Istanbul election rerun sends wake-up call to Erdogan's AKP
Compared to the 2017 presidential referendum that gave Recep Tayyip Erdogan extensive new powers, or the general election of 2018, Turkey's recent municipal elections were not as significant.
But with Istanbul at stake, the outcome still carries major ramifications.
Erdogan once stated that "whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey". So it's little wonder the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) party jockeyed hard to overturn the results of the 31 March election that saw the Republican People's Party (CHP) candidate - Ekrem Imamoglu - win a closely fought contest by a mere 13,000 votes, against AKP candidate Binali Yildirim, in the hope of securing the city at a second attempt.
Ultimately, the gamble in pressuring Turkey's Supreme Election Council to order a rerun of the vote in Istanbul, over allegations of voter irregularities and corruption, backfired, as Imamoglu won again by a far more convincing margin of 800,000 or 54.21 percent of the vote, marking the biggest defeat for the AKP in almost two decades.
The CHP adds Istanbul to Ankara and other major cities it had secured in March.
Istanbul is crucial as the economic engine of Turkey, accounting for 30 percent of national GDP and 20 percent of the total population.
With significant migration from all across the country, Istanbul is in many ways a microcosm of Turkey. It's little surprise, therefore, that the Istanbul vote was seen as a referendum on Erdogan and the policies of the ruling party.
Despite Erdogan's previous assertions on the importance of Istanbul, the CHP has not quite won Turkey. But this certainly marks a new dawn, or in the words of Imamoglu, "A new beginning".
That said, the AKP and Erdogan remain firmly in power. This vote will change little about the overall way in which Turkey is governed, but it does put the AKP's social, foreign and economic policies firmly in the spotlight.
|One thing is clear, the status quo is unsustainable and the party leaders will have to shift with the changing dynamic in Turkey|
While the CHP, and opposition in general may be on the rise, the ball remains in the court of Erdogan and the AKP. Whatever the AKP decides, one thing is clear, the status quo is unsustainable and the party leaders will have to shift with the changing dynamic in Turkey.
The consolidation of power and decades of successive AKP victories saw the party and the Turkish political establishment intertwined. Perhaps, it is this sense of confidence that Erdogan and the AKP need to re-assess.
Turkey was becoming increasingly polarised under AKP policies and crackdown on the opposition, especially since the failed coup of 2016.
Read more: Turkey's Erdogan says he cannot ignore 'the people's message' after Istanbul election defeat
While Erdogan enjoyed important victories in 2017 and 2018, the size of the opposition vote is hard to ignore. The AKP victories masked the importance of bridging this growing divide in Turkey, particularly, with the secularist and the long disenfranchised Kurds.
Add the economic downturn of recent years that has seen growth stagnate and the value of the lira plummet, and the CHP had plenty of ammunition to provide a real challenge to the ruling party for the first time in decades.
The fact that the Imamoglu managed to extensively strengthen his voter base after the re-run will not be lost on the AKP. In fact, the order for the controversial rerun gave Imamoglu renewed voice as the saviour of Turkish democracy.
|It remains to be seen if the opposition, who have been fractured for many years, can truly unite and capitalise to secure a national election|
Traditionally, the CHP has clung stubbornly to its doctrine of secularism and staunch nationalism that was too rigid to resonate with religious and working class Turks, as well as alienating Kurdish voters.
But the rise of Imamoglu - a practicing Muslim from similar Black Sea roots as Erdogan - helped bridge the divide with conservative Muslims and traditionally AKP supporting districts in Istanbul.
The CHP managed to secure key votes by bringing together opposition to Erdogan through a common vision of policies and political ideology.
It remains to be seen if the opposition, who have been fractured for many years, can truly unite and capitalise to secure a national election, or even the presidency.
The tactical Kurdish voting for the CHP was also vital in securing victory, but it's unclear if the CHP can offer the Kurds a long-term and sustainable pact through key concessions that they have resisted in the past.
The failed peace process with the PKK in 2015 in part gave rise to the AKP alliance with the right wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), but as the AKP realised too late, a new effort is needed to entice the Kurdish voter base, who often find themselves stuck between the violent actions of the PKK, and harsh government policies.
A written statement by imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan urging Kurds to remain "neutral" on the eve of Istanbul vote was a late AKP attempt to divide Kurdish ranks. A trade-off was likely agreed with Ocalan in return for discouraging Kurds from voting for the CHP. But his statement was rejected by Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) leaders, and it's likely that Kurds want to see more tangible actions from the AKP to mend long broken trust.
Either way, the AKP must employ a new pragmatic and conciliatory tone towards the Kurds' secularist and general opposition, that has been missing in recent years.
Key issues such as the economy, government dominance of institutions, and Turkey's involvement in the Syrian war and the plight of millions of Syrian refugees will only become more acute in the coming months.
With the right response, the AKP can potentially begin to stem the opposition, but the symbolic nature and the magnitude of the Istanbul defeat, means that the margins for miscalculations are much smaller.
If the AKP impedes Imamoglu in his office such as by restricting his powers, it may further rally the opposition.
|The symbolic nature and the magnitude of the Istanbul defeat, means that the margins for miscalculations are much smaller|
One possible outcome is a cabinet reshuffle or a call for early national elections. But an early vote, may pose new risks to the AKP powerbase unless they can stifle the opposition.
Not only must the AKP deal with outside pressure, but also growing disillusionment within the party itself. Former President Abdullah Gul, and Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had previously criticised the re-run of the vote. Davutoglu stated on Twitter, "The greatest loss for a political movement is not losing elections, but the loss of moral superiority and social conscience".
Erdogan's rise to power started with the mayorship of Istanbul in 1994 and now in 2019, unless the AKP can quickly regroup and stem the tide, it may mark the rise of a new future leader of Turkey.
Bashdar Ismaeel is a writer and geopolitical, energy and security analyst.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.