Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suffered his biggest political defeat yet on Sunday night after his ruling AK Party lost control of Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul.
With almost all the votes counted, main opposition party candidate Ekrem Imamoglu had amassed a huge lead of more than 750,000 votes in the race to be Istanbul’s new mayor, a huge increase on the 13,000 vote lead he recorded in the original ballot in March.
Erdogan and the AKP called for a re-run of that vote, citing irregularities, but the result on Sunday showed a decisive rejection of Erdogan in his hometown.
Erdogan conceded defeat on Twitter Sunday night, congratulating the winner.
“The national will was manifested today one more time. I congratulate Ekrem Imamoglu, who won the election, according to unofficial results.”
Erdogan, who previously said “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey,” had thrown his weight behind Binali Yildirim, a founding member of the AKP and a former prime minister. But it was not enough to persuade an electorate who have grown disenchanted with Erdogan as a result of rising inflation and unemployment as a result of the economy dipping into recession.
"Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey."
“The elections broke down the common beliefs that Erdogan cannot be beaten by the ballot box, that he is a strategic genius, that he will always find a way to get elected,” Esra Özyürek, Associate Professor in Contemporary Turkish Studies at London School of Economics, told VICE News.
The result marks the end of 25 years of AKP control in the Turkish capital and could signal a threat to Erdogan’s 16-year rule.
“There is no doubt that Erdogan has hit a glass ceiling and his votes are declining. The message from the voters is clear — they have had enough with political pressures and economic mismanagement,” Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow with the European Council for Foreign Relations, told VICE News.
In his victory speech in front of thousands of supporters in Istanbul on Sunday night, Imamoglu said those who voted for him had “fixed democracy.” He also called for a different kind of leadership to the increasingly authoritarian style of leadership that Erdogan, who was initially seen as a reformer, has ushered in in recent years.
“We are opening up a new page in Istanbul,” Imamoglu said. “On this new page, there will be justice, equality, love. 16 million Istanbul residents refreshed our belief in democracy and confidence in justice.”
He also added that he was “ready to work in harmony” with Erdogan.
While Erdogan retains a large support base, he is becoming increasingly isolated as his inner circle defects. Both his predecessor as president and a former prime minister are preparing to launch breakaway parties, leaving Erdogan facing two choices: to double down on his authoritarian bent or go back to reforms and democracy.
“The latter would not only save the economy but also help increase his tenure — the question is, will he?,” Aydintasbas said. “Many argue that he no longer has cadres or the willpower to return to democracy. We just have to wait and see.”
Erdogan has shown in the past a willingness to adapt to a changing political climate, and he will have to do so again if he wants to remain in power, Özyürek said.
“Erdogan proved himself to be a very pragmatic leader. The only viable choice in front of him is to share his power and by doing so democratize and normalize the country. If he chooses the other option, which is further tightening his iron grip and escalating tensions, he will make his end only quicker.”
Cover: Supporters of Ekrem Imamoglu, the candidate of the secular opposition Republican People's Party, CHP, celebrate in central Istanbul, Sunday, June 23, 2019. In a blow to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Imamoglu declared victory in the Istanbul mayor's race for a second time Sunday after Binali Yildirim, the government-backed candidate conceded defeat in a high-stakes repeat election. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)