C&B Notes

Turkey Looks Ahead

It remains to be seen if this week’s resounding win by AKP’s opposition in Istanbul’s mayoral election is the beginning of a reversal of President Erdogan’s quasi-autocracy in which party, legislature, judiciary, and the media have become subordinate to the president.  The election results themselves, however, do provide some reassurance that Turkey’s democratic foundations persist in the form of fair and free elections.

For the tens of thousands who danced in the streets of Istanbul after Ekrem Imamoglu’s electoral victory, the triumph was about much more than the mayorship of Istanbul. “This is only a beginning,” they chanted. Mr Imamoglu has previously sought to bat away questions about his ambitions beyond the city he will now lead. But in his victory speech on Sunday night, he nodded to the broader consequences of his win against the party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, who has so often seemed unstoppable. “The winner of this election is not one person, one party, one group or one segment,” he told a room packed with TV cameras as the chants of euphoric supporters floated up from outside. “All of Istanbul and Turkey have won.”

Mr Erdogan has long warned his party that losing Istanbul means losing the country. Within hours, commentators across the political spectrum were looking beyond the task of governing the city to ask if the new mayor could challenge the president on the national stage. “The people have opened up a path for the opposition through local government,” wrote Abdulkadir Selvi, a columnist seen as close to Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP). “They have said to the AKP: ‘There is no longer no one but you. An alternative has been born’.” Mr Imamoglu’s win was especially resonant because it was his second in the same race in less than three months. He was forced to campaign again after winning a previous vote only to be stripped of his narrow victory following claims of fraud by Mr Erdogan’s party. In Sunday’s rerun he expanded his margin of victory.

Political commentators have been quick to point out how Mr Imamoglu’s story echoes Mr Erdogan’s path to power. The Turkish president built his own formidable political career on the back of election as mayor of Turkey’s biggest and most prosperous city 25 years ago. Back then, his Islamist and socially conservative party was the underdog, battling with a secularist military and judiciary that sought to block its progress at every turn. But eight years later, it defied the odds and swept to power on the back of an economic crisis in 2002. Mr Imamoglu’s triumph is partly the product of an effort by the fractured opposition to work together. A painful economic downturn that shattered the ruling party’s image as a guarantor of rising prosperity played a crucial role.

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