The results of Sunday’s rerun election for mayor of Istanbul sent headline writers and political commentators scrambling for the right description. One Turkish newspaper called the crushing defeat of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hand-picked candidate an “earthquake.” Another called it a “people’s victory.” Cumhuriyet, the main opposition daily, declared that “one-man rule” had been “thrashed.”
Voters in Istanbul, the city where Erdogan was born and where he rose to power as mayor himself in the 1990s, turned firmly against him, setting the country’s political landscape in flux. The opposition is invigorated and Erdogan, who has become the most dominant figure in modern Turkish history since Kemal Ataturk, is suddenly on his back foot. The question now is about the future of Turkey. Is this the beginning of the end of Erdogan’s dominance?
Istanbul revolted against its former idol with undisguised gusto. That the election happened at all was reason enough for many former supporters to switch allegiance. Turkish voters had already spoken on March 31, when they cast their ballots in nationwide municipal elections and delivered a rebuke to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which lost Turkey’s major cities, including Istanbul and the capital, Ankara. But when Erdogan saw that Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister who he had all but anointed for the Istanbul post, lost by a mere 13,000 votes to Ekrem Imamoglu of the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, he claimed the result was fraudulent. Erdogan’s creeping authoritarianism has left him with sizable influence or outright control over most state institutions, including the Supreme Electoral Council. Election authorities—all of them appointed under Erdogan’s government—acquiesced to his demands and, in an unprecedented move, invalidated the Istanbul vote, citing irregularities.