A maxim among Turkey’s political strategists is that the road to Ankara starts in Istanbul. Turkey’s largest city accounts for one-third of the country’s economy and is home to a quarter of its population. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose meteoric political rise began while he was the city’s mayor in the 1990s, knows it as well as anyone. He himself has often remarked that “whoever wins Istanbul also wins the country.” That is why Erdogan applied pressure to dubiously contest the results of March’s mayoral election, which his handpicked candidate, former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, lost to Ekrem Imamoglu of the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP. After the Supreme Electoral Council—stacked with Erdogan appointees—annulled those results, claiming irregularities, it forced a controversial rerun. But the outcome was the same: Yildirim conceded defeat on Sunday, in a humiliating setback for Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, the AKP.
Turkey’s opposition was fired up ahead of the rerun. “I strongly believe that if the will of the voters can be expressed freely and fairly in Istanbul, without any interference in the rule of law, the awe-inspiring energy of citizens will show that it is possible to stand against authoritarian power,” Imamoglu declared in a Washington Post op-ed earlier this month. He was sworn in as Istanbul’s mayor on Thursday.
To many observers, including in Washington, a second defeat in Istanbul for Erdogan and the AKP would spell the beginning of the end of his hold on power, bringing the promise of better ties between the United States and Turkey. And indeed, the AKP’s loss in Istanbul was the biggest political defeat of Erdogan’s career, leading to immediate hand-wringing in his party. But what does the opposition’s victory really mean for Turkey and its U.S. ties? Is it a step toward that hoped-for rapprochement?