Erdogan’s Latest Gamble Backfires in Istanbul Vote

The desperation to win Istanbul once again forced President Erdogan to embrace the imprisoned PKK leader to use his influence over Kurds. But it spectacularly backfired.

PKK’s founder and honorary leader Abdullah Ocalan (L) serves his life sentence in Imrali, a prison island in the Marmara Sea.

For months preceding the March 31 municipal elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his underlings ceaselessly accused the main opposition mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu of having ties to outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The affiliation charges were directed against the CHP candidate for just harboring positive feelings toward Selahattin Demirtas, the imprisoned former co-chair of pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP). In the eyes of the president and his ruling party, that was enough to label Imamoglu a “terrorist lover.”

Not long after that, and only several days before the critical re-run of the Istanbul vote this Sunday, the president came up with a move that apparently smacked of desperation. Desperate to win Istanbul amid poor poll results foretelling a possible defeat for a second time, President Erdogan summoned help from the most unlikely figure — jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan (APO) — to invoke his influence over Kurds in Istanbul vote. The pace of twists and turns in Erdogan’s discourse and politics baffled any casual observer, no less his secular opponents and nationalists.

But as odd figures coalesced around the shared goal of refurbishing the image of PKK chief as “a local and a national asset,” the question over the arbitrary definition to decide who is a terrorist and who is not is thrown into the heart of the national conversation.

Leading Islamist figure and a loyal Erdogan ally Abdurrahman Dilipak praised Ocalan as “someone who is from the family.” His portrayal of Ocalan as a loyal state agent seems to border on a bizarre conspiracy theory about the PKK founder’s alleged ties to the Turkish intelligence. But that theory, however implausible or far-fetched it may be, has long been peddled by journalists and scholars alike, with no clear-cut resolution of the surrounding mystery.

Homeland Party leader Dogu Perincek hailed Erdogan’s coddling of Ocalan as an “essential step to foil the U.S. move to promote Imamoglu” in Istanbul.

But the most bewildering of all APO love exhibitions came from an unlikely quarter and man— Nationalist Action Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli who built his entire political career on rousing anti-PKK sentiment and calling for the execution of the jailed leader of the outlawed militants. He long pressed for the reinstatement of the death penalty, especially against Ocalan. But nowhere in his political life, Bahceli exhibited such a turnaround from throwing ropes to enthusiastic crowds, something that became his rallying cry for hanging Ocalan, to defend the PKK founder against “perceived political deviations” by HDP disciples.

The anti-Imamoglu grand coalition unimaginably grew bigger as the election day approached. Around President Erdogan and his hand-picked candidate, former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, the most diverse set of figures coalesced. From secular ultra-nationalist Dogu Perincek to Erdogan’s chief fatwa provider Hayrettin Karaman, from nationalist politician Devlet Bahceli to separatist PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, from Cubbeli Ahmed Hoca, a controversial religious figure, to Metin Feyzioglu, they all endorsed Binali Yildirim for the sake of preserving Turkey’s national sovereignty against someone “groomed and nurtured by global forces.”

But Erdogan’s gamble spectacularly backfired on Sunday. Neither Kurds appeared to heed Ocalan’s call for remaining neutral in the mayoral election nor nationalists seemed to approve Bahceli’s embrace of Ocalan’s letter.

Ekrem Imamoglu, to the astonishment of observers and to the dismay of the president, won a landslide victory with 54 percent of the votes against Yildirim’s 45 percent. His triumph is read as a new chapter in Turkish politics. The president’s foray into election campaign last week did little to sway the voters in Istanbul.

Felt betrayed by the re-run of the election, people punished presidential interference at the ballot box and what they saw as the gross injustice against the CHP candidate. The president conceded the most decisive defeat of his political life with a message after the announcement of the unofficial result.

Everything will be fine” was the campaign message of Imamoglu after the annulment of March 31 elections and his deserved win in that contest. Instead of resignation or despair, he chose to instill a Stoic optimism to his disgruntled supporters. His constructive tone and efforts to build bridges across a wide segment of social groups handsomely paid off in the second vote.

The Imamoglu win was, beyond any doubt, a re-affirmation of Turkish people’s commitment to democracy, no matter how diverse political forces tried to manipulate and subvert it. It was a testament to the resilience of Turkey’s democracy despite all the setbacks and rollbacks of recent years. Although the Istanbul vote signifies a first, key step to restore some lost pillars of the country’s battered democracy, it is still too soon to conclude that everything is fine. There are innumerable challenges ahead to deal with.

The historic defeat unsurprisingly plunged the ruling party into disarray. The AKP suffered a big loss even in Istanbul’s Fatih district, which had been a stronghold for AKP and its predecessors for decades. It points to a growing, and politically dangerous, disconnect between the ruling party and its traditional base. For the party leadership, the loss of traditional strongholds must be a wake-up call if they really want to reckon with the ramifications of the do-over election.

The June 23 result, in this respect, prompted a belated but essential soul-searching over the causes of the debacle, with some devout foot soldiers of the president turning coats and shifting their allegiance.

The Sunday vote has, from a larger perspective, far-reaching implications for the reconfiguration of Turkey’s political complexion, probably at the expense of Erdogan and his party. Emboldened by Erdogan’s melting appeal among his loyal constituency, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and former Economy Minister Ali Babacan reportedly began to expedite their efforts to forge a new party in the center-right. Experts think that such a move would pose a monumental challenge against the embattled president as the AKP would suffer a possible breakaway by grudging and restive lawmakers to join the new party in order to salvage their declining political fortunes.

In this emerging political context, the Istanbul debacle, as Kadri Gursel and many others lucidly argued, appears to be beyond repair. It is no mere a simple defeat for the second time. It is certainly more than that, given the deep implications of losing Istanbul for Erdogan’s future.

Twenty-five years ago, winning Istanbul lifted Erdogan’s political prospects and served as a launchpad for his dramatic ascent in Turkey’s national politics. His imprudent handling of the municipal elections on two occasions this spring carries the seeds of his political undoing. And how that possibility would materialize is bound up by the intricacies of Turkey’s ever-evolving domestic politics and the tangled web of forces at play such as a flagging economy and impending crises in Turkish foreign policy.

As Erdogan seems to irrevocably lose his touch with reality and his political acumen, more self-defeating and self-made mistakes loom large on the horizon, with potentially devastating consequences for his political future.

New York-based writer. Politics, culture, literary criticism, art, and technology. American political affairs, Turkey, MidEast, and beyond. Twitter: @abyasun

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