government.

In the event that people spill into the streets in protest, the regime can call upon the police and military, which are under its full control.

The same futility, or even a tendency to look the other way, holds true for international actors. The West will not care about Erdoğan’s despotism as long as he maintains a certain distance with Russia, continues policing refugees, and provides a market for Western capital. There may be a few grumbles, but there won’t be any follow through.

So far, the only effect of the West’s warnings to Erdoğan to respect election results has been to provide the regime with ammunition for its conspiracy theories of foreign meddling in domestic affairs.

The real storm, however, will come after the regime has secured the control of Istanbul, with or without Ekrem İmamoğlu, the opposition candidate declared the unofficial winner of the mayoral race.

Until the next elections, scheduled for June 2023, we will be living under a regime that has been left with limited options. Economic crisis, foreign policy fiascos, and the overall results of recent elections are cutting down the regime’s space to manoeuvre. Developments indicate that the four years and three months until June 2023 will be full of hardship and chaos. One could question whether the June 2023 elections will even be held.

Let us consider Turkey’s Kurdish movement, represented in parliament by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The regime has already torn the movement to shreds with sweeping arrests and could bring further pressure with strategic accusations of voting fraud. A newly elected co-mayor in Diyarbakir is already under investigation. It remains to be seen how far this quest for revenge may go, and what fallout it may bring.

Bearing in mind its limited space for manoeuvre, the government has two options in terms of foreign policy. It can either shut the door on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and neglect its NATO relationships, in a way to close the country off. Or it could find a middle ground and fall in line. A third inescapable factor exists as well, and its name is Idlib. Sooner or later, the concentration of jihadist killers in the northern Syrian city of Idlib will overflow into Turkey.

In any case, it is clear that these foreign odds will not be beneficial. I do not want even to imagine the nightmare from Idlib. Economically, the period of artificial wealth and abundance has ended for the foreseeable future. The bluff-filled game of poker the government is playing with NATO stokes de-Westernisation. Ultimately, the nationalist   opposition will side with Erdoğan in these fights.


Now let’s turn to the opposition front. What happened in the March 31 elections was important and impactful. Reading the results correctly is of vital importance for the future.

The spirit of jubilation is natural; many people, including AKP voters, have had enough of the regime and its leader. However we must consider how realistic is it for this spirit to turn into policy. Right now, expectations are enormous, and many are celebrating the “return to democracy”.

As I touched on in my previous article, the autonomy of local governments will be extremely limited by the central government, which is very jealous of sharing power.

For cities to become centres of opposition, like when political Islam became empowered in the municipalities, we would need a tolerant centre as during the 1990s Özal administration. This is not the case for this regime. On the contrary, the very limited administrative autonomy of local administrations and their inexistent financial autonomy   have turned into full administrative and financial tutorship under the new regime.

The administrators the central government has appointed in Kurdish municipalities prior to elections are unparalleled in the nearly century-long history of the Republic.

As for financial autonomy, all decisions taken since 2002 were made in order to make the revenues and expenses of local governments dependent on the centre, down to the last penny.

Expecting miracles from Istanbul and other opposition-controlled municipalities in the realms of administration and politics, or environmental and urban issues, is a fool’s errand. Messages like “a new start for Istanbul residents” are baseless.

For instance, if superfluous and dangerous projects such as Kanal Istanbul can no longer be realised that will be because of lack of financial means not thanks to the new mayor. Many superfluous giant projects that seemed to be in the jurisdiction of the municipalities were thought so, because municipalities and the central government were one and the same. With no more partnership, it will be quickly understood that the boss is the centre.

More importantly, the battered regime could cause chaos in its attempts to control opposition-led municipalities. HDP municipalities will be its first targets. The national opposition will stand idly by, just as it did in the face of contested results in Kurdish cities.

Politically speaking, the only resolute political stance was that of the HDP and its electorate. It was aimed at the regime-appointed administrators and the repression to which the Kurds were subjected. The aim has come true throughout the country.

All others have voted against the politics of the regime, rather than an alternative policy. The meaning of voting declined until the minimum stance to utter sheer opposition to the state of affairs. No more!

But the result revealed a new dynamic especially in the big cities, alternative politics has manifested as a duty. İmamoğlu was propelled to the unofficial leadership of the dynamic. Alas, neither the constraints of the local governments, nor the limits of the national opposition excluding Kurds, nor the regime itself, would allow such a possibility.

For these reasons, rather than reading the dynamic as “we voted and proved to the world that we are still a democracy” or as “we saved our democracy” we should be focusing on harder realities: that democracy requires ownership and competence, that it can only take root and breed through uninterrupted resistance and struggle.

However, with the exception of Kurds, rights were not gained by resisting and struggling in Turkey. They have been granted “free of charge” since 1923 and even earlier, so they are worthless!

The Kurds' experience of the matter could be followed even though it cannot easily penetrate the nationalist armour of the nationalist centre as well as opposition, which are united in their anti-Kurdish stance.

Thus, the dynamic of March 31 is fragile and could easily vanish. The question will be how to use it without falling into dreams, in the most efficient way, by embracing all segments of the society beginning with Kurds, in order to develop an alternative to the totalitarian regime.


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

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