Two weeks after the Istanbul election on March 31st, incumbent mayor Ekrem Imamoglu toured the city to thank the citizens for his narrow victory. It was an act of cheerful defiance from the under-dog candidate of the national opposition party. Immediately after the election, President Erdogan’s ruling AK Party had appealed the result, claiming evidence of voter fraud and official misconduct.
With the election authority conducting a review, Imamoglu nonetheless took office and began work. As he waved out of the window of his campaign bus on the mid-April evening, a teenage boy stepped forward.
“Ekrem!” He called. “Her sey çok güzel olacak!“ Everything will be alright.
The simple reassurance perfectly captures the spirt of the man who had been almost unheard of in Turkish politics. Up against the full might of the AK Party, Imamoglu’s campaign emphasized respect and goodwill to all.
Taking frequently to the streets, he engaged with everyone, regardless of their political affiliation. When an AK party supporter refused to shake his hand in the Grand Bazaar, he offered him a hug instead.
‘I don’t believe the public accepts divisive rhetoric and discriminatory policies,’ he has said. ‘Populism has the upper hand in the world at the moment, but it will end eventually, treating people with respect always wins out.’
The calm, smiling demeanour of the bespectacled 49-year old has been a welcome antidote to the increasingly divisive atmosphere of Turkish politics. It stands in stark contrast to the bluster of the president, whose fifteen-year grip on power has more recently become a stranglehold.
In response to the 2016 coup attempt, President Erdogan initiated a sweeping purge of the political and military institutions and a crack-down on opposition in the media and education system. Sweeping constitutional reforms granting him extraordinary powers were ratified in a controversial 2017 referendum riddled with irregularities. Despite opposition objections, no review or recount was conducted in that case.
Recent years have taken toll on the spirit of the Turkish people. Secular, liberal-minded society despairs at the course the country is taking. Not only domestically, but also internationally, where a more bellicose foreign policy has seen growing estrangement with the West. The result, many believe, of Erdogan’s dreams of a resurrected Ottoman Empire.
The students at the English school in which I teach are acutely aware of the precarious state of their country, which is also experiencing an economic slump.
“We have some big problems in our country, teacher.” Explained one. “The prisons are full. Ten years ago, twenty years ago, they were not full. Now they are. Full with innocent people. With students, teachers and journalists. Something is wrong.”
With the national opposition in disarray and an increasingly polarized electorate, pessimism and disillusionment dominate. Every day, it seems, some worse omen appears. One Turkish friend recently told me she even feared the possibility of civil war.
Like the shadow of the moon eclipsing the sun, the rise of a potential dictatorship in the plain sight of day is unnerving, especially when it is met by such resignation by those who might oppose it. After years of political strife and economic pain, the Turkish people are simply exhausted.
“We cannot be optimistic,” one told me. ”It is too hard.”
In that atmosphere, the municipal elections, which were held throughout the country, seemed like the first rays of hope in years, signs of push-back against the government, with further defeats in the capital, Ankara, and Izmir, the country’s third-largest city. With 20% percent of the country’s population and 30% of its GDP, Istanbul was the greatest prize to be snatched from AK Party’s grasp.
Despite only being local, the elections are nonetheless influential. The mayor of Istanbul directs significant public spending and makes appointments to the city’s bureaucracy. And that is to say nothing of the symbolic significance of Erdogan losing his home city. He himself presided there as mayor from 1994 to 1999. Already there is speculation as to what Imamoglu’s victory might augur come the 2023 presidential race. Even Erdogan has said that ‘to win Istanbul is to win Turkey.’
With so much at stake, it came as little surprise that the electoral authority finally ruled on the 6th of May that the result would be cancelled and the election re-run. The night the announcement was made, my class was interrupted as everyone turned to read the news on their phones.
“Free country,” said one sarcastically, shaking his head. “It’s a free country.”
Many believed the fresh poll meant the AK Party would now simply steal the result.
“The government uses its strength to over-rule the election.”
Imamoglu’s response was to immediately relaunch his campaign with the same characteristically patient enthusiasm. This time, though, he had a brand-new slogan: ‘Her sey çok güzel olacak.’ Everything will be alright.
With the vote to take place this Sunday the 23rd of June, many Turks are wondering whether they can allow themselves the possibility of that hope, or whether they will witness another nail in the coffin of Turkish democracy.