On 23 June 2019, the Turkish supreme electoral council announced the final results of the election of the Istanbul mayor, in a do-over to satisfy objections from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to the 31 March election results. The re-run follows an 85-day strong campaign in which the two most powerful candidates competed: Binali Yıldırım, candidate of the People's Alliance (a coalition made up of the AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party ) and Ekrem İmamoğlu, a candidate for the Nation Alliance (which includes the Republican People's Party and the İyi Party), noting that 17 independent candidates also participated in the elections. The following table shows the results.
Results of Istanbul Mayoral Elections Re-Run
Number of votes (millions)
Difference: 80,645 votes
The victory of opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu was no surprise in itself; most polls predicted the his victory the first time. The surprise, however, was that although the participation rate remained steady (84%), the difference in votes increased for İmamoğlu by 550,000, while his rival Ben Ali Yildirm lost 250,000 votes compared to the March 31 elections, despite an extensive campaign to fix previous errors. This loss came as a huge shock to AKP supporters.
When the AKP challenged the outcome of the last Istanbul elections, it sought to recount the votes in the whole of Istanbul. The Republican People's Party (CHP) refused to do so, and the AKP was forced to appeal for full re-election. The party estimated that with additional effortand a focus on the mistakes of İmamoğlu they could bridge the slight difference in the March 31 election, which was only about 13,000 votes. The AKP leadership ignored advice not to seek re-election. This advice was based on two reasons: first, to preserve the image of the democratic process and to consolidate Turkey's status in the international democracy club. The second was to create an atmosphere of suspicion around İmamoğlu’s marginal victory. But the importance of the Istanbul municipality, which opens a path to power for all those who win it, and the inability of the AKP leadership to accept their loss, pushed the party to take the risk and ultimately suffer a much greater blow.
Why has AKP Strategy Failed to Restore Istanbul?
After the supreme electoral council decided to re-run the elections in Istanbul, the electoral machinery of the AKP began to come to terms with the mistakes of the previous campaign that led to the loss of Istanbul, and began to ammend their strategy by:
- Avoiding exaggeration and intimidation regarding the impact of the election results on the future and existence of Turkey. This tactic was widely denounced by societal groups and political forces in the last elections, considering that these are only municipal elections, and that intimidating the voter prevents the expression of free will in the selection of municipal representatives. The AKP's retreat from this discourse in the re-election was a tacit acknowledgment of its earlier misuse. This rhetoric emerged under the pressure of the Nationalist Movement Party in the previous elections, which was pushing to weaken the Kurdish representation in parliament. So when the AKP avoided this rhetoric in the re-election, it lost an important part of the national electoral base that had voted for it earlier. It has become clear that the alliance with the Turkish nationalists, which was useful in the process of changing the constitution to a presidential system, has become detrimental to AKP’s popularity.
- Taking the Kurdish vote from the opposition candidate for the AKP. Four per cent of the votes won by İmamoğlu on 31 March came from the base of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP). Consequently, the AKP tried to win the Kurdish vote for its own candidate by intensifying campaigns in Kurdish areas, visiting Kurdish cities such as Diyarbakir, and meeting with tribes and clans to urge them to vote for the AKP candidate. This had little effect and, in an attempt to win votes, the AKP played the Abdullah Öcalan card; with disastrous results. The leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), detained since 1999, was allowed to meet his lawyers' team and send a message to the HDP. This message stated that “The understanding of a democracy embodied in the HDP means it should not take sides or be party to the current electoral debates,” and urged the party to remain neutral.
- In Turkey, Abdullah Öcalan is considered a terrorist, often referred to by the government aligned media as a terrorists leader or a child-murderer. But trying to use him in an internal political battle and allowing him to send a message three days before the election to influence its results yielded a reverse effect. Instead of dissuading Kurdish voters or part of them from going to the polls, it spurred them to do the opposite, especially considering that Öcalan did not take this position in the earlier elections, and his new position gave the impression that pressure had been exerted on him. The Nationalists rejected the attempts of their AKP allies to show favor to the Kurds, while the opposition entered into an implicit alliance with the Peoples Democratic Party (which did not select a mayoral candidate for Istanbul and had they done so, the AKP would have almost certainly won). Thus, Ocalan's message was counterproductive. TheTurkish nationalists failed to participate in the elections despite the appeals of their leader, Devlet Bahçeli, while the Kurds voted against the AKP’s leader Erdogan. In both cases, the party bases did not abide by the positions of the their party leaders.
- An attempt to influence the Felicity Party candidate given that Felicity and the AKP are two ideological blocs. On 31 March, the Felicity candidate received 100,000 votes in Istanbul. The AKP tried to draw closer to Felicity’s base to ply these votes away for themselves in the re-run election. the AKP intensified its campaign amongst the rank and file and held meetings with the party elite. It was expected that about half of the votes would go to the AKP, but again this was counterproductive. The Felicity candidate earned just 50,000 votes but the spare votes ended up going to İmamoğlu whose votes increased in the neighborhoods of Fatih, Eyüp, and Üsküdar, which are normally considered AKP areas with cosiderable Felicty support.
- Focusing on the mistakes of İmamoğlu. The AKP focused on the issue of forgery, vote theft and other errors, such as insulting and condemning the city of Ordu, then denying it despite recorded footage. However, it appears that this campaign only addressed the solid AKP base, and did not influence those outside it, especially those who were dissatisfied with government policies, especially the appointment of Erdoğan's brother-in-law as finance minister, corruption and nepotism allegations, and the issue of Syrian refugees. The AKP has tried to counteract its failure to focus on issues that are more important to voters, such as unemployment, the economy and others, but the Party's strategy failed to make any difference.
Why Did Votes for İmamoğlu Increase?
A number of reasons led to the marginal victory in the March 31 election turning into a landslide victory in the re-run elections:
- The victimization of İmamoğlu who himself played the role of victim of the ruling party's media and propaganda apparatus and political maneuvers in an attempt to deprive him of the right granted to him to lead the Istanbul municipality by the Turkish electorate. His electoral victory was robbed by the AKP who used its incluence in government to pressure the government to the Supreme electoral council to re-do the elections. This led a significant segment of voters to sympathize with İmamoğlu, as evidenced by the high voter turnout in all of Istanbul's 39 provinces.
- İmamoğlu was not well known to all Istanbul residents in the earlier elections, a fact that changed after his 31 March victory. His charisma, style, vitality and optimistic rhetoric were used during the recent election campaign to gain more votes. Despite Yıldırım's experience, İmamoğlu benefited from the image of him in the TV debate as a young man seeking change and talking about the future in contrast to Yıldırım, who relied on looking to the past and his former achievements. İmamoğlu won more votes than he had previously in intensely secular areas such as Beşiktaş, Bakırköy and Kadıköy, and overturned his rival in Istanbul's conservative regions.
- The effects of the economic downturn in Turkey have begun to have a greater impact in recent months, especially on youth unemployment and inflation affecting the business sector. Thus, the date of the for election re-run served the interest of the opposition rather than the ruling party.
The AKP clearly miscalculated the decision to re-run election especially as the first result was better for the party and the image of the democratic process in Turkey. The series of AKP victories since 2002 has been broken down strongly and in its most prominent strongholds (Istanbul, which retained AKP leadrship for nearly two decades). Ekrem İmamoğlu has gained considerable momentum during this election and has become an important opposition leader, which qualifies him to be a strong contender in any upcoming election. Accordingly, the AKP is likely to work on a radical review of the results, assess the reasons behind the loss, and the inadequacy of its alliance with the Nationalist Movement. They will probably assess voters' views on party policies and behavior, especially ministers, and will likely make major changes to the leadership and cadres of the party and the government. But the biggest challenge facing the party in the coming period is to prevent an internal split in light of the formation of new parties with the initiatives of former leaders such as Ahmed Dawood Oglu and Ali Babacan and Abdullah Gül. This will only be stopped if the current marginalizing and alienating approach, which has pushed many of the party's cadres to think of leaving, is overturned.
Ultimately, opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu received about 4.7 million votes, the same number that voted against the constitutional amendments in Istanbul on 16 April 2017, in which the AKP won 51.4 percent against 48.6 percent. But notably the difference achieved by İmamoğlu in two months is 800 thousand votes, equivalent to 2% of the votes of the Turkish voters, a fact that will be considered in any upcoming elections, in addition to how the opposition’s double victory will affect AKP morale.