Istanbul Mayor-elect Ekrem Imamoglu called his election Sunday – in a special election called to overturn his initial victory in May – a victory for Turkey and democracy generally after winning by a wider margin than during the first election.
Imamoglu, of Turkey’s secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), defeated former Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim Sunday with 54 percent of the vote to Yildirim’s 45 percent, according to the unofficial count published by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency. Turkey’s state electoral oversight commission has yet to publish its official numbers, but Yildirim has conceded.
The victory continues the AKP’s downward slide in popularity in Turkey’s major cities. During the 2018 presidential elections, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s side won largely thanks to support from Turkey’s rural heartland, but Turkey’s major cities preferred the CHP.
Yildirim was the last prime minister before Erdogan switched the country from a parliamentary to a presidential system. Erdogan largely usurped the powers of the prime minister by granting them to the president’s office. Yildirim was Erdogan’s hand-picked successor, representing his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Erdogan’s Supreme Election Council (YSK), the national electoral oversight agency, ordered new elections in Istanbul in May, claiming that widespread fraud had led to Imamoglu’s victory. Erdogan encouraged the move, blaming “organized crime” for the election results.
“We see this decision of the Turkish Supreme Election Council (YSK), which will remove the shadow over Istanbul elections, an important step in strengthening Turkey’s democracy,” Erdogan said at the time. “We sincerely believe organized corruption, utter lawlessness and irregularity occurred in the Istanbul elections.”
Erdogan previously used the tactic of forcing voters to return to the polls when an election outcome did not suit him in 2015, when the secular leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) gained seats in parliament for the first time and threatened the AKP’s control of the legislature. Unlike this weekend’s Istanbul vote, the second 2015 elections successfully reinforced the AKP and led to the arrest of dozens of HDP leaders, including the party’s two co-chairs, who remain in prison until this day.
In his remarks late Sunday, Imamoglu thanked the voters for preventing Erdogan’s government from suppressing their political will.
“You have protected our tradition of democracy, dating back a hundred years. Thank you, fellow Istanbul residents,” Imamoglu said, according to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. “Turkey won this election, not a single party. You will see it with time. I will not marginalize anyone. For me, a duty order awaits. This is the most precious, honorable and proud duty in my whole life.”
Imamoglu went on to promise to work “in harmony” with Erdogan and his party.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the head of the CHP, similarly hailed the win as one for Turkey’s longstanding democracy against Erdogan’s numerous attempts to keep the secular left out of power.
“Everyone who believes in democracy is proud of Turkey today. The whole world, who believe in democracy, is proud of Turkey. People who believe in democracy, those who advocate democracy to the end, everyone, but everyone, is proud of you,” Kılıçdaroğlu told voters, additionally calling the vote a win for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the secularist founder of the Republic of Turkey.
Kılıçdaroğlu added that the roots of Imamoglu’s victory were planted in the 2017 “Justice March,” which took an estimated million people from Ankara to Istanbul to demand an end to Erdogan’s repeated attempts to silence democracy. At that event, Kılıçdaroğlu called Turkey a “dictatorship” under Erdogan, citing the unjust imprisonment of political opponents and widespread shutdowns of media outlets that dared to publish unflattering information about the president.
Erdogan conceded defeat to Imamoglu late Sunday on Twitter.
“The national will has appeared once again today. I congratulate Ekrem Imamoglu, who has won the election, according to unofficial results,” Erdogan wrote.
Yildirim also issued a statement promising to “try to support him [Imamoglu] in every work he will do on behalf of Istanbul’s residents.”
The AKP officials’ graciousness following the election differed significantly from the tone in Yeni Safak, one of Turkey’s most ardently pro-Erdogan newspapers. Its editor-in-chief, Ibrahim Karagül, published an article in anticipation of the election Saturday repeatedly insisting that Imamoglu was a terrorist. Karagül accused Imamoglu of being a member of the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organization” (FETO), the Islamic movement led by cleric Fethullah Gülen. Outside of the Erdogan government, the movement – which promotes charity through its global network of charter schools – is known as “Hizmet.” Gülen resides in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.
“[Imamoglu] s FETÖ’s candidate and is being protected. This is not an election matter. It is an attempt to take over Istanbul for a ‘second time,'” Karagül claimed. “He is a means to go to a showdown with Turkey, a bullet to be shot at Turkey. They are trying to stab you in the heart by fooling you with democracy, with sweet words, with ‘Everything is going to be just fine’ fairytales. Wake up.”
In contrast, Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s last remaining opposition newspaper, published a column celebrating Imamoglu’s win as the “return of democracy to local government.”