Despite state-sponsored and private efforts to influence the outcome of Turkey’s mayoral elections on March 31 either directly or indirectly, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered major losses. Of particular note is the mayoral election in Istanbul where AKP member and former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim lost to Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, someone who was not especially popular or well-known. He resembles the last person, who effectively challenged the AKP in general election: Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic co-leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who has been jailed since 2016.
The outcome of the mayoral election in Istanbul reflects poorly on the president’s ability to ensure that a member of his own party remains in power in the city where Erdogan himself was elected as mayor in 1994, although with the lowest percentage(25.19%) in Istanbul election history. Since then, Erdogan has not lost even one election—be it for mayor or some other political position—despite widespread claims of corruption involving Erdogan and the AKP.
Imamoglu prevailed in the election against his AKP opponent because he was seen by many diverse people as the antithesis of Erdogan and the AKP. Istanbul voters apparently saw Imamoglu as a champion of their desire for a peaceful country and someone who could stop the ruling party’s pervasive hateful and divisive discourse and policies, its human rights violations, and its embrace of kleptocracy and kakistocracy, at least in Istanbul. Erdogan, of course, was not happy with Imamoglu’s popularity and acted as if he, too, was running against Imamoglu. Erdogan wanted his close companion, Yildirim, to win the mayoral election and resorted his usual strategy of declaring his critics terrorists. Through state-controlled media, Erdogan implied that anyone voted for his candidate, Yildirim, was voting in support of Turkey and that anyone who voted for Yildirim’s opponent, Imamoglu, supported terrorists and were enemies of state. Yildirim’s (and by extension Erdogan’s) campaign slogan was “the survival of Turkey.”The message was that for Turkey to continue to exist, the residents of Istanbul should support the ruling party, the AKP. In other words, if the ruling party is defeated, Turkey will no longer exist. The campaign slogan and the policies of the AKP received consistent support from the leader of the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli. The efforts of Erdogan and Bahceli, however, failed miserably. The winner on March 31 was Mr. Imamoglu, leaving Erdogan and Bahceli shocked at the outcome.
The election defeat was not something that Erdogan could swallow, and he made his displeasure known. The Supreme Election Council (YSK) subsequently ruled that the mayoral election in Istanbul would be repeated on June 23. Erdogan realized that his strategy did not work this time. He also realized the importance of Kurdish voters in Turkey and that these Kurdish citizens would be the ones to determine the winner of the mayoral election in Istanbul.
Armed with these insights, Erdogan changed his campaign strategy to one that was built on gaining the votes of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens. Gone from the playbook was ethnic discrimination and the indiscriminate labeling of opponents of the ruling party as terrorists. The strategy, however, would be an uphill battle. Turkey’s Kurdish citizens have not forgotten the government’s harsh policies in the name of fighting terrorism, such as destroying houses in several Kurdish populated cities in the southeastern region of Turkey. When he developed his new campaign strategy, Erdogan most likely underestimate the power of the Kurdish vote. As the jailed HDP co-leader Demirtas warned, “Those who see Kurds as ‘simpletons who are very easy to deceive’ have always been mistaken, they will continue being mistaken.” He encouraged Kurdish citizens to go to the ballot boxes to say no to fascism and to defend their rights. In other words, Demirtas was implying that the Kurdish population should vote but not to support the AKP, as the AKP is fascist.
Discourse on the issues occurred for the first time. For example, Yildirim used the word Kurdistan during one of his political rallies. Just before the March 31 election, however, Erdogan said, “In my country, there is no region called Kurdistan.” In another example, the leader of the MHP, Bahceli, referred to the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as Ocalan. Bahceli previously had avoided calling the PKK leader by name, referring to him instead as “the chief of terrorists.”
At the same time, the leader of PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, countered Demirtas’ plea for Kurdish voters to vote in the mayoral election but not for the AKP, making an announcement through state news agency, Anadolu Agency(AA) in which he called on Turkey’s most influential pro-Kurdish party, the HDP, to remain neutral and not support either candidate in the Istanbul election rerun on June 23. Meanwhile, Osman Ocalan, the PKK leader’s brother, appeared on the state-run television network TRT Kurdi for an interview in which he supported his brother’s message and criticized the CHP and its candidate.
The outcome of the election on June 23 most likely will be the same as it was on March 31. The Kurds, whose houses and neighborhoods have been destroyed by the security forces in the name of counterterrorism policies have not forgotten what happened at the hands of the ruling AKP. They also have not forgotten the Kobani incidents, where Kurds were left to die in front of ISIS. Further, some righteous citizens who have observed the victimization of hundreds of thousands of individuals and families, regardless of their ethnicity or color, by government decrees, will also not support Erdogan’s candidate for mayor of Istanbul. They will choose the opposition candidate because they long for an end to the Erdogan regime’s constitutional and human rights violations (Human Rights Watch, 2019; UN Report, 2018) in response to Kurds who dare to disagree with the ruling party.Istanbul’s Kurdish voters will not forget Erdogan’s disdain for the Kurds. The Kurds know that Kurds,too, are human. They will not forget Erdogan’s overly political and pragmatist approach to human beings. Yesterday’s terrorist is today’s human, or vice versa, depending on the vote the ruling party needs.
If the Erdogan-supported candidate is again defeated, it is highly likely that the Istanbul mayoral election rerun will be a turning point for Turkish democracy—a turning back to Turkish democracy.
*Yusuf Gunay, Security Expert & Analyst, Cleveland, Ohio, US