Amongst the most striking elements of Imamoğlu’s ascent to office was a previously unthinkable openness from the historic party of Turkish secular nationalism towards both Muslim voters but, more important still, voters of the Kurdish community.
Last week, almost three months after first winning the Istanbul Mayoral Election, Istanbul residents curtailed summer holidays to return to the city and ensure that Ekrem Imamoğlu, a Republican (CHP) candidate at the head of the National Alliance Coalition, finally took office. By a margin of 54 per cent to 45 for the AKP Government candidate, Binali Yıldırım, the result demonstrated quite clearly the will of the city but also, in demanding the re-run at all, tore strips of legitimacy from the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JUNE 27: Newly elected Mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) speaks to supporters after taking the Mayoral mandate in front of Istanbul Municipality building on June 27, 2019 in Istanbul, Turkey. Imamoglu took the Mayoral mandate for the second time after winning the June 23rd rerun mayoral election in a landmark victory against Binali Yildirim of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Imamoglu won a narrow victory over the AKP party candidate during the first mayoral election held in March, however weeks later Turkey’s election body annulled the result after claims of “voting irregularities," (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Many have been quick to herald the result as a new beginning for Turkey, which has now spent most of a decade struggling under an ever more authoritarian government. Certainly, to win any significant post at all feels like a major breakthrough for Turkey’s opposition parties in their quest to find momentum back towards relevance. Along with the other major cities of Izmir and the capital of Ankara, taken from the AKP in March, the Istanbul victory and the resounding fashion in which it was eventually completed will be a cause for cheer. The significance of Istanbul within Turkey, and of the spending budgets that come with the municipality, also give credence to the idea that it is more than just a single city mayoralty.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JUNE 27: Supporters of newly elected Mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) celebrate after taking the Mayoral mandate in front of Istanbul Municipality building on June 27, 2019 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)
For all that this may be so, and for all that liberal neighbourhoods of Istanbul experienced a dreamy awakening to a city suddenly more in the mould of their own values, there is also plenty of cause for caution. The Turkish economy, though positively impacted by the clarity of results in the Istanbul re-run, has now spent years in a volatility and decline that has begun to inflict great pain on the country and its social cohesion. Minority groups, particularly Kurds and increasingly the country’s population of more than three million Syrian refugees, have borne the brunt of scapegoating effects from this downturn. Despite the existence of other, more pressing, priorities, the AKP government is still pursuing charges decried as false against citizens who attended meetings around the time of the Gezi Park protests, now more than six years ago. A restoration of democracy – from a free press to the property rights of political opponents – is a necessity if Turkey is to restore its functioning economy. A change of mayor within a city, even one so mighty is Istanbul, is a limited shift in the face of such considerable troubles.
(Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)
There is every chance, too, that the changes within Istanbul itself stand to be unfairly restrained. Many within Turkey’s opposition have already forecast, and even warned the government against, responding to the loss of municipal powers and budgets by restoring what competencies they can back to central authorities in Ankara. Some responsibilities have also moved from citywide authorities to district councils within cities, many of which the AKP retain.
As part of his campaign, Imamoğlu showed a welcome and mostly unprecedented commitment to transparency by releasing details of his own earnings and net worth (such a move from Erdoğan would lift the lid on an era of high-level corruption that could blow the veneer from his projections as a friend to the hardworking Turk), but even there the CHP has in the past been no stranger to cronyism with its own corporate favourites. Imamoğlu has to pursue transparency with vigour and must commit his party to exposing and ending the hidden handouts of Turkish political dealmaking. It will be a betrayal of his mandate, and of his change credentials, to merely inherit such processes for the good of his party’s own allies.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JUNE 27: A whirling dervish spins amongst supporters as they wait for the arrival of newly elected Mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) after taking the Mayoral mandate in front of Istanbul Municipality building on June 27, 2019 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
None of this is intended as pessimism, indeed it is quite the contrary. All of this is just the necessary call of duty for any of the Turkish opposition intending to make good on their welcome and genuinely unifying call for a new way of doing politics. Amongst the most striking elements of Imamoğlu’s ascent to office was a previously unthinkable openness from the historic party of Turkish secular nationalism towards both Muslim voters but, more important still, voters of the Kurdish community. Imamoğlu in his victory speech called for thanks to the voters of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the leader of which, Selahattin Demirtaş, has been held in jail by Erdoğan since 2016.
In order to truly end the era of crony brutality that the AKP government has instituted, Imamoğlu and the CHP must commit to working hard towards the release of prisoners such as Demirtaş, and doing politics in a way that can – by comparison – throw both light and shame on injustices that Turkish voters have for the last decade been asked to accept as inevitable. There is much work to be done, but also perhaps and at last, some real signs of an appetite to do it.