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Make No Mistake — Erdoğan Lost Big

Turkey's right-wing ruler, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, tried to rerun the Istanbul mayoral election after it didn’t go his way — but on Sunday, his party lost big. It’s a crushing defeat for his autocratic regime.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks on during the opening day of Argentina G20 Leaders' Summit 2018 at Costa Salguero on November 30, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Amilcar Orfali / Getty

On Sunday, Istanbul’s mayoral election — a rerun of the March 31 contest that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party had annulled — ended with a landslide victory for the opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoğlu. According to the most recent numbers, the vote margin between Imamoğlu and the regime candidate, Justice and Development Party (AKP) member and former prime minister Binali Yıldırım, increased from about 13,700 votes to an astonishing 806,426, while the spread grew from less than half a percentage point in March (48.8 percent to 48.55 percent) to nearly 10 percentage points on Sunday (54.21 percent to 44.99 percent).

This was nothing less than a crushing defeat for the regime. The last time Turkey experienced such a big swing in voting behavior — and indeed, in the popular mood on the streets — was the parliamentary elections of June 7, 2015, which delivered the AKP its first major electoral defeat in party history.

The result is all the more stunning because Erdoğan himself made clear the goal of the rerun was to prevent a June 7-esque disaster. So, what happened?

The Political Rationale of the Rerun

As we have pointed out time and again, Turkey is experiencing a hegemonic crisis in which the ruling bloc — headed by Erdoğan — opts for a strategy of fascization to try to stabilize the social and political order. In doing so, however, they keep failing to quell opposition and in fact create new unrest with every attempt to solve the crisis. In such fragile conditions, elections can be a risky thing for the bloc in power. In fact, one of the regime’s motivations in calling for snap parliamentary and presidential elections last June was to blunt any convulsions arising from the results of the March 31 local elections.

Regardless, the local elections were widely seen as critical — a referendum on rising fascism. Or, as the regime camp would put it, a vote over the “survival of the state.” Despite widespread repression and threats, the March election results signaled an important breakthrough: the ruling alliance of Erdoğan’s AKP and the fascistic MHP — together known as Cumhur Ittifaki (People’s Alliance) — lost all major cities to the main oppositional bloc Millet Ittifakı (Nation Alliance), organized around the centrist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the MHP splinter group IYI Parti (Good Party). Post-election data revealed that disillusioned AKP voters abstaining from the ballot boxes and Kurds associated with the leftist, pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) — which was deliberately excluded from the Nation Alliance yet called on supporters to vote for Imamoğlu — were decisive in the regime’s defeat in Istanbul.

On the night of the March 31 elections, Erdoğan indicated in two separate speeches that he might be willing to accept the results, disappointing as they were. He noted that the opposition would not be able to rule over the municipalities anyway, since the People’s Alliance still retained majorities in the respective municipal parliaments, and he called the oppositional mayors “lame ducks.”

But other factions in the regime’s camp were less sanguine. They voiced outrage at the defeat, portraying it as a product of widespread fraud. These factions clearly saw the potential dangers stemming from the “lame ducks”: the newly installed mayors could uncover the widespread corruption, profiteering networks, and inept urban planning of twenty-five years of AKP rule in Istanbul and other cities and use the vast apparatus of their municipalities to engage in a somewhat more popular politics — all of which could generate a major mood swing in society, from depressed anxiety to combative hopefulness.

The AKP filed complaints to recount thousands, then all of, the ballot boxes, and, finally — as that did not change the results decisively — to annul and repeat the mayoral elections. Yet it took until May 6 for the decision to materialize, and by then Imamoğlu had already been sworn in for eighteen days. The regime’s inability to accept the supposed “lame ducks, “while also taking more than a month to push through a rerun of the Istanbul elections, showed how inflexible and insecure their power had become. Trying to telegraph defiance, they instead laid bare their weakness.

The Interregnum

Erdoğan was upbeat in arguing for a replay of the elections: he explicitly pointed to the aftermath of June 7 as proof the tide could be turned. As the post-June 7 period was one of ISIS bombings, massive crackdowns, and indiscriminate warfare in predominantly Kurdish cities (eventually leaving thousands dead), many commentators — including ourselves — regarded an upsurge in violence and repression as likely in the run-up to Sunday’s election. Yet aside from an attempt by an organized mob to lynch the chairman of the CHP at the end of April, there were no major violent events. Aside from some rather limited operations into the Qandil Mountains in Northern Iraq, the “war card” likewise was not played. Although the regime had been adamant about its desire to invade the remaining parts of Northern Syria controlled by Kurdish forces — who Erdoğan regards as terrorists — Russia and especially the US declined to green-light such an operation, and the regime decided not to risk it.

It is plausible that Erdoğan decided against unleashing a full-blown assault this time around simply because the balance of power has started to tilt away from the regime. Domestic crises have only deepened, there have been no breakthroughs in foreign affairs, and economic woes are chipping away at the regime’s legitimacy. Broad-based discontent, even among regime supporters, caused the rerun decision to be widely seen as illegitimate, and polling companies began reporting that many AKP voters were planning to vote differently this time. On the other hand, with discontent rising and economic troubles persisting, the main opposition parties had little recourse but to take a more resolute stance.

Under such circumstances, and amid rumors that the AKP’s different factions were feuding over the handling of the situation, the regime failed to take the initiative like it’s done in recent years. Erdoğan himself was completely absent from the election campaign, supposedly because his advisers told him his aggressive and polarizing interventions in the local elections had proved detrimental. He also aimed to distance himself from Yıldırım’s candidacy in order to give the rerun a facade of “normalcy” and protect himself and his party from blowback should Yıldırım fail.

It didn’t work. Unable to campaign as it was used to, the AKP appeared weak and confused. The opposition took advantage of the situation, hammering its narrative that it had being robbed of the mayoralty. The AKP’s last-ditch efforts to reverse its slide — polling showed Yıldırım in a rapidly declining position— were desperate and makeshift: For the first time in seventeen years in power, the AKP waged a TV battle between their candidate and the main oppositional candidate that aiming to portray the AKP as “democratic” and even a “victim” of evil orchestrations.

A few days before the election, Erdoğan returned to the scene and made bellicose statements about the opposition. Meanwhile, the party made a desperate attempt to play the “Kurdish card.” A somewhat ambiguous statement by the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan to the HDP — calling on them to focus on building a democratic alternative and remain “impartial” — was framed by pro-AKP media as a call to the Kurds not to vote for Imamoğlu. Erdoğan and Bahçeli even stylized the message into a “power conflict” between Öcalan and the rest of the Kurdish movement. (Öcalan’s message was more focused on general strategy, and he explicitly said the HDP should decide its own electoral tactics.)

But all of this was to no avail.

The winds of change that could be perceived from the results of the March 31 elections turned into a veritable storm for the regime on June 23.

While more detailed empirical surveys of voter opinion and exit polls are not yet available, the following points can be made: Imamoğlu gained votes in every district in Istanbul on a margin between 3 and 10 percentage points; the shift away from the AKP seems to encompass all layers of voters, as turnout remained more or less the same; Imamoğlu won an impressive twenty-eight districts to Yıldırım’s eleven — compared to sixteen for Imamoğlu and twenty-three for Yıldırım on March 31.

While a rise in vote share in CHP strongholds certainly has something to do with a higher turnout in those districts, Imamoğlu’s victory in rather conservative Islamic districts clearly indicates that the breakaway of the AKP base turned into a tide. A microanalysis of some ballot boxes in Fatih — a district dominated by Islamic orders staunchly supporting the AKP — showed that even there Imamoğlu could gain votes. On the other side of the political spectrum, increases in Imamoğlu’s share in districts with a strong Kurdish minority indicate that not only did Kurds continue their support for Imamoğlu but likely turned out even stronger than on March 31.

The Struggle Has Only Begun

Unlike most elections in recent years, the results of Sunday’s rerun came in surprisingly fast, with no major incidents of violence or fraud. Yıldırım quickly congratulated Imamoğlu. Bahçeli and Erdoğan followed suit with their own brief, uninspired Twitter statements.

It’s unclear what Erdoğan will do next. He recently floated the idea of banning Imamoğlu from the mayoralty, citing an alleged insult against a provincial governor. Most likely, however, Erdoğan will return to his initial stance and try to treat Imamoğlu and other opposition mayors as “lame ducks” (a couple of days before the election, he started talking about a possible Imamoğlu mayoralty as “symbolic” and “vitrine ornament” again). That is, he will try to constrain their power through the regime’s majority on municipality councils and through laws strengthening those councils and his presidency.

Yet today is not March 31. Erdoğan’s position in relation to both his allies and opponents is weaker after Sunday’s “electoral debacle” (as even some in pro-AKP media circles are calling it). The centrifugal tendencies within the AKP will likely intensify, and an independent party formation of ex–high-ranking cadres seems imminent.

Imamoğlu, on the other hand, is being portrayed as the beacon of hope against Erdoğan, his inclusive political message (which turned out to be such a boon in local elections) hailed as the rhetoric of a true democrat. In his victory speech, he explicitly addressed Erdoğan and declared his willingness to build close cooperation between local and central bodies of governance to combat the problems facing Istanbul and the country. However, he threatened to turn to the citizenry should he face “political actions aiming to encumber” his mayoralty. Across the board all the main parties, save for the HDP, are claiming that the results show Turkey was and remains a “democracy.”

There is a deeper political meaning to this attempt to normalize the current situation of hegemonic crisis, fascization, and mass discontent. As we have noted before, the main forces of opposition — namely, the Nation Alliance — are forces of restoration. In the face of deepening crisis, they represent and organize the forces that want to rebuild a stable neoliberal order. They do not want to endanger the fundamentals of state and capital, and as such, steer clear of trying to radicalize mass discontent and resistance. However, as the regime becomes more and more inflexible under the current situation, they are forced to take a more obdurate approach. At the same time, they hold out hope — because after all, they’re forces of stability — that the regime will integrate them into the power bloc. All the while, attempts at normalization through discourses of “democracy” and the “inclusion of everybody” and an “end to polarization” work to integrate and tamp down mass dissatisfaction.

Ultimately, this “democracy saga,” which consists of a crumbling regime and ascendant forces of restoration, lacks the political unity and coherence to address the following three structural problems.

First, the economic crisis is intensifying, with an ever-growing social cost. The extent of the cost inflicted on different classes will be the primary terrain of struggle going forward: will workers have to bear the brunt of it, or will elite sectors be forced to tighten their belt? None of the “restorationists” have a clear plan to break free from the neoliberal model that’s produced economic crisis, let alone put forward a more radical program. They all attribute the economic crisis to the erosion of transparency, rule of law, democratic institutions, and so forth, shifting attention away from the underlying structural dimensions. Even the HDP has joined this chorus to some extent, retreating from its much more radical economic program of 2015.

Second, with the implementation in 2017 of the “presidential system,” a nadir has already been reached: checks on Erdoğan’s power have been thrown overboard, and fundamental freedoms and rights have been massively curtailed. A political culture of increasing authoritarianism has taken root, and all social strata are under outright siege. If there is a “democracy saga” in Turkey, then it is about the victorious resistance of democratic forces against the regime and the fascization process. A political discourse that ignores or obfuscates this reality — and this is indeed what the discourse of “democracy saga” aims at — displays its dismissal of genuine democratization.

Third, the “Kurdish question” is the Achilles’ heel of the “democracy saga.” The tactical alliance that brought together the CHP, IYI, and the HDP in the relatively peaceful context of local elections is very likely to disintegrate in the face of military aggression against the Kurds inside or outside the country. A paradox thus lies at the heart of politics in Turkey: in the current constellation of alliances, both dominant and subordinate camps are in dire need of the political support of Kurds to prevail, yet neither is in favor of securing peace through an all-encompassing program to transform the fundamentals of the Turkish Republic.

In this constellation, the position of socialists and revolutionaries cannot be to turn into auxiliaries of the main opposition, exchanging their votes for this or that little advantage. Integrating themselves into a capacious “democracy front” dominated by the forces of restoration without a clear stance on the necessity of independent organizations of popular and revolutionary forces is doomed to end in defeat.

The task of the Left is to grasp the possibilities arising from the current situation and develop concrete strategies and tactics to strengthen independent popular organizations and create their own revolutionary alternatives to the status quo. All the while, they should not be ignorant of the possibilities to exploit contradictions within the power bloc and of potential alliances with the bases of the dominant and restorationist parties.

In its history, Istanbul/Constantinopolis carried with it many proud names. Maybe the most beautiful was der-i sa’âdet, the gate to felicity. To turn that gate into a breach to break the fascist siege upon the country and construct a popular-revolutionary alternative to the capitalist project of restoration is the historical mission revolutionaries must embark upon now. The conditions are, once again, ripe for a push forward.