The recent crushing defeat of Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s chosen candidate for mayor of Istanbul – the country’s largest city and centre of economic activity – demonstrated much more than the skill of a young, dynamic opponent with a clear message. The defeat revealed wide cracks in the dogmatic, resentful, autocratic veneer that Erdoğan had drawn over the country – cracks that will be almost impossible for him to repair.
Another key message of this election – and why it heralds deep changes in Turkey – is that the slow, sometimes painfully slow, evolution of democracy is much longer lasting than the previous quick fixes of military coups that only made things worse in the long run by papering over rather than solving sharp divisions. Yet another message is that the term ‘Islamic democracy’ is not a complete oxymoron. When given the chance people in countries with an overwhelmingly Moslem population can indeed vote for positive change.
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From the time he first became mayor of Istanbul in 1994, then prime minister, then president with unchecked powers Erdoğan has feasted on the ‘we-vs.-them’ theme where the ‘we’ were the struggling masses of Anatolia and the ‘them’ were the so-called ‘White Turks’ of the traditional political, military, and economic elite. The message only got stronger when the bulk of rural Anatolia emigrated into Turkey’s booming cities. Erdoğan’s message of how the social, religious and economic concerns of the masses were ignored by the White Turks resonated loudly. The sad thing is that he was not completely wrong.
Rainer Hermann, Middle East editor for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, lived for almost 20 years in Turkey and the Gulf and is one of the most astute analysts of the region. He has travelled widely throughout Turkey and spent many days in the burgeoning suburbs of Istanbul observing how they have changed over the last 15 – 20 years. The festering slums have been replaced by apartment blocks, water systems, roads, public transit, and schools. ‘What Erdoğan failed to notice were the social, political and economic changes in the third and fourth generation of Anatolian immigrants into Turkey’s cities. Now almost 80% of the Turkish population now lives in the country’s 30 largest cities. By this time, they are thoroughly urbanized and their expectations are similar to many young people throughout Europe. In short, the ‘we’ he used to rely on has become the ‘them’.’
With this background it is easier to see how Erdoğan’s proxy candidate in Istanbul, the old faithful Binali Yildirm, had very little chance against the much younger and energetic Ekrem Imamoğlu who had previously been the mayor of one of the city’s several sub-districts. Yildirm sang the same old song, but this time the chorus was not with him.
Another very good analyst of Turkish affairs, Kadri Gursel, noted that the Istanbul election amounts to a ‘political earthquake. The June 23 result is nothing less than a tectonic shift in Turkish politics, the impact of which was felt in all of Istanbul’s districts.’ He went on to say that Erdoğan ‘could well lose Turkey down the road because any political change in Istanbul reflects on the whole country sooner or later. A megapolis of 16 million people, Istanbul is a role model emulated by the rest of the country. It is a trendsetter in almost everything, from lifestyles and consumption habits to sports, culture and arts. And any trend that Istanbul does not adopt remains local, failing to spread across the country. This goes for political trends as well. One cannot win over Turkey without winning over Istanbul.’
This defeat could also have a serious impact on Turkey’s foreign relations. It is one thing to punch above your weight and use the bellicose language of a neighbourhood bully when supported by the full-throated roar of 80 million people. It is quite another to act that way when the economy is in free-fall and that ‘full-throated roar’ has diminished to a whimper. A weakened domestic position will very quickly result in a weakened international position. Very few leaders will be willing to pay attention to or do any favours for someone they may start to see as a lame duck.
This development couldn’t have come at a worse time for Erdoğan who is facing problems and increased isolation on multiple fronts – Syria, the Kurds, Iraq, the US, the European Union, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, Cyprus, Greece, Russia – just to name a few. Take the Russian S-400 missiles for example. He is damned if he takes them and damned if he doesn’t. The American Congress has threatened serious economic sanctions – such as excluding Turkey from the advanced fighter jet F-35 program – if Turkey carries through with its purchase of the Russian missiles. Erdoğan is desperately lobbying President Trump to overrule the proposed sanctions, but Trump would have a great of difficulty in doing that because the sanctions were approved unanimously in the famously partisan Congress. Turkey has very few friends in Washington these days. If he doesn’t take the Russian missiles who knows how Russian President Putin will react. Not calmly one suspects.
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The next step in this rapidly unfolding drama is the much-talked-about creation of a new political party led by former stalwarts of previous AKP governments. Erdoğan could be in a very difficult position if they succeed in forming such a party and peeling away significant numbers of AKP members of parliament. Then he could find himself as isolated domestically as he is on the international front. If that happens his days as an autocratic one-man ruler could be over.