On the evening of 23rd of June, Istanbul lived a rare jubilation to celebrate the election of its new Metropolitan Mayor. Ekrem İmamoğlu, the candidate nominated by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), received more than 54% of the votes which formed a wide margin of close to 10% with his runner-up competitor Binali Yıldırım, the former Prime Minister and the Speaker of the Parliament.
In fact, three months ago, on the 31st of March, İmamoğlu had won the elections again, however, this time with a lower margin, a difference of only 14.000 votes. AKP challenged the results and applied to the Supreme Election Council asking for a renewal. After the re-run of the elections, the difference of votes rose to over 800.000. What happened?
Several factors affected the result of the 23rd of June elections. First, people of Istanbul never believed in the forced and meaningless justification of the annulment of only the metropolitan mayoralty elections, given the fact that other votes on the district mayoralty, municipality council and local mukhtar elections were cast in the same envelope, simultaneously with the former, but were considered to be valid. Same conditions, same ballot boxes, same ballot committees, but allegedly there were irregularities only on the metropolitan mayoralty votes. This was an insult to intellect. The massive reaction demonstrated that voters did not accept confiscation of their right to elect by political pressure imposed on the Supreme Election Council.
Second, citizens of Turkey perceived a pattern of cancellation of election results unless AKP failed to win them. In 2015, parliamentary elections of June 7 had resulted with a hung parliament. There is widespread perception that the then Prime Minister Erdoğan hampered the formation of a coalition government, with a view to implementing articles 104 and 116 of the Turkish Constitution to call for the renewal of elections. So it did on the 1st of November, this time AKP obtaining the majority to form the government by itself. Istanbul metropolitan mayoralty was important for AKP. Erdogan’s ascent in Turkish politics had started there and Islamist political parties, Refah Partisi and AKP successively, ruled Istanbul since 1994. Losing Istanbul would be a serious defeat, hence the renewal. Erdogan himself publicly admitted the intention by saying “we did it in 2015, we will do it again!”.
Third, since the AKP came to power, Turkey has been suffering from a permanent polarization under the influence of strong populism, manipulated nationalism and deepening authoritarianism. Paradigms of politicization of religion versus secularism, sectarianism between Sunnis and Alawites, otherization of ethnicities principally of Kurds, but also Armenians, Greeks and Jews all fueled a growing nationalistic narrative with strong confrontational accent. Ekrem Imamoglu, with his call for unity, tolerance, democracy through non-confrontational and all-embracing narrative launched a very appealing shift in Turkey’s domestic political rhetoric. People had been longing for such a political narrative and they finally found it in person with Imamoglu.
There is, however, a seemingly very important fourth reason why these factors resulted with the formation of a wide, solid and resolute platform. Identification of AKP with all kinds of polarizing, authoritarian and illiberal policies brought about a new platform of democracy formed around an urgent necessity, a new concept and understanding, namely a coalition of antithesis of what has been signified and defined by AKP policies. This platform is not motivated by ethnic, sectarian, religious or ideological drives anymore. It is an understanding which brings masses from all walks of life with a single purpose; to care about their future. It predicates on basic tenets of the Republic. The new paradigm, therefore shapes against all kinds of authoritarianism, populism, manipulated nationalism, narrow conservatism and ethnic discrimination and becomes the anti-thesis of all those nominal denominations.
This new anti-platform brings together people from a wide spectrum of political setting. Social Democrats, Socialists, Kurds, non-radical and non-ultra nationalists, liberals, conservatives as well as religious people partake in this new democratic platform. The fact that Felicity Party (SP) finds itself comfortable in this platform is a strong challenge to those who claim that Islam and democracy are incompatible. İYİ party voters, on the other hand, overcome the confusion they used to have in being unable to disengage Turkey’s Kurdish citizens who believe in democracy from those who opt for an armed rebellion. Equally, many CHP voters now realize that their Kurdish compatriots also experience similar sufferings in terms of poor education, poor health services, unemployment, dire economic circumstances as well as oppression under the lack of rule of law, lack of freedom of expression, lack of free media and non-compliance with the implementation of respect to fundamental rights and freedoms.
This is a major paradigm shift in Turkey’s political life. For decades, Turkey suffered under the divide and rule policies of identity politics. AKP appeared to be the mastermind of such a strategy. Now, domestic politics in Turkey shapes no more around identities, but on a wide platform of democratic ideals and principles. The question is whether this platform will become sustainable and a viable alternative. For this, the burden of responsibility to lead and enhance it will be on the shoulders of CHP. Success of thriving political change in Turkey will also become a reassurance for the future of similar democratic platforms in Europe against the rise of populism and illiberalism.
Mr. Ahmet Unal Cevikoz is a Member of the Parliament from CHP. He was born in 1952 in Istanbul, and preciously was the Turkish ambassador to Azerbaijan, Iraq and the United Kingdom.