Binali Yıldırım conceded defeat just two hours after counting started, such was the gulf between him and Republican People’s Party candidate Ekrem Imamoğlu, who won Istanbul’s Mayoral election re-run with 54% of the vote on Sunday, 23 June.
The former AK Party Prime Minister was aiming to overturn a slender defeat of some 13,000 in the original contest held on 31 March. Instead, according to unofficial results, Yıldırım bled votes to his opponent, polling just 45% and trailing by some 800,000 votes to the 4.74 million received by Imamoğlu. Turnout was 84%.
Joyful scenes erupted across Istanbul’s 15 million residents, as news of AKP’s capitulation spread. People danced in the city’s streets and public squares, and across the country, as the news was broadcast globally. The day after the results the Turkish lira rallied against the dollar as confidence in Turkish democracy returned.
It’s a far cry from the events of the past few months. After a 5-week delay in taking up his post as Mayor due to AKP charges of electoral fraud, Imamoğlu spent just 19 days in office before Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Board (YSK) gave in to government pressure and ordered a re-run.
Imamoğlu’s decisive victory suggests voters – including AKP supporters – were upset at YSK’s “undemocratic” decision, and took their revenge at the ballot box on Sunday. The previously unknown Mayor of outlying Beylikdüzü topped the polls in 28 of the city’s 39 districts, significantly improving on his March performance, when he had won in just 16 districts. Imamoğlu’s votes rose by nearly 530,000 compared to March, while Yıldırım shed 235,000.
Thousands flocked to Beylikdüzü on Sunday night to hear Mayor Imamoğlu promise a “new beginning” for Turkey’s largest city and commercial hub: “you have protected the reputation of democracy in Turkey,” he told supporters.
The defeat means Istanbul slips from AKP and its predecessor Refah’s grip for the first time in 25 years. It is also the heaviest defeat of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s career, himself a former Mayor of Istanbul who personally lobbied the YSK to annul the March results.
It’s difficult to predict the long-term impact on Mr Erdoğan. But the invincibility of this firebrand politician and his continuous electoral victories since 2002, is over. And the re-run he so desperately sought has merely propelled Imamoğlu to the fore.
This young, charismatic politician has won the hearts and minds of many Turks with his positive, respectful rhetoric, in stark contrast to the president’s polarising, toxic comments. The run-up to the 2023 Presidential elections takes on a whole new impetus: the opposition finally have a candidate capable of beating Mr Erdoğan.