Ahmet Kulsoy
Apr 15 2019

Erdoğan ignored as supporters blame Istanbul loss on candidate, fruit

In the conservative Istanbul district of Esenler, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s supporters blame the economy, the date, the candidate, and just about everything else for the ruling party’s defeat in the election for mayor of Turkey’s biggest city -- everything except the country’s leader, who had labelled his opponents terrorist sympathisers.

The failure of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is a blow to the prestige of the president who has been in power since 2003 and launched his political career by becoming mayoral of Istanbul in 1994.

The Islamist AKP demanded a recount of the March 31 mayoral election after the Supreme Election Council (YSK) said Ekrem İmamoğlu, the candidate for the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), had won by some 28,000 votes.

After 12 days of recounting previously invalidated votes, İmamoğlu’s majority has been cut by more than half, but he is still ahead of the Erdoğan loyalist and former prime minister, Binali Yıldırım. Erdoğan now wants a rerun of the election for the whole city, citing what he says is fraud in one Istanbul district.

The AKP however still has a majority on the Istanbul council, receiving 46 percent of the vote, and will control 24 of the 39 district municipalities in the city. But for many AKP officials, defeat in the mayoral race is itself enough reason to suspect electoral fraud.

In Esenler, a vast and relatively new inland district on the city’s European side, with a population of around 500,000, the AKP candidate for district mayor, Mehmet Tevik Göksü, won easily with 65 percent of the vote. But many there decried the result of the race to be mayor of Istanbul, a city of some 16 million that produces nearly a third of the country’s GDP.

Umut Özkan, head of the AKP’s Esenler organisation, said the date of the election was a disadvantage.

“They should not have held elections in winter. In those months the prices of fruit and vegetables, as well as heating expenses, disturb people. The prices of fruit and vegetables fall in the summer. It would have been an advantage for us, but we failed to make use of it,” he said.

During its 17-year rule, the AKP has gained much support, especially among the poor and middle class, for its successful economic policies. But this time the polls came in the midst of a recession and with inflation just below 20 percent. 

To consolidate its voter base, the government opened fruit and vegetable stores in large cities, including Istanbul, selling produce at prices below market rates, and pushed banks to provide cheap loans.

But those measures were not enough for some. “We are not responsible for Binali Yıldırım’s loss,” said Erdal Ersoy, 38. “We open our stores in the morning and end the day with no customers.”

The AKP formed an alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), while the CHP was allied to the nationalist Good Party. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) supported the opposition mayoral candidate in Istanbul, as a strategy to weaken what it calls the AKP’s escalating authoritarianism.

Erdoğan said the local elections were a matter of survival for the country, presenting the HDP’s backing of the opposition as the support of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

His rhetoric was widely criticised by the opposition and many analysts said it was one of the reasons why the AKP lost four of the five most populous provinces in the country.

But Özkan said the rhetoric did not affect the outcome. “I do not think it affected Kurdish voters,” he said, citing AKP wins in the mainly Kurdish east.

Mahmut Övüç, 54 and a long-time AKP member, agreed. “We lost large cities, but we gained Kurdish voters. We received votes from the east,” he said.

Övüç said the main problem was the AKP’s Istanbul mayoral candidate. “We should have gone to Istanbul voters with a fresh, dynamic, and young face. The CHP this time did the right thing when deciding its candidate,” he said.  

“Foreign powers are also not leaving Turkey alone. The United States plays as it likes with the rate of the dollar. We struggled with both internal and external powers,” he said.

“When they first announced Binali Yıldırım, I told myself this would not work,” said Mehmet Akif Seçen, a former teacher who said he had been supporting AKP since its foundation.

Seçen said neither Yıldırım nor the youth and women branches of the provincial organisation worked enthusiastically during the campaign. “The organisation behaved so relaxed, they had no confidence. The organisation should examine each neighbourhood in Istanbul. We should understand why and how we lost,” he said.

Selim Söğüt, another AKP supporter, also said that the election date was wrong and the economic contraction influenced people’s preferences. But he also complained about the laziness of the provincial organisation.

“The founding members of the party came from the Welfare Party,” he said, referring to the AKP’s predecessor party. “They were good in organising. But those people were either eliminated or offended. Those who replaced them were inexperienced, they did not work.”

Some commentators in the AKP-affiliated media have been complaining of similar problems in the party’s provincial organisations, blaming what they said were people who put their own interests over those of the party.

“Many of my friends voted for the AKP at district level, and voted for the CHP for metropolitan municipality,” said Hüseyin Karataş. “In the party’s organisation, people are not speaking with each other, favouritism has reached an unbearable extent...Those who took part in the organisation between 2002 and 2008 are the real members of this party.”