Turkish President Erdogan's Party Loses Big In Istanbul Mayoral Race

Jun 24, 2019
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Yesterday Ekram Imamoglu was elected mayor of Istanbul again. He already won the race for mayor back in March, beating the candidate handpicked by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan then pushed for a new election, a do-over. This time, Imamoglu, who had squeaked out just a narrow victory the first time around, he won in a landslide. With us to talk about it from Istanbul is Asli Aydintasbas. She's a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a longtime Turkish journalist. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ASLI AYDINTASBAS: Hi, Mary Louise, good to be here.

KELLY: Glad to have you with us. So I want to ask you about the new mayor in a second. But let's start with Erdogan and what the fallout for him might be. What's the impact on him of losing the city of Istanbul?

AYDINTASBAS: It's an incredible defeat. There is a saying in Turkish; whoever wins this tumble wins Turkey. And also, elections in Turkey do not take place in a normal atmosphere. The government has full control over media. So the opposition basically relied on social media largely. The people of Istanbul, 16 million residents here but 10 million voters - people of Istanbul were quite pissed off that their vote was canceled, their - the election results...

KELLY: The vote back in March - go on.

AYDINTASBAS: ...Election results at the end of the March were canceled by an election board decision after the government's lobbying. So they really reacted to that.

KELLY: So who is the guy who pulled this off? Who is Ekram Imamoglu, the incoming mayor of Istanbul?

AYDINTASBAS: Ekram Imamoglu was a no-name figure in Turkish politics until six months ago. He was the mayor of a small district in Istanbul, a middle-class, lower-middle-class district, for the past couple of years. He's made a name for himself, and he has really differentiated himself from Erdogan, against Erdogan's very divisive rhetoric of accusing pretty much all his opponents of being terrorists or linked to terrorists. He said, I am here to unite this city. I want to make peace with 16 million citizens. I am going to be a uniter, et cetera.

He's sort of worked with Kurds, worked with conservatives, refusing the fault lines in Turkish society that had deepened so much over the last few years, someone who makes a little heart sign at the end of each rally, someone who's really hugging people in street markets.

And this was a contrast to increasingly more isolated ruling elite in Turkey who go around in big convoys and security, pretty much an army at this point. And I think it was clear that AKP, which had come to power as the representative of the people, had lost its touch.

KELLY: AKP being Erdogan's party.

AYDINTASBAS: Exactly.

KELLY: I mean, it's fascinating that people in Istanbul seem so determined to exercise their right to vote in a Turkey where Erdogan has exercised, I think fair to say, increasingly authoritarian power in recent years.

AYDINTASBAS: That's true. And I think that he's paying a price for that. There is a sense that enough is enough. Illiberalism, authoritarianism, a constant sort of rhetoric of internal and external enemies coupled with an economic recession was too much. And I think they decided to send the government a message.

KELLY: So are all signs that Erdogan and his party will accept the result of the vote this time around?

AYDINTASBAS: All signs are that Erdogan will accept the result. The question is, what is he going to do afterwards? Is he going to take the message from the voters, from Turkish citizens, and return to a democratic path, try to seek reforms? Or is he going to go on, double down - double down, perhaps, on authoritarianism and try to suppress his opponents? Doing the latter would only deepen the crisis in Turkey. There is no doubt that people are pushing back at what they see as an overreach.

KELLY: Asli Aydintasbas of the European Council on Foreign Relations speaking to us from Istanbul. Thanks very much.

AYDINTASBAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.