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Istanbul election a final test for Turkish democracy

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A new election has been set for 23 June in which Ekrem Imamoğlu plans to run again (Screenshot via YouTube)

This weekend will see another test for Turkey’s beleaguered democracy, writes Carey Robinson.

TWO WEEKS AFTER the Istanbul election on 31 March, incumbent mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu toured the city to thank the citizens for his narrow victory. It was an act of cheerful defiance from the underdog candidate of the national opposition party. Immediately after the election, President Erdoğan’s ruling AK Party had appealed the result, claiming evidence of voter fraud and official misconduct.

With the election authority conducting a review, Imamoğlu nonetheless took office and began work. As he waved out of the window of his campaign bus on the mid-April evening, a teenage boy stepped forward.

“Ekrem!” He called. “Her şey çok güzel olacak! (Everything will be alright.)”

The simple reassurance perfectly captures the spirt of the man who had been almost unheard of in Turkish politics. Up against the full might of the AK Party, Imamoğlu’s campaign emphasised respect and goodwill to all.

Taking frequently to the streets, he engaged with everyone, regardless of their political affiliation. When an AK party supporter refused to shake his hand in the Grand Bazaar, he offered him a hug instead.

He said:

“I don’t believe the public accepts divisive rhetoric and discriminatory policies. Populism has the upper hand in the world at the moment, but it will end eventually, treating people with respect always wins out.”

The calm, smiling demeanour of the bespectacled 49-year-old has been a welcome antidote to the increasingly divisive atmosphere of Turkish politics. It stands in stark contrast to the bluster of the President, whose 15-year grip on power has more recently become a stranglehold.

In response to the 2016 coup attempt, President Erdoğan initiated a sweeping purge of the political and military institutions and a crackdown on opposition in the media and education system. Sweeping constitutional reforms granting him extraordinary powers were ratified in a controversial 2017 referendum riddled with irregularities. Despite opposition objections, no review or recount was conducted in that case.

Recent years have taken toll on the spirit of the Turkish people. Secular, liberal-minded society despairs at the course the country is taking. Not only domestically, but also internationally, where a more bellicose foreign policy has seen growing estrangement with the West. The result, many believe, of Erdoğan’s dreams of a resurrected Ottoman Empire.

The students at the English school in which I teach are acutely aware of the precarious state of their country, which is also experiencing an economic slump.

As explained by one of them:

“We have some big problems in our country, teacher. The prisons are full. Ten years ago, 20 years ago, they were not full. Now they are. Full with innocent people. With students, teachers and journalists. Something is wrong.”

With the national opposition in disarray and an increasingly polarised electorate, pessimism and disillusionment dominate. Every day, it seems to them, some worse omen appears. One Turkish friend recently told me she even feared the possibility of civil war.

Like the shadow of the moon eclipsing the sun, the rise of a potential dictatorship in the plain sight of day is unnerving, especially when it is met by such resignation by those who might oppose it. After years of political strife and economic pain, the Turkish people are simply exhausted.

One told me:

“We cannot be optimistic. It is too hard.”

In that atmosphere, the municipal elections which were held throughout the country seemed like the first ray of hope in years. Defeats in the capital, Ankara and Izmir, the country’s third-largest city, showed pushback against the Government. But with 20 per cent of the country’s population and 30 per cent of its GDP, Istanbul was the greatest prize to be snatched from AK Party’s grasp.

Despite only being local, the elections are nonetheless influential. The mayor of Istanbul directs significant public spending and makes appointments to the city’s bureaucracy. And that is to say nothing of the symbolic significance of Erdoğan losing his home city. He himself presided there as mayor from 1994 to 1999. Already, there is speculation as to what Imamoğlu’s victory might augur come the 2023 presidential race. “To win Istanbul is to win Turkey,” as the saying goes here.

With so much at stake, it came as little surprise that the electoral authority finally ruled on 6 May that the result would be cancelled and the election re-run. The night the announcement was made, my class was interrupted as everyone turned to read the news on their phones.

“Free country,” said one sarcastically, shaking his head. “It’s a free country.”

Many believed the fresh poll meant the AK Party would now simply steal the result.

“The Government uses its strength to overrule the election.” 

Imamoğlu’s response was to immediately relaunch his campaign with the same characteristically patient enthusiasm. This time, though, he had a brand new slogan: “Her şey çok güzel olacak”. Everything will be alright.

With the vote to take place this Sunday 23 June, many Turks are wondering whether they can allow themselves the possibility of that hope, or whether they will witness another nail in the coffin of Turkish democracy.

Carey Robinson is a writer currently living in Turkey.

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