What Istanbul’s Voters Want

AKP and CHP supporters have the same priorities. So why are they so divided?

Supporters listen on from their balconies as mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu speaks during a rally in Istanbul on June 20.
Supporters listen on from their balconies as mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu speaks during a rally in Istanbul on June 20. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

ISTANBUL—This Sunday in Istanbul, up to 10 million registered voters may show up at the polls once more, after the results of the March mayoral election were nullified last month. In that vote, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was surprised when its candidate for mayor, Binali Yildirim, lost to the opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, by a mere 13,000 votes.

The job of managing Turkey’s richest and largest city is an important stepping stone into national politics, akin to the mayor of New York City. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began his own political career as the mayor of Istanbul in 1994. During that time, “Erdogan built an enormous political machine … as a financial tool and grassroots organization,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a Turkish journalist and senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The city finances politics.”

This spring’s loss was thus a major blow. The AKP, which had controlled the city for 25 years, refused to go down easy. It demanded that the election board order an investigation, which concluded that there had been irregularities and called for a rerun.

The majority of Istanbulites disapproved of the decision, but Sena Onur Sanver, 18, is excited to be voting again. She said she would pick Yildirim because she trusts the candidate like her parents do. “He contributes to society,” she said. But Sanver said she hadn’t done much research about the details.

For the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the redo election is a theft. But instead of throwing up their hands in anger or defeat, supporters are campaigning in earnest.

As the former mayor of Beylikduzu, a smaller district near Istanbul, Imamoglu has presented himself as an underdog who can connect with young and old, with secular and religious, and with Kurdish voters, too. The Kurdish-backed Peoples’ Democratic Party is supporting Imamoglu. (Its backing in the first election may have given him the edge.) “He doesn’t discriminate among people. He has a new vision. At least, he shows himself that way,” said Nilgun Hanyalioglu, a 54-year-old economist and fashion designer who will be voting for Imamoglu.

Murat Deli, 30, also said he’d vote for the opposition candidate. The fitness trainer lost his job because his company couldn’t pay him a salary anymore. He stood with a friend outside a coffee shop at a recently opened luxury shopping mall, a signature of development for the ruling government, which has built dozens of malls, skyscrapers, bridges, and new train and bus lines.

The AKP no doubt improved the lives of Istanbul residents during its rule. Water is cleaner, there’s better access to free health care, and marginalized groups and women initially gained more rights. Those gains made Erdogan incredibly popular.

But recently, Deli said, the ruling party has been making too many reversals. On March 8, for example, police released tear gas on thousands of women attending an International Women’s Day protest that had been held for 17 years. Arrests of journalists and critics continue, as do trials for those accused of insulting the president. Deli hopes that the opposition candidate can gain people’s trust to win again and eventually move on to national politics.

Istanbul’s voters are keeping Turkish democracy alive. Whatever their party, they believe they still have power at the polls. “By 2010, we had a pretty good democracy. It’s a hope, the ballot box, and the only outlet through which we can express our views against the government,” said the Turkish economist Atilla Yesilada.

For now, Turkish elections are still fairly clean. Ballots are manually counted, and opposing parties monitor the process. The problem is what happens after. Turkey has had several elections in the last five years—for parliament, for president, a referendum to change the government system, and local elections. For each, the ruling and opposition parties campaign hard, and voter turnout is high.

But when the AKP loses, as when it lost its majority in parliament in 2015 and now in Istanbul this year, it calls for a rerun and ends up winning. With the party’s control over the media and judiciary, it is able to tilt the playing field to its advantage.

This time around, though, Imamoglu could win, and the AKP might back down. Turkey’s opposition pollsters naturally show him in the lead, but even MAK Consulting, which usually backs the AKP, has him as the projected winner by a small margin. According to Yesilada, the AKP and Erdogan conceding could be a way to save face. The president is pragmatic enough to know that denying the opposition its victory if Imamoglu wins would diminish his own popularity and further delegitimize his rule. It could also fracture his own coalition: Some former AKP officials such as Abdullah Gul, who served as president from 2007 to 2014, are distancing themselves from Erdogan and may gain more momentum to form a splinter group if the AKP continues its authoritarian streak with these elections.

The Istanbul election has national political implications, but it is still a local affair. Residents I spoke to on both sides wanted the same changes: less traffic, fewer people, less construction, more green spaces. They unanimously expressed that they wanted Syrian refugees to go home, too.

Despite overlapping interests, voters are still polarized. Lower-income, religious AKP supporters who have joined middle class in the last two decades feel like they owe their party and president a debt, and they pay it with votes. Some of them have become more critical over time, but the majority are still loyal. As urban poverty rises, green spaces become smaller, and the economy goes into a deeper recession, that may mean them voting against their own interests. The opposition, meanwhile, has been fractured and lacked a strong leader until now. But even if he wins, Imamoglu has to unite a divided population with policies best for the metropolis, not for his career or political party.

For Selim, who did not want to give his last name, the party of the candidate isn’t important. He’s from a smaller third party and the father of a young boy. He has two jobs to make ends meet. Selim believes that the ruling government has become corrupt, stealing public funds, but he’s not sure about Imamoglu, either. “I’m thinking about the whole election. When I go to the ballot box, I will vote with my conscience.”

Ozge Sebzeci contributed to this report.

Fariba Nawa is an Afghan-American freelance journalist.

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