Thursday, June 27, 2019

Erdogan Just Suffered a Humiliating Defeat. And Thanks to Istanbul, Turkey’s Democracy Just Won a Famous Victory*

Haaretz: "Denied his first victory in Istanbul’s mayoral elections on dubious grounds, Imamoglu has now won by a far larger margin of victory. He’s humbled Erdogan big time – and offered new hope for Turkey’s embattled democrats."

ISTANBUL - “You protected the reputation of Turkish democracy in front of the whole world. You protected our tradition of democracy, one that has existed for more than a hundred years.” Ekrem Imamoglu addressing Istanbul voters in his victory speech on 23 June 2019
The verdict is in: anti-Erdogan candidate Ekrem Imamoglu has won again – and this time round, he’s done it big time.
His opponent, the AKP’s Binali Yildirim conceded defeat just two hours after polling stations closed. With 99.2% of the vote in, Imamoglu has a nine-point lead over Yildirim – a margin of victory of 800,000 votes.
His first victory in Istanbul’s mayoral election on March 31 was extremely narrow: he won by only 18,000 votes - and less than two weeks after taking office, his election was cancelled on dubious technical grounds.
Ekrem Imamoglu celebrates victory over Erdogan's candidate, June 23, 2019
Onur Gunay,AP
This massive victory for the CHP’s Imamoglu, who’s now beaten the candidate of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erodgan for the second time, is a humiliating blow to Erdogan and his AKP ruling party.  
As news came in of the massive victory, residents of Istanbul took to the streets celebrating, with people cheering from their balconies. The quick defeat of Imamoglu’s competitor even took them by surprise.

The noise and excitement was a celebration of the result - but even more so, a collective sigh of relief that the democratic process had been allowed to take its course despite months of attempts by the state to undermine Imamoglu, who had already won these exact elections fair and square, was legitimized by popular mandate, and had even taken up office - only for Turkey’s ruling party to refuse to concede defeat.
However, if the calculation was that the much older Binali Yildirim - a party functionaire and an Erdogan yes man - could transform his last defeat into a victory, they made a colossal mistake
An election banner with the pictures of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and AK Party mayoral candidate Binali Yildirim is seen over the Galata bridge in Istanbul, Turkey, May 7, 2019.
\ Murad Sezer/ REUTERS
Imamoglu’s message of hope, and his ability to capture the hearts of minds of not just of loyal CHP secular voters, but also the votes of his right-wing alliance IYI party, a growing number of disaffected AKP voters, and not least voters for the mostly Kurdish HDP, stood firm in the face of the AKP’s campaign of slurs against him.
That broad coalition, no matter how temporary, let to some strange, even perplexing sights, where staunch secularists shouting, “We are all soldiers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk,” founder of the secular Turkish Republic, next to conservative women covered by headscarves, joined together with Kurds waving the HDP flag.
What was at stake here was much more than a rerun election. It was a referendum on Erdogan’s performance and governance, and the voters’ message is clear: the majority of Istanbul, a metropolis of over 15 million people, with its residents representing every corner of the country’s very diverse population, have become tired of a state that increasingly out of touch with its population and its needs.

While the ailing economy is certainly a major factor in their disappointment, it also emerges from a growing frustration that government appointments are no longer based on merit, but merely on one’s allegiance to the nation’s president. In addition to this, one cannot underestimate the anger among the electorate that Imamoglu’s first win was cancelled. This, for many regardless of party, was a blatant blow to Turkey’s democracy.  
Imamoglu’s first election victory should have been accepted – even if not graciously - by the AKP as a sign of the growing dismay in Turkey, but Erdogan’s party’s actual behavior indicates their lack of political nous and strategy. They also misread that Imamoglu’s special message of hope and his promise to end cronyism within the billion-dollar budgeted municipality, which also appealed to conservative sectors within the society.
Posters featuring Ekrem Imamoglu ahead of the repeat mayoral race in Istanbul.
Esther Solomon
Imamoglu understood clearly that in order to cash in on the population’s disillusionment with Erdogan, he needed to take a bold strategic step: to break out of the CHP’s base and to extend his reach to those voters - until now - sympathetic to the AKP.
In place of mass rallies held in CHP strongholds he went neighborhood by neighborhood on his bus, setting up afternoon and evening rallies every single day. At these rallies, there were a diverse span of demographic groups, many of whom were not natural CHP voters at all, but who had made the crucial pragmatic decision to maximize the opposition vote by unifying around Imamoglu. 
Even marriages of convenience can produce happy endings.
Certainly, today’s victory is a watershed moment in Turkish history. But despite the jaunty optimism of Imamoglu’s campaign slogan, “Everything will be just fine,” even his most die-hard supporters know there’s a long road ahead.
This is one small step in a much longer path over the future of a country that is facing serious economic woes, and a general breakdown of the rule of law. A country that has elected and entitled its president with superpowers that remain without the limitations of checks-and-balances.
Turkey, June 23, 2019.
Louis Fishman
Imamoglu’s win now places him as a viable opponent to Erdogan who already has threatened that he would be ineligible to serve as mayor, citing an allegation that he had defamed a state governor by calling him a “dog,” a claim consistently denied by Imamoglu. But in the very recent past, Erdogan has used his presidential powers to replace substantial number of popularly and legally elected mayors with his own handpicked officials.
But for now, Ekrem Imamoglu deserves his share of the limelight and popular acclamation. He has done what many deemed impossible. Like Erdogan who started his career as Istanbul’s mayor in 1994, Imamoglu too could find it in the future to be the ideal platform for contending with Erdogan to lead Turkey.
No less critical an achievement for the anti-Erdogan opposition is the unprecedented cooperation forged between disparate political groups, a coalition which survived dirty tricks and state-led manipulations. That lesson of cooperation, pragmatism and allyship is essential for Turkey to realize the people’s call for hope and change.  

Turkey Holds Its Breath: Is Erdogan About to Lose, Again?*

Haaretz: "Turkey’s president once said: 'If we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey.' What happens if he loses Istanbul twice? And to Ekrem Imamoglu's unprecedented liberal, secular, Kurdish, nationalist and conservative Muslim coalition?"

No race to the polls in Turkey has ever been scrutinized like this one. The rerun of Istanbul’s mayoral elections takes place Sunday, after the unprecedented cancellation of the March elections won by the CHP opposition’s candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu.
Imamoglu’s star wasn’t diminished by his truncated 17 days in office. He’s only become more popular since he first brought an end to the AKP ruling party’s hold over the city, Turkey’s largest, wealthiest conurbation, with a population of more than 15 million people and an annual budget in the billions of dollars.
Istanbul is so important for the balance of power, personal and party prestige and political leverage that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gone on record as saying, “If we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey.”
Many in Turkey, even among some AKP supporters, interpreted the shock annulment of the March 31 results as the result of extreme government pressures placed on the election committee.
If President Recep Tayyip Erdogan thought that this intimidation would give him a chance to fix his incredible loss, the rerun elections may very well show this was a colossal political misreading, and that losing twice is far more damning than losing once.    
The AKP was reeling from its defeat in Istanbul, which has controlled the city - in one way or another - since Erdogan first became its mayor in 1994. The AKP was also forced to relinquish its hold over Ankara, the nation’s capital, in addition to a whole host of other major metropolises throughout the country. 
The AKP would not be placated and would not let the results stand. After numerous recounts still placed the 63 year-old AKP candidate Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister and Erdogan confidante, as winning a minority of votes, and 49 year-old Imamoglu already establishing himself in office, the election committee cancelled the vote on May 6 on a technicality, calling for new elections on June 23.    
Ever since, CHP party candidate Imamoglu has continued to rise in popularity, with his political message of embracing all sectors of Istanbul. The city functions as a microcosm representing the population of Turkey at large - a large metropolitan area with over 10 million registered voters hailing from all corners of the country and whose identities run the full spectrum of the country’s demographic, religious, political and social spectrum. 

Supporters of Ekrem Imamoglu at a rally in the neighborhood of Gaziosmanpasa before the re-run elections in Istanbul June 14, 2019
Louis Fishman

Just last week I attended a mass pre-election rally in the working-class conservative AKP-led district of Gaziosmanpasa. It was evident that despite Imamoglu being a dedicated CHP politician - a party that prides itself on secularism - his relatively conservative take has attracted even voters from the traditional AKP base.
There were significant numbers of women wearing headscarves in the crowd; his supporters even said a prayer for his reelection, and the crowd’s "Amen" was shouted loudly and in unison.  
For the CHP, such references to and symbols of religiosity are unprecedented. Their denting of the AKP’s conservative base, even if minor, at this point, just goes to show what trouble the AKP is in. 
If that was not enough, despite Binali Yildirim’s strong overtures to the nation’s Kurds, using the taboo word "Kurdistan" during a visit to the Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir, it made no real leeway. Perhaps that is because Yildirim’s political expediency was just too transparent; earlier this year, Erdogan himself declared that: "In my country, there is no region called Kurdistan." 
In fact, the Kurdish vote has clearly pivoted towards Imamoglu. On Tuesday, Selahattin Demirtas, the jailed Kurdish leader of the mostly Kurdish HDP party, tweeted his support for Imamoglu to his large following in Istanbul.
Imamoglu has returned the favor: at every rally, he has thanked HDP voters for their decision to coalesce around one opposition candidate, himself, in the March elections. Following Demirtaş’ endorsement, he unequivocally accepted his support and praised Demirtaş’ "constructive, positive language." His inclusive language has gone even further: criticized for using the clumsy circumlocution, "my brothers of Kurdish heritage," during a television debate with Yildirim, he now speaks about "my Kurdish brothers, citizens."

People watch the live TV debate between Istanbul mayoral candidates Binali Yildirim (AKP) and deposed mayor Ekrem Imamoglu (CHP), shown at a public park in Kadikoy, Istanbul. June 16, 2019

That live television debate was also unprecedented in recent political memory. In their 17 years in power, the AKP politicians have opted out of the once-standard expectation for candidates in Turkey’s elections to debate each other in front of a national audience. This time, they understood the cards were stacked up against Yildirim, and the bleak outlook called for desperate measures. 
Both Imamoglu and Yildirim held their ground in the debate; both sides could argue their candidate had out-performed the other, though the contrast between the younger, energetic, thoughtful Imamoglu and the older party hack Yildirm was evident. 
Imamoglu has the clear advantage that he is offering something new, while Yildirim is trying to win on past AKP achievements. Few can deny the mass improvements of infrastructure in the city, but despite these changes, a great number of Istanbul’s residents are unhappy with their quality of life. 
The AKP, for decades, sold not just an appealing ideology but also relied heavily on a system of patronage to reward and sustain its supporter base. This clientelist system didn’t necessarily require the somewhat obvious handing out of goods and jobs, but rather held out the hope of upward social mobility for the city’s migrant communities who’d made their way to Turkey’s economic center seeing better opportunities from all parts of Turkey. 
Now, with the country’s currency crashing, with dramatic price hikes on food and vegetables, and unemployment levels breaking records, the AKP has lost a great deal of its appeal. For Yildirim, both the AKP’s record and Erdogan himself have become an electoral liability, a weight that he has to carry. 
This is the Catch 22 Yildirim finds himself in. Yildirim must sell the same AKP achievements that are right now disintegrating. 
That’s why it’s been unsurprising that in this second round, Erdogan has mostly stayed backstage, and Yildirim has taken upon himself the campaigning to a tired electorate. He’s kept his language clean, leaving it to other AKP officials to sling the mud, and though distinctly uncharismatic, appears a likeable enough candidate, which has worked to his advantage.
Will this be enough for him to win such an uphill battle? It seems unlikely.    

A woman walks next to a campaign bus for Ekrem Imamoglu, Istanbul mayoral candidate of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), during a election rally in Zeytinburnu, Istanbul. May 29, 2019

Imamoglu is free of the party baggage burdening his opponent, and has developed a Teflon political skin: all the unfounded slanders and negative attacks against him just haven’t stuck.
Just days before the election, Erdogan re-upped the allegation that Imamoglu called a local governor a "dog" in an argument over the use of a VIP entrance at a regional airport, an allegation that Imamoglu has repeatedly denied. 
Erdogan continued with a barely veiled threat: If Imamoglu does not apologize directly to the governor, and to "the nation," he will never be able to take up the post of mayor of Istanbul. But that threat also reveals that Erdogan, too, is thinking about the day after the elections, and what shape the next stage of his campaign against Imamoglu might take if he is victorious again.
That’s fueling the skepticism that the Erdogan-run state will allow even a second Imamoglu victory to stand, and that it will find any number of spurious reasons to disenfranchise Istanbul voters again. 
Before the first Istanbul elections in March, I thought Imamoglu could win, but it would be very difficult. This time around, his success is already looking much more likely. It may have seemed like overreaching, naïve optimism that Imamoglu would beat the AKP machine the last time around. 
But this time, Imamoglu’s solid support base - a far broader and deeper opposition coalition than Turkey has ever seen - his messaging, and his proven popularity leads to the conclusion that an electoral win is not a question of wish-fulfillment, but of solid evidence. His victory is very much within reach.

This piece was originally published in Haaretz on June 19, 2019. Please click here for the link.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Erdogan Has Just Made a Huge Mistake

Haaretz: "By cancelling the Istanbul elections, Erdogan has annulled a core tenet of democracy in Turkey. But it’s not an act of power: it’s an act of weakness, over-reach and exposes his increasing vulnerability"

The banging on pots, pans and saucepan lids, the whistling and the hooting from cars started almost immediately in neighborhood after neighborhood of Istanbul last night.
News was spreading of Turkey’s Supreme Election Council’s decision to annull Istanbul’s municipal mayoral election – disqualifying the anti-Erdogan opposition’s most resonant win from the local elections held on March 31. 

Ekrem Imamoglu, who had swiped the huge metropolis away from Erdogan’s AKP, was stripped of his mayoral office just weeks after he had been certified as the winner.
Imamoglu, a relative unknown before the mayoral campaign who has captured mainstream support not least among those who assumed Erdogan and his party had become invincible, took ownership of the moment. Addressing a hastily-organized rally in central Istanbul, he gave one of his best speeches to date.
He struck a defiant but upbeat note: "No one can block this nation’s democracy…we will never give in, because I know that when I walk, I will never walk alone," but is joined by the 16 million residents of Istanbul, working for all the people and not for the special interest groups with whom the AKP is inextricably linked.
He described the electoral commission’s ruling as a "treacherous decision" - his own CHP party's deputy chair called it "plain dictatorship" - and called for a unified effort to fight on: "They are trying to take back the election we won. You may be upset, but never lose your hope."

Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition CHP candidate who won the Istanbul elections that have now been annulled, addressing a rally in Istanbul. May 6, 2019.
Lefteris Pitarakis,AP

And he offered an optimistic but determined phrase as his campaigning slogan: "Everything is going to be just fine." That slogan, #herseyçokgüzelolacak, is already trending as a hashtag in Turkey. 
The response online to Erdogan’s power move was quick and scathing, with Turkish Twitter erupting with videos of the protests, satirical cartoons and calls for celebrities to use the Imamoglu hashtag. The international reaction has also been swift and severe. 
Kati Piri, the European parliament’s Turkey rapporteur, tweeted: "Erdogan does not accept defeat and goes against the will of the people…This ends the credibility of democratic transition of power through elections in Turkey." U.S. Senator Marco Rubio joined in: "Authoritarianism is challenging democracy in every region. In #Turkey Erdogan undermining rule of law & democratic order."

The EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned that Turkey was in breach of its commitments as member of the Council of Europe: cancelling the elections "go against the core aim of a democratic electoral process to ensure that the will of the people prevails."
The Turkish Lira is also feeling the weight of the decision: it dropped sharply, standing now at 6.13 to the U.S. dollar. 

Imamoglu has already experienced what concerted political pressure orchestrated by Erdogan and his AKP looks like. On election night, the AKP candidate Binali Yilidirim, an Erdogan loyalist and former prime minister, declared victory even before the counting was over, despite clear data points showing Imamoglu holding the lead.
But Imamoglu pulled through and his slim victory of about 18,000 votes remained firm, even when it was reduced by numerous recounts demanded by the AKP.
It was a historic win – not only a humiliation for Erdogan, whose political career has always been tied to Istanbul, but a victory against stacked-up odds: serial underhand attacks by the AKP who turned state TV into their own private campaigning medium.
The Election Council’s decision to cancel the election was based on a strange technicality: that some polling officials were not civil servants – indicating that they had indeed capitulated to government pressure. It’s worth noting that opposition parties have failed numerous times in their attempts to challenge election resultsin the past, both in national and local elections. 
Even before the March 31 elections, many correctly predicted that the nation’s capital, Ankara, was well in the reach of the opposition, not least because of Turkey’s economic woes - rising inflation and a crashing lira.
Istanbul, however, was a different story. A win for the opposition CHP seemed purely aspirational. This is Erdogan’s home turf, where he started his political career as mayor in 1994. For decades, the AKP performed well as the city’s rulers, cleaning it up and installing a state-of-the-art metro system. By 2010, Istanbul had become an international hotspot, attracting artists, tourists and businessmen alike. 
Following Erdogan’s violent crackdown on the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the AKP ran offtrack, handing over enormous infrastructure and building contracts to pro-government conglomerates. Since the economic crisis hit, over-ambitious half-built housing projects litter the city.

The city’s much-vaunted new international airport, a stunning feat in size and capacity, has become a black hole for investors, and a literal grave for unseemly numbers of workers who died on the project. At least the economic downturn has meant Erdogan shelving his grandiose Kanal Istanbul project, a 30 mile seaway connecting the Black and Marmara seas. Experts had warned it risked extensive  ecological damage. 
The first sign that the AKP’s hold over Istanbul was waning was in the 2017 referendum, when the residents rejected Erdogan’s bid for centralized power which he won nationally by 51%. In the 2018 national elections the AKP made a transient comeback.
But with the economy in disarray, high unemployment, and a clear and wide CHP coalition-building strategy up to and including the largely Kurdish HDP party, Imamoglu’s victory in the mayoral elections built on recent years’ opposition momentum and closely mirrored the 2017 referendum results.
Before these elections, plenty of observers declared that Erdogan and his AKP could not afford to lose Istanbul, and that they would do everything in their power to win - even if that meant stealing the elections. The electoral commission’s decision clearly validates their prediction, and Erdogan’s attempt to nullify a core tenet of democracy.

Supporters of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu shout anti-government slogans at a protest against the re-run of Istanbul mayoral election in Istanbul. May 6, 2019

But that’s not the most significant lesson from what’s happened in the last 24 hours in Turkey.
The cancelation of the Istanbul elections is actually a worst-case scenario for Erdogan and the AKP. The over-confidence its hardcore supporters had in the party’s ability to win - or, some might argue, in their ability to pull off widespread fraud - has turned into nothing less than a political fiasco on a scale the ruling party has ever encountered. 
We are witnessing a newly-vulnerable party apparatus - insecure, weak, and divided. A party that has hit political bankruptcy. All this, playing out in the public sphere, not behind closed doors. This is nothing short of an embarrassment for the AKP.
Such a blatant flouting of laws and norms should never have happened, but it has. And now, even in the eyes of some of once-enthusiastic supporters, the AKP has illegitimately taken away the mandate of the people. People are angry, and they certainly have a right to be.   
Yesterday’s Election Board ruling indeed marks a sad day for Turkish democracy, but it certainly does not mean that the game is over. It is clearer than ever that the AKP, even after 17 increasingly authoritarian years in power, has not and will not gain a total political monopoly over Turkey – and that the stamina and perseverance of the opposition cannot be understated. 
That diverse and potentially fractious opposition needs to stay on track, united, and absorb the wise and responsible lead of Imamoglu himself, who from the beginning has sought to keep his campaign positive and not be trapped by deliberate provocations.  
The opposition must go into the Istanbul campaign 2.0 knowing that it has won this election once before. The political momentum, vigor and natural justice is on its side. It is Erdogan and the AKP who have invited this fateful, uphill battle on to themselves.

*This piece was originally published in Haaretz on May 10, 2019. Please click here for the link.