Election re-run results in blow to Turkey's ruling AKP.

Author: Justin Keay
Ekrem İmamoğlu

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who started his political ascent in the 1990s as mayor of Istanbul, once suggested that whoever controls Turkey’s biggest city, in effect, controls Turkey. In an attempt to maintain the hold his Justice and Development Party (AKP) had on the metropolis, he pushed the High Electoral Council to order a rerun of March’s mayoral election on June 23.

It didn’t work out as planned. Opposition Republican People’s Party candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu transformed his previous whisker-thin victory into a margin of about 800,000, securing some 54% of the vote against his AKP opponent, former premier Binali Yıldırım, on a vast turnout of almost 85% of the electorate.

“İmamoğlu didn’t win the election as much as Erdoğan lost it,” argues Fadi Hakura, senior Turkey analyst at London’s Chatham House. “People are fed up with the AKP’s arrogance and handling of the economy. Any further deterioration will further weaken his grip on power.”

Erdoğan appears to have underestimated İmamoğlu, a 49-year-old from Akçaabat on Turkey’s Black Sea coast who worked in his family’s construction business before entering politics. As a mayoral candidate, he held together a coalition of opposition parties, including Kurdish groups, and even won over some AKP voters with his soft-spoken manner and appeals to decency. He projects commitment to improving conditions for Istanbul residents. “İmamoğlu is basically a social democrat who is comfortable with religion, takes a liberal approach to secularism and wants an inclusive approach to government,” Hakura says.

What will Erdoğan do now? He could try to make İmamoğlu’s new job difficult. He could try to restrict İmamoğlu’s budget, preventing policies that would bolster the new mayor’s popularity and make him a potential rival. But Erdoğan will have to tread carefully, Hakura contends.

“Any perception that Ankara is trying to constrain İmamoğlu will backfire, because he will be seen as a victim who was just trying to improve life for the people of Istanbul,” he says.

In the meantime, Turkey’s divided opposition can contemplate the possibility that İmamoğlu’s rise marks the beginning of Erdoğan’s fall.