Thursday, December 12, 2019 | ePaper

The era of rights law and justice is here

The opposition's new star deals Turkey's president a stinging blow

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THIS TIME around, there was no room for doubt. In late March Ekrem Imamoglu had won the Istanbul mayoral election by a fraction of a percentage point. On June 23rd he won the re-run by a landslide.
Mr Imamoglu's victory in the re-run was the best showing for any opposition politician in decades, and Turkey's biggest city celebrated in style. Street parties erupted in some neighbourhoods. "Sunny days will come," sang a crowd of young people by the Bosphorus.
Given the scale of Mr Imamoglu's success, there was no room for the antics that Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, pulled last time to deny the new mayor his first victory. Then, after Mr Imamoglu prevailed by just 13,000 votes, Mr Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development (AK) party challenged the outcome, accused the opposition of stealing the vote and leaned heavily on the country's election board to order a repeat.
The move turned out to be one of the worst gambits of Mr Erdogan's career. In the new election, Mr Imamoglu
received a solid 54% of the vote to 45% for AK's candidate, Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister-a margin of over 800,000. Turnout reached 85%, boosted by thousands of Istanbul residents who cancelled or interrupted their holidays to be home on election day. Mr Yildirim conceded in front of the cameras as soon as the first results were made public. In a written statement, Mr Erdogan congratulated the new mayor shortly thereafter.
Mr Imamoglu forged a coalition that included his secular Republican People's Party (CHP), Kurdish voters, a breakaway nationalist group and some Islamists. But he has also earned the sympathy and the votes of a growing number of disenchanted ruling-party supporters. A street vendor in one conservative Istanbul neighborhood said he was so appalled by the re-run decision that he chose to stop voting AK. "What they did to Imamoglu was an injustice," he said. "There's been too much corruption," another former AK voter said. "They made too many mistakes."
Mr Imamoglu's success should be a lesson for his party, says Fehmi Koru, a newspaper columnist. By running a relentlessly positive campaign and refusing to play by the rules of Turkey's identity politics, he was able to make inroads with conservative voters, something the CHP has not managed for decades. Assuming that Mr Imamoglu can reshape the party in his own image, it might finally broaden its reach. The CHP has long been unable to attract more than 25% or so of the electorate. Mr Imamoglu may soon shine on the national stage, says Mr Koru, though he needs to prove he can run Istanbul. Success in Turkey's largest city as mayor was exactly how Mr Erdogan himself rose to prominence in the 1990s.
For now, however, Mr Erdogan remains in charge of the country. Turkey's leader enjoys sweeping executive powers, which he can use to undermine Mr Imamoglu. He also retains the support of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which gives him control of the parliament. At least in theory, Mr Erdogan does not have to face another election for four years.
But the ground beneath his feet is starting to shake. Emboldened by Mr Imamoglu's success, some estranged AK politicians, already poised to launch a rival conservative party, might do so sooner rather than later. The economy, which clawed its way out of recession a few months ago, faces the risk of another downturn later this year. Possible American sanctions over Mr Erdogan's purchase of a Russian missile-defence system would compound the damage severely.
The opposition at last has the wind at its back, with an inspiring new leader. Together with Istanbul, the CHP and its allies now control municipalities that account for roughly 70% of Turkey's economy, says Sinan Ulgen of Carnegie Europe, a think-tank. "They now have the means to fund their political activities, and to eliminate AK's network of patronage," he says.
Mr Imamoglu, meanwhile, has the country's attention, a mandate to shake up his own party and a chance to heal a divided society. "The era of partisanship is over," he said in a victory speech in front of a crowd of elated supporters. "The era of rights, law and justice is here." Elsewhere, the same words might sound bland. In today's Turkey, as Mr Erdogan knows, they are nothing short of revolutionary.

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