On the night of June 23, moments after the first exit polls signaled Ekrem Imamoglu’s electoral triumph in the controversial mayoral rerun, Istanbul went through a moment of rare release. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets, erupting in applause and celebratory chants, playing musical instruments and occasionally singing the opposition candidate’s rallying cry: “Everything will be alright.”
At Moda Park, in one of the city’s most liberal neighborhoods, all sorts of Istanbulites could be seen celebrating, from children to the elderly. They could be seen hugging each other and exchanging hopeful words late into the early hours of Monday.
The rebirth of hope and the preservation of Turkish democracy was undeniably the clearest message sent out by the electorate of Turkey’s largest city – a message that transcended support for the Republican Party candidate and his unifying rhetoric. The neurotic pressures by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for an urgent repeat of the March vote, as well as a barrage of unsubstantiated and personal attacks on Imamoglu, transformed what could have been an ordinary mayoral race into a referendum on the arrogance and increasing authoritarianism of the Turkish government.
“I still support [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and his vision,” confided Ahmet, a 55-year-old conservative voter, after casting his ballot in the district of Caddebostan. “However, I felt that the government’s decision to repeat the election crossed a red line for our nation’s democracy, and thus I voted for Imamoglu.”
Though Sunday’s result is the biggest blow the Turkish president has been dealt during the 17 years he has been at the country’s helm, his approval rating remains high across the country and his grip on power secure – after all, the next elections are to be held in four years’ time.
But the symbolism of the night cannot be ignored, even through a cautious analyst’s lens. Imamoglu’s success is a curtain call on the 25-year-long possession of Istanbul’s driving seat by the AKP’s conservative Muslim forces; a period which commenced in 1994 when the young Erdogan triumphed in the mayoral elections.
Foreign analysts and journalists did not forget to underscore yet another unfortunate symbolism, regarding the location from which the Turkish president chose to follow Sunday’s election results. It was the magnificent Vahdettin Pavilion, a luxurious mansion located on a hill on the eastern side of the Bosphorus, which was once the resort of the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire before he was dethroned.
While Imamoglu’s landslide victory gave a much-needed boost to the Turkish opposition, its most direct impact is to be felt within the AKP, which was already facing obvious cracks. The government’s decision to call for a rerun was a highly contested strategy which stemmed from a vocal minority called the “Pelican Group” – a flank which includes Erdogan’s son-in-law Finance Minister Berat Albayrak as a core member. This radical wing is also responsible for the AKP’s increasing cooperation with the nationalist forces of the MHP, yet another move that raised eyebrows among party loyalists.
The group’s increasing influence on President Erdogan had already visibly distanced many important AKP figures, including former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu and ex-president Abdullah Gul. The latter actually repeated Imamoglu’s slogan to a group of journalists on the day of the mayoral elections and, according to rumors in Ankara, is currently preparing to launch a new Islamic party along with former deputy minister of finance Ali Babacan.
Sunday was, undeniably, a rare and moving glimmer of hope for political change in Turkey – a reminder that Turkish democratic reflexes are not dormant, and came as a breath of fresh air. But, celebrations aside, the country’s political future remains vastly uncertain. In the end, this future depends on the longevity of the opposition’s newly founded unity as much as the extent of the government’s disintegration.