EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

It was a sight not often seen in Turkey in the past decades. On the night of June 23rd, streets of Istanbul were filled by tens of thousands of opposition supporters celebrating what could be a massive political victory. Ekrem İmamoğlu, candidate of Republic People’s Party (CHP), was to become city’s new mayor after receiving over 54% [1] of votes in a re-run of municipal elections for one of the most important political positions in the country, ending a 25-year rule of Justice and Development Party (AKP) over Turkey’s largest city, a city that in 1994 gave a rise to the figure of current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. [2]

Mr İmamoğlu, gaining the support of an alliance of CHP, Iyi Party and People’s Democratic Party (HDP) [3], became an instant threat to AKP’s candidate Binali Yıldırım, former prime minister and one of the closest people to president Erdoğan, for the position of Mayor of Istanbul. On 31st of March 2019, İmamoğlu eventually won the elections by a slight margin of 29.000 votes in a city with over 10 million voters, later recounted for the difference of 18.000 in favour of İmamoğlu. [4]

However, the results were annulled by Supreme Electoral Board on May 6th on the request of AKP leadership and president Erdoğan, who claimed that election results cannot be valid as some of the ballot box officers were not civil servants, a requirement by the electoral legislation. Yet, it was not explained how this irregularity affected the final results. Moreover, the Electoral Board revoked the results of the mayoral race, but it confirmed the results for other races cast in the same ballot as valid. [5] It was decided to re-run mayoral elections on June 23rd.

The decision of Electoral Board caused an outcry both domestically and internationally, as the European Union strongly criticised both the state of democracy in Turkey, which is already heavily undermined and the scope of power president Erdoğan has over the Electoral Board. Although AKP succeeded in its efforts to re-run the elections, it only strengthened the position of İmamoğlu as the general public was clearly unhappy with the Electoral Board’s reasons for the re-run. Throughout the next weeks, it was becoming clear that İmamoğlu would win again, and one could notice that also AKP started to prepare themselves for such a result by minimalizing the damages already made by causing a re-run.

Not only did Erdoğan distance himself from Yıldırım’s campaign, but AKP also, for the first time in 17 years, accepted a televised debate of candidates, an event people were calling for in recent years, an event Mr Erdoğan and his followers tactically avoided throughout the existence of AKP. Immediately after first votes were counted on June 23rd, Binali Yıldırım publicly accepted the defeat and congratulated Mr. İmamoğlu for becoming the new Mayor of Istanbul, with a statement that “elections are backbone of democracies”, without any signs of anger or disagreement, another unusual move from AKP leadership. As the official results were published a few hours later, Ekrem İmamoğlu won the race with 54.1% of votes, thus receiving over 800.000 votes more than on March 31st.

What were the reasons for İmamoğlu’s win? Turkish mayoral elections showed that democracy is still deeply rooted in people’s minds and that Erdoğan’s autocratic measures have in many places reached the ceiling of people’s tolerance, especially in larger cities, which are traditionally more secular and liberal. There is an ever-growing division of population caused by the government’s rule in the last two decades, which is best visible in the recent election result, as Istanbul, capital Ankara and CHP’s bastion Izmir, three largest cities in Turkey, all elected opposition candidates, while AKP maintained the offices in more conservative parts of country.

Another vocal point for support of opposition is worsening economic situation, a former pillar of Erdoğan’s political successes. Lastly, the election of İmamoğlu demonstrates growing support of CHP after the presidential race in 2018, in which their candidate Muharrem Ince, having only a few months for the campaign and very limited space in media coverage, managed to place himself as a serious threat to Erdoğan.

On one hand, victory in all major Turkish cities is a big boost for CHP as Istanbul itself contributes to more than a third of the Turkish economy and governing the city has enormous importance in domestic politics. Also, elections showed that Erdoğan’s tactics of verbal attacks are losing its efficiency, as Imamoglu, ever so calm, never reacted to the numerous accusations depicting him as an elitist and a supporter of terrorists and Greeks.

On the other hand, control over the country is still fully in hands of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, after the constitutional changes in 2018, has the power to replace İmamoğlu at any moment. Although such an action is highly unlikely, it only illustrates how powerful a position of president is. Therefore, in the short run, major changes in Turkish politics are not expected.

Still, İmamoğlu placed himself as a leading representative of the opposition, gaining a lot of support with his moderate approach, tranquillity and positiveness, all represented in his campaign slogan “Her şey çok güzel olacak” simply translated into “Everything’s going to be great”. As next elections in Turkey are only planned in four years, a resurgence of CHP does not need to cause a major headache to Erdoğan yet, but if İmamoğlu continues to add on his popularity in years to come, he will most surely be a serious competitor in the run for the presidency in 2023.

On that year people will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic, İmamoğlu could be seen as a person who has a capacity to direct Turkey back to the tracks of secular, democratic and modern state set by its founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Žiga Faktor



[1] Official results of Anadolu Agency
[2] In 1994-1998 Erdoğan was elected Mayor as a member of far-right Islamist Welfare party, later banned by the constitutional court which later led into the creation of AKP
[3] HDP only supported the Alliance of CHP and Iyi Party in Istanbul elections
[4] Official results of Anadolu Agency
[5] Turkish people were casting votes for Mayor of City/Province, Local government and District Mayors



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