Ekrem İmamoğlu, of Turkey’s secular Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP), won the mayoral election in Istanbul on June 23—perhaps for the second time this year. İmamoğlu claimed victory the first time on March 31 with a margin of .2 percent but the Supreme Election Council controlled by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) held that, although the AKP together with its ultranationalist and Eurosceptic partner the Nationalist Movement Party lost the elections in Ankara and Izmir, irregularities in Istanbul together with the close margin required that the election there had to be rerun. Istanbul is Erdogan’s home base and the source of a substantial share of his personal and the AKP’s patronage and finances and those of Turkey as well. He marshalled resources, including those of the state itself, to secure Istanbul this time. That plan backfired massively. This time the 54-45 margin was too decisive to deny. Erdoğan ally and former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, graciously conceded defeat on election night.
For the sake of his own now-bright future, as well as for the sake of the CHP and the restoration of full democracy in Turkey, Imamoğlu should now concentrate on two main and two secondary tasks.
First, he needs to govern effectively and honestly. Corruption and the plunder of Istanbul’s resources by the AKP were important reasons for the defeat of the AKP (more than its hapless candidate Binali Yildirim). Of course, effective and honest governance is the key to electoral victory everywhere, but the citizens of Istanbul will be particularly eagle-eyed now that they have reversed the status quo ante and elected a candidate running primarily on that platform.
Second, Imamoğlu and the CHP more generally should be careful not to push their secular views too hard, too broadly and too insistently. Instead, they should express public respect for the sentiments of Turkey’s large devout population which is the core of the AKP constituency and among the bases for its initial electoral success in November 2002. That population came to believe that the secular Kemalist elites primarily in the cities denigrated and discriminated against them and trod on their values, beliefs and orientations. İmamoğlu and the CHP should now demonstrate commitment to inclusive democracy and establish their mettle for national leadership in the style and substance of their governance of Turkey’s six largest cities, which they have now been elected to manage.
Third, Imamoğlu and his CHP mayoral colleagues should prepare themselves and their publics for retribution by the AKP. If Erdoğan is wise, then he will work with—rather than attempt to cripple—the six CHP mayors. If history is a guide, however, he may well yield to a vindictive impulse, deny them as many central resources as possible, and contribute to their governance failure, even though that would be a mistake. Still, İmamoğlu and the others should prepare to see a hit to their municipal budgets (much of which comes from the central government), to see other obstacles put in their paths, and to experience unremittent AKP criticism of their shortcomings. Criticism is fair game in politics but less so if the failures are the direct result of acts by Erdoğan and the AKP. The CHP’s best prophylaxis is transparency, a continuous informing of the public about any central government impediments: not a feverish series of complaints and whining but a calm, factual public updating of the affairs of the city including successes, deficiencies, and their reasons (including their own weaknesses). Citizens are not stupid. They will see through any attempt to sabotage the new mayors on whose municipal functions and resources they (especially the urban poor) depend. And they will blame Erdoğan when appropriate, even if they have been AKP voters.
Fourth, the new mayors have a golden opportunity to build the Republican People’s Party into a serious contender in national elections. That means they they must do more than govern well for the urban population. They should also reach out as well to the rural, pious voters and to Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Support for Imamoğlu by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which represents the interests of Kurds (and other minorities), provides an important opportunity to reconcile with Turkey’s Kurds and make substantial strides in integrating all Turks (which could pay substantial dividends in Kurdish-held northeast Syria as well). The rural AKP voters are precisely the more religiously and socially conservative part of the Turkish population that the pre-AKP secularists disdained but they are also antagonistic to and anxious about the Kurds, so appealing to both parts of the electorate will not be easy.
It is too early to tell whether the mayoral elections mark a turning point for Erdoğan within the AKP and, for the AKP, within the larger Turkish political system. How will he deal with the declining economy? Will he reverse himself on what he sees as a distasteful IMF bailout with IMF conditionality? Will he continue his failing policy of replacing elected opposition mayors with presidentially-appointed trustee mayors? Will he repeat the errors which the secularists made in attempting to ban Erdoğan and his socially and religiously conservative AKP but now in reverse? Will he double down on the road to even greater authoritarianism? Will other forces and rivals within the AKP move forward to challenge him? Will there be greater contestation within the AKP and within Turkey as a whole or greater concentration of power to avoid that contestation? To what extent, if any, has the Turkish electorate, especially younger voters, turned away from identity politics and communal determinism?
The U.S. interest is clear. Tensions with Erdoğan have been rising and threatening Turkey’s membership in NATO. They may reach a breaking point over his purchase of both Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles and U.S. F-35 fighters. Prudently, the United States has made no attempt to affect the municipal elections. Similarly, it should stay out of the coming frictions between Erdoğan and the new mayors and, for that matter, tensions within the AKP. Nor should the United States take an anti-AKP posture. It should assert its continued national interest in Turkey as a NATO ally, in Turkish policies that will be required to support Turkey’s NATO membership, in the differences between Erdoğan and the United States on larger issues in the Middle East, and on a vibrant Turkish democracy anchored in the West. Those should not be antithetical to the AKP or to Erdoğan but if they are, then so be it.
Gerald F. “Jerry” Hyman is a non-resident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. He was president of its Hills Program on Governance between 2007 and 2016. From 1990–2007, he held several positions at USAID, including director of its global Office of Democracy and Governance from 2002–2007. From 1985–1990, he practiced law at Covington & Burling in Washington, DC and he taught anthropology and sociology at Smith College from 1970–1985.