Istanbul elections major blow to Erdoğan

Esen Uslu.

The results of the March 30 local elections across Turkey were a blow to the ruling coalition of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). But president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suffered a second blow on June 23, when Ekrem İmamoğlu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) was (re)elected mayor of Istanbul.

Four years ago the AKP-MHP coalition was able to win a slim majority at the national level in the November 2015 elections, but the local elections this year provided the most visible proof that a lot of water had passed under the bridge since then. The coalition was not able to get a majority, and it opted for that tried and tested way of overturning the results, claiming that, especially in Istanbul, the voting had been rigged. Erdoğan pressurised the supreme electoral council, dragging out the process as long as he could in the hope that a decision to overturn the election results would not meet with a serious challenge.

AKP claimed that some of the returned ballot papers had been “irregular” and there were also “non-civil servant” members on some local electoral committees. So a repeat election was organised for June 23. The opposition was quite ready to give an answer. Without dwelling on the claims of irregularity or the blatant illegality of the decision, İmamoğlu declared that the opposition would win again – and win more decisively this time.

The gross injustice was felt deeply. Even some supporters of AKP said that the decision was an affront to the people who had just given their mandate. But clearly Erdoğan was hoping that the urban supporters of CHP would go off to various coastal towns for their long summer holidays after the schools closed in mid-June, and thus be unable to vote. But this unspoken hope proved illusory. Despite considerable expense and inconvenience, thousands returned for a couple of days to Istanbul. Incredibly the previous 85% turnout actually increased.

CHP, together with its alliance partner, the Good Party (İP), had the support of the Felicity Party (SP) in the March elections. The AKP-MHP coalition tried to use the fact that the AKP and SP emerged from the same party, where in the past they had had an acrimonious relationship – their leaders had hurled all kind of insults at each other for years. But to no avail – the opposition parties knew they had Erdoğan on the ropes and the SP did not abandon its new alliance.

A large section of the urban middle class and working class – both suffering under the burden of the disastrous failure of AKP’s economic policy – adamantly refused the last-minute carrot chunks thrown in front of them just before the election in an attempt to lure them back into the AKP camp. The reduced petrol prices, the temporary lowering of the personal consumption tax, the increased limit for credit card purchases, etc were not effective this time. Everybody knew that after the elections there would be a new wave of price hikes.

As for the leftwing, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), it stuck to its plan of giving tactical support to the CHP-İP coalition, despite its overwhelmingly militarist and nationalist rhetoric. They maintained that a third way was required to build support for democracy, and that voting for the CHP-İP alliance in this election was only negative support – it was actually a vote against Erdoğan and AKP.

The AKP-MHP coalition was getting more and more desperate, as the election day approached. It brought religious leaders of various Islamist jamaats (religious orders) to Istanbul in a desperate attempt to influence the voting of members of the Kurdish community. That did not work very well, since the majority of those prepared to follow HDP’s advice and back CHP are secular.

The AKP-MHP coalition then pulled another card from up its sleeve. It invited Nechirvan Barzani, the new president of the Kurdish region of Iraq and the scion of the influential Barzan tribe, for talks with Erdoğan just before the elections – another opportunity for, in particular, TV and social media propaganda. However, while Barzani enjoys a substantial following in south-eastern Turkey, his ability to sway Kurdish voters in Istanbul was rather more limited.

Then came the coup de grâce: the state lifted the eight-year ban on Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), receiving any visits in jail, even from his lawyers. Now they were allowed to see him and were ready to relay his message. However, the lawyers did not publicise it in full, passing it on instead to the HDP leadership, in line with normal procedure. Clearly, the AKP-MHP coalition was apprehensive – it seemed that HDP was intent on holding on to the message until after the election.

At this point AKP did something unprecedented by sending an academician to visit the prison on the island of İmralı to conduct his own interview with Öcalan. On his return, he declared that Öcalan was asking HDP to remain neutral in the elections – which was why HDP had released the message. The leadership disregarded his advice and was adamant that Kurds should vote for the CHP-İP coalition.

Öcalan’s lawyers and HDP then publicised his message. It was quite skilfully written in ambiguous terms, emphasising the importance of neutrality toward both coalitions in order to build a third way, a democratic front. It also stressed that the party should independently decide its course of action.

Pro-AKP/MHP commentators started a campaign, claiming that Öcalan was advising HDP not to vote for the CHP-İP coalition, and that HDP was thwarting his wishes. One former leading figure in MHP mocked HDP for not following the advice of its “chief terrorist”, which only proved its own “terrorist treason to the Kurdish people”. This was quirky logic, whose conveyor was in turn mocked as an out-of-touch old man. The move backfired badly. The MHP rank and file was furious that the party leadership thought it needed the support of Öcalan to win the election. Many of the AKP’s religious conservative voters distanced themselves from such an obvious ploy.

The polls conducted in the last week of the election campaign indicated that there would be 8%-10% between the two coalitions in favour of the CHP-İP candidate. The last-minute moves I have described were not sufficient to stop such a surge and the result proved that the polls had been correct. There was a nine-point difference and İmamoğlu was elected with 55% of the vote.

The AKP-MHP camp, having already been licking its wounds, decided to accept the result straightaway. The CHP heartlands in Istanbul were celebrating and the result was a major blow to the AKP, as well as its coalition. Speculation about substantive changes within the party have intensified, and the moves that were going on behind the scenes to prepare for a new party to emerge from the AKP seem to be gaining momentum. An early general election as soon as this autumn cannot be ruled out.

As for the new mayor, his hands are tied, since the municipal council he heads is made up of representatives from local counties, most of which are run by the AKP-MHP coalition. They will certainly try to stop any vote-winning initiative from İmamoğlu. And, as the local tax revenue, finance and credit are all controlled by the central government, there is very limited scope for independent action.

Despite all the lip service paid to ‘democracy’, neither CHP nor the twice elected mayor has any real democratic instinct. During the campaign many issues were raised, but İmamoğlu never challenged the system of governors: that is, representatives of the central state appointed by the president having more power than the elected mayor. He never openly asked for HDP support, knowing that he would receive it anyway and that making such an appeal would make him seem vulnerable among his own party supporters.

So a campaign that did not rock many boats was sufficient for him to garner the support of the dissatisfied. But exactly what he will be able to do remains a mystery. If you are gullible, perhaps you might believe his slogan: “Everything will be just fine!” However, if you do not swallow that, you will know that the task now is to prepare for the expected upsurge in the class struggle.

Photo: Ekrem İmamoğlu: second victory.

Posted on Weekly Worker 27th June 2019.

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