Ten million Istanbul residents are returning to the polls today, Sunday 23 June, to elect a mayor after opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu’s surprising win in the March Local Elections was annulled.
The relatively unknown İmamoğlu, 49, beat political veteran Binali Yıldırım by 30,000 votes, later whittled down to 13,000 votes after several recounts. Unwilling to accept the result, the ruling AK Party lodged complaints about ‘voting irregularities’, which were upheld by Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Board (YSK).
In its lengthy ruling published in May, the YSK did not address the ‘votes were stolen’ claims, but did agree that some ballot box officials on duty had not received formal approved. Bizarrely, the YSK only annulled the Istanbul Mayoral contest, while approving the election results of councillors and Mayors of Istanbul districts held at the same time, where AKP candidates won the majority of seats, even though the same disputed officials were in charge of these too.
The decision angered even AKP supporters, who felt the Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate and Mayor of Istanbul district Beylikdüzü had been cheated of his fairly won victory.
Despite the setback and facing an increasingly nasty campaign that has included a whole manner of slurs against him, İmamoğlu has maintained a positive and dignified outlook, telling his supporters: “We will win back our rights with a smile on our face,” adding that he would “embrace those who resist us”.
İmamoğlu on the campaign trail: ‘Her Sey Çok Güzel Olacak’
His campaign has been run on an air of optimism and inclusivity, with the slogan “Her Sey Çok Güzel Olacak” [Everything is Going to be Great”] defining the mood of the CHP camp. A supporter inadvertently created the new campaign slogan when he wrote the words on a huge banner that he hung from his apartment window as İmamoğlu walked past on the day YSK ordered a re-run of the election.
Virtually all polls before today’s election put İmamoğlu ahead of former prime minister and AKP co-founder Yıldırım, several predicting the victory margin to be as much as 9%.
Should that be the case and İmamoğlu wins again, it would be not only a major blow to the ruling party, but also to the seemingly invincible President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has won election after election since the AKP first came to power in 2002.
Mr Erdoğan has often said that “he who wins Istanbul wins Turkey”. Home to 15 million people, the city plays a major role in the country’s economy and social and cultural life. The city council, in AKP hands for the past 25 years, controls a huge budget, which many have claimed has been used to give patronage to the party’s support base.
The election re-run is a risky strategy for AKP and specifically the President, as former Hurriyet Daily News editor Murat Yetkin noted on his own blog:
“Erdoğan is extremely worried…He is playing every card he has. If he loses, by whatever margin, it’s the end of his steady political rise over the past quarter of a century.”
Yetkin adds, “In reality, he’ll still be president, his coalition will still control parliament – although many will perceive his defeat as the beginning of the end for him.”