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Turkey's Opposition Wins One Battle in a Long War

6 MINS READApr 18, 2019 | 10:00 GMT
Sweat drips down the face of Ekrem Imamoglu during a news conference in Istanbul on April 9, 2019. On April 17, Imamoglu finally received the mandate to become mayor of Istanbul, more than two weeks after he won local elections.
(BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Sweat drips down the face of Ekrem Imamoglu during a news conference in Istanbul on April 9, 2019. On April 17, Imamoglu finally received the mandate to become mayor of Istanbul, more than two weeks after he won local elections. Turkey's main opposition has the won the prize they targeted most in recent elections, but the national government won't make life easy for them.

Stratfor's geopolitical guidance provides insight on what we're watching out for in the week ahead.

Turkey held municipal elections last month, but the dust has yet to settle on the landmark polls. On April 17, however, the country's Supreme Electoral Board (YSK) took a major step toward clearing up the confusion by allowing Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition Republican People's Party's (CHP) candidate in Istanbul, to finally receive his mandate for the mayoralty of the city from the Istanbul province election board. Confirmation of Imamoglu's win came more than two weeks after the March 31 election, in which the CHP candidate scored a razor-thin victory of just 13,729 votes out of more than 8 million votes cast.

The Big Picture

Late last month, Turkey went to the polls for the second time in nine months. But while the elections were just mayoral polls, they served as an informal referendum on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's rule, as well as the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) handling of the country's economic woes. The AKP won the overall elections but suffered a major reversal in the country's biggest city, Istanbul. Against such a backdrop, the local election board has finally confirmed the opposition's victory in Istanbul — pending a series of AKP objections to cancel the results and hold a new vote.

On the surface, the formal acknowledgment of Imamoglu's victory seems to put an end to the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) endless series of objections to the race for Istanbul. A twist, however, could still be in the tail, as the country continues to wait for the YSK's answer to the AKP's requests for a complete rerun of the elections. What's more, the AKP is vowing to use its strength on the national level to impose electoral reform that will benefit the party. But given that the AKP has already lodged appeal upon appeal about the results, one thing is for certain: The country's ruling party is likely to continue pursuing every trick in the book to thwart the CHP's control over Turkey's most important city.

Why Does Istanbul Matter?

Though not Turkey's administrative capital, Istanbul is the country's historical, commercial and cultural heart, as well as its largest city. Until Imamoglu received the mandate on April 17, the AKP, or its direct predecessors, had ruled the city for 25 years. During that time, the party has used the metropolis' wealth as a major source of funds to maintain its political patronage networks. With the CHP's formal victory, accordingly, the AKP has a lost a critical cash cow.

The AKP still won the greatest number of votes around the country, as well as the council vote in Istanbul, yet its overall share of the vote was down from the last local elections in 2014. But given the importance of Istanbul and Ankara — which are together home to around a quarter of Turkey's population — the AKP's loss in the cities will dent its political appeal and could even provide a harbinger of a rollback of the party's strength at the national level.

At the same time, the close race points to Turkey's deep societal polarization all of which will make it hard for any government — either the AKP-controlled national government or a CHP-run municipality — to draft and implement policy over vociferous opposition.

The AKP is likely to pursue every trick in the book to thwart the opposition party's control over Turkey's most important city.

Can the AKP Still Overturn the Results?

In permitting Imamoglu to become Istanbul's mayor, as well as in other decisions, the YSK has displayed an unexpected degree of independence from the AKP, especially as the electoral board's members come from the country's court system, which the ruling party has packed with pro-government supporters in recent years. Moreover, recent AKP-backed changes to the electoral law in 2017 and 2018 have given the ruling party more power to challenge the decisions of the YSK, especially as the executive branch now wields more power over local ballot box committees. In all, the AKP has enough institutional strength to drag out the legal fight against the CHP and the YSK and push further electoral reform through parliament that could reduce what little independence the board has left.

And even if the AKP does not overturn the result in Istanbul, it has plenty of weapons to thwart Imamoglu's administration. Just days before the election, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a member of the AKP, declared that even if the opposition wins Istanbul, "they'll never be able to rule it," in part because of recent legal changes that effectively subject a municipality's request for national funds to ministerial decisions. Given that the AKP has previously deprived opposition-run cities of many of the funds that are necessary for projects and other operations, it could decide to impose a similar blockade on Istanbul.

How Does the Economy Factor In?

After more than 16 years in power, the AKP has lost a lot of popular appeal — particularly as a result of Turkey's flagging economy. According to the most recent unemployment data, the country is experiencing its worst bout of unemployment in a decade (14.7 percent), while youth unemployment is the highest in 30 years. Food prices are also increasing, while overall consumption is low. Given Turkey's perilous economic state and its vulnerability to external shocks, the AKP-led government has clearly sought to avoid alarming the markets by forcefully overturning the results of the Istanbul elections, even if it has the ability to do so. Indeed, the lira rallied slightly against the U.S. dollar after Imamoglu received the mandate for Istanbul.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Turkey is a heavily centralized, unitary state that is tightly controlled by the AKP-led national government in Ankara. The national government can make life difficult for opposition-led local governments in Ankara or Istanbul by withholding funding for critical programs and infrastructure. Naturally, such a standoff would provoke anger among the government's many domestic detractors and deepen the country's polarization to an even greater degree, but the AKP's control over Turkey's media networks will help it maintain control over the narrative (indeed, some pro-government commentators have declared Imamoglu's victory to be "a coup at the ballot box" and "illegitimate"). What's more, the AKP could force through parliamentary decisions and executive decrees that would give Erdogan even more power at the expense of municipal governments. In the end, Turkey's opposition has scored a major victory for now, but the empire is all too ready to strike back.

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