A Challenging Path Ahead For Istanbul’s New Mayor

In his first days as mayor of Turkey’s largest city, Ekrem Imamoglu chaired a hostile city council, faced disobedience from AK Party holdovers and found a predator media against him.

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After more than two weeks of political wrangling, Ekrem Imamoglu last week received his official mandate to govern Turkey’s largest city, ending the 25-year rule of the city by mayors from Islamist-originated parties. This came after people grew disgruntled by the endless vote recount and political shenanigans of the ruling party amid a government push for a renewal of the election. For Imamoglu, getting mandate became as challenging and excruciating as winning the election itself.

His challenges, however, far from over. He started the week by chairing a city council meeting on Monday. Some AK Party members failed to mask their contempt of the new mayor, while the party had already displayed an eagerness to embroil in turf wars over the affairs of the council.

Separately, as the new mayor is presiding over a transition period in the metropolitan municipality, some holdovers from the ruling AK Party era appear to be in rebellion on social media. Some workers even went far to insult the new mayor on social media, only to withdraw their inflammatory tweets in a bid to avoid disciplinary action and even possible sacking.

The path to glory, for the new mayor, will not be without challenges, if the post-election period indicated anything.

Imamoglu’s Path to Victory: Weeks of Political Drama and Fuss

Following tremendous setbacks of the recent years, the faith in the elections, the last vestige of a fraying democracy, was in short supply before March 31. The elections since 2015 were neither free nor fair. Despite all the gloom and doom, the March 31 elections revived hopes in the Turkish voters’ deep-seated commitment to the mechanism of democracy, leading to many commentators at home and abroad that there is still hope in Turkey. The country, many contended, was not a dictatorship, at least not yet.

But the august sense of optimism on the night of the election day proved to be short-lived and misplaced for the following two weeks. President Erdogan’s refusal to recognize the outcome in Istanbul risked undoing the hard-won gains of democratic elections since 1950 when Turkey moved to the multi-party era with Democrat Party’s (DP) defeat of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Grand Old Party of Turkey that had ruled the country since 1923. Since the transition to the multi-party era, Turkey has undergone elections, though not in perfect fashion, without political interference.

The president’s push for a re-run of the election in Istanbul would have been a grotesque betrayal of that political tradition, which survived military interventions and court meddling in some cases. Over the past weeks, the whole country has been consumed by the never-ending vote recount in Istanbul amid not-so-subtle power politics and tug of war between the president’s party and the election authority behind doors. The drama is, finally, over.

Visiting city election council in the city’s main courthouse on Wednesday last week, Ekrem Imamoglu obtained his mandate to rule Turkey’s largest city, ending the saga that came closer to eradicate whatever faith remained in democratic politics. At some point, the mandate became something of a holy grail, as distant and unattainable as someone could imagine given the challenge posed by the president, leaving Imamoglu’s victory almost in a state of limbo. While the post-election drama seemed to come to a conclusion on Wednesday, another chapter in the political suspense is opened after the MHP’s appeal and only God knows how that saga would end.

Imamoglu’s acquisition of the mandate was even reported by the state-run Anadolu news agency whose clumsy and flawed reporting during the election night spurred backlash from the opposition.

“Greeks, Armenians, Jews, I salute you all,” the new mayor said in his first speech. He urged Istanbulites to leave behind the rancor of the past weeks.

He vowed to be the mayor of all residents without discrimination and pledged to end providing special service to particular groups, religious orders, or a single personality. In this statement, a subtle message was contained: The previous AKP mayor’s perceived affiliation and cooperation with Erdogan-linked foundation and associations.

Before Imamoglu, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, which had over 42 billion TL annual budget, was at the center of public controversy over providing generous largesse to foundations run by Bilal Erdogan, the president’s son. Even before getting his mandate, Imamoglu signaled the end of that era and promised to channelize all funds to serve residents and rebuild the city in an environment-friendly fashion.

Ekrem Imamoglu’s election as mayor spells the end of the 25-year rule of Istanbul by Islamist parties. The ramifications of his upset victory go far beyond the usual meaning accrued to local municipal elections. As scholars or observers agreed, Istanbul, the city which paved the way for Erdogan’s rise on the political scene, may very well be his undoing this time. The dearth of alternative politicians who could stand up against the Turkish strongman led to a complacent view of politics, something as mundane, dull and impervious to radical change. But suddenly, the sense of resignation over Erdogan’s unchallenged, firm grip on power gave way to a reinvigorated and spirited opposition who regained its confidence from an unlikely place and unlikely figure with the belief that Erdogan is no longer invincible and he could very well be defeated in next national elections.

In Turkey’s politics, public perception and psychology deeply matter. Erdogan has lost the aura of his invincibility and he knows it. The foot-dragging after the vote in Istanbul was a testament to his acknowledgment of what losing Turkey’s biggest city would portend for the future of his party and his own political career. It would hardly be a surprise if the president tries to limit new Istanbul mayor’s room for maneuvering. He already hinted that the new mayor could not shape the city’s budget on his own given the delicate balance in the distribution of members in the city council between Erdogan’s party and the opposition CHP. To the president, Imamoglu’s narrow lead does not grant him the right to do whatever he wants in matters concerning the city’s budget. How the power struggle between Turkey’s president and the new Istanbul mayor would unfold remains to be seen in the months to come.

The trauma of the loss was hardly obscure; it was palpable in every statement and action of the senior party leaders of the AKP. Take AKP Deputy Chairman Ali Ihsan Yavuz. After weeks of efforts to discredit the opposition victory, he did not shy away from peddling the most bizarre conspiracy theories to explain Imamoglu’s win. His off-script remark that the vote recount would continue until the 19,000 vote gap between Imamoglu and Yildirim is leveled laid bare the government’s intention to sway the result in the recount process. But the vigilance and well-preparedness of the CHP this time did not allow any engineering during the vote recount.

Yavuz ascribed the blame on purge victims and argued that those public workers who were dismissed by the government with emergency rule decrees should not be able to vote in elections. Whatever the government did after the election, it only produced self-abasement and self-defeating indulgences that only revealed the depth of the ruling party’s despair and helplessness.

We’re the custodians of 16 million people. We will solve the problems of the city together,” the new mayor said, according to Al-Monitor. He boasted that they did not allow cheating during appeals and recounts.

Imamoglu’s victory was more about the failures and strategic blunders of Erdogan’s party than about his own political story. It would not be imprudent to say that Erdogan’s party, his candidate and the AKP’s vision lost more than Imamoglu won the election. The vote, as the majority of the pundits agree, was a referendum on Erdogan’s personal rule since the transition to the executive presidency last year. His fearmongering, his depiction of the municipal vote as a matter of national liberation and independence war against dark global powers, the pro-government media’s portrayal of opposition candidates as terrorists appear to have backfired terribly. The voters did not buy such a toxic discourse and registered their disapproval at the ballot box.

No less significant was the fact that Kurds, though suffered a series of setbacks in their strongholds in southeastern Turkey, became the kingmakers in Istanbul and Ankara to sway the election in favor of the opposition.

From 1994 to Today

It was in the 1994 municipal elections that Turkey came to know a young, idealist politician who was just elected Istanbul mayor: Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The local elections opened the way for the rise of Islamist Welfare (Refah) Party, unsettling Turkey’s political landscape as never before. The Welfare Party and later the AKP extended their hold on cities and used their local government experience as a launchpad to climb up the political ladder. The Welfare Party’s successful management under Erdogan’s mayoralty won the hearts and approval of Istanbul residents who constitute the largest voting block in the country and whose political choices reflect the general tendencies. The prize was finishing the 1995 parliamentary elections in the first place, therefore acquiring the mandate to forge a coalition government with the other center-right True Path (Dogruyol) Party. Although it lasted short due to an infamous military intervention in 1997, the Welfare’s experience was not lost on the next generation of senior party leaders. They, to their credit, untangled the secrets of acquiring the power in Ankara to run the country.

Since its inception in 2001, the AKP accorded as much importance to local polls as it gave to parliamentary elections. Drawing on experiences of Welfare Party and Felicity (Fazilet) Party, the AKP mastered its skills in local management and turned into a feat of remarkable success in enabling and advancing city economies. Nobody can deny the fact that it was Mayor Erdogan who brought drinkable water to Turkey’s largest city in 1994 when Istanbul suffered dismal infrastructure and the lack of clean water. It was a source of embarrassment for a city heavily dependent on income from tourism and a major hub of social and economic activities.

The previous city administration from the Motherland Party (Anavatan) was steeped in corruption and marred by hollow management. Quite naturally, the party was discredited by the public for Mayor Bedrettin Dalan’s aloof manners in the face of Istanbulites’ sufferings. Erdogan pulled off a much-needed success by fixing the city’s broken pipelines and water infrastructure. The prize was political approval of the people for his performance at the office. Repairing a broken water system might have been a minor, small piece in national politics or in the modern history of Turkey. But that episode loomed large in the imagination of people who measured/regarded the issue from the prism of delivering a good to people and from the view of efficiency and immediacy, traits that deservedly characterized Erdogan’s leadership style. Erdogan emerged as a doer and he delivered when people needed, and when all other politicians failed. And Erdogan’s party extended its control of principalities and city councils across much of the country in the subsequent local polls. The undeniable increase of the quality in delivering services to people, reshaping the urban landscape of many cities, sometimes to the objection and dismay of the locals as it happened in Istanbul during Gezi Park protests in 2013, were the major tenets of the AKP rule at the local level.

As AKP formed a single-party government and ruled the country uninterruptedly until June 2015 elections, it used principalities and the government in Ankara as two complementary elements of a single political reality. Both at the national and local level, the ruling AKP’s grip over politics only expanded. Except for the Kurdish-run municipalities in the East, and several major cities by secular CHP, the local government had become a major domain where AKP created and reinvented itself as a political and social force that reshaped cities. The AKP government largely extended its largesse to its municipalities and Erdogan himself directly took part in policies of city administrations of Istanbul and many other cities ran by AKP mayors.

Turning Point

Until the outbreak of the corruption scandal on Dec. 17, 2013, local governance was viewed to be an area of success for Erdogan and his party. But when the scale and size of corruption became a matter of public knowledge, the benign view of the AKP’s local rule came to an abrupt end.

The municipal management and affairs were no longer seen as free of the intricate web of relations of party interests and corrupted personalities who stood in the crosscurrents of politics.

The 2014 local polls was a referendum on the ruling party and then-Prime Minister Erdogan whose very own political career was on the chopping block if results would go astray. Erdogan depicted the polls as a life-and-death issue and portrayed it as a second Liberation War for the country against dark, non-elected forces who were bent to unseat him via judicial engineering. For the local voters, the vote was unmoored from its original meaning, took a completely new meaning of its own. People in Istanbul did not just elect a mayor. They gave their endorsement of Erdogan against corruption charges. The corruption was viewed as an issue of second-order importance. Erdogan, through wit and political acumen, won the first major battle of his life. He then went on a winning streak.

Erdogan ran a replica of the 2014 campaign, but this time global forces replaced “parallel state” as the bogeyman to hit on a daily basis. But while his fear-driven campaign seemed to convince his most loyal base in 2014, this time it appeared not enough to win Istanbul.

Written by

Virginia-based journalist and writer. Politics, culture, art, and technology. American political affairs, Turkey, the MidEast, and beyond. Twitter: @abyasun

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