Turkey: Voters punish Erdogan in Istanbul mayoral election rerun

CHP Istanbul mayoral candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu (Wikimedia Commons)

Voters in Istanbul on 23 June struck a big blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the authoritarian leader of Turkey, amid a deepening economic crisis. This is the first time in Erdogan’s 17-year rule that his right-wing capitalist party, AKP, has been defeated in an election.

Turkey initially held local elections on the 31 March. Although Erdogan’s party AKP led the polls countrywide, its defeat in cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, the two biggest economic hubs of Turkey, was a humiliation.

Having been defeated by a small margin of 13,000 votes in Istanbul, Erdogan’s party made groundless allegations that the opposition had cheated. By exerting immense pressure on the election board, the AKP succeeded in annulling the Istanbul mayoral election, without providing any substantial evidence to prove its claim.

The reason why Istanbul is so important for the AKP is because the city constitutes nearly a third of Turkey’s GDP (total economic output). Erdogan, himself Mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, once said “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey.”

Istanbul municipality has a budget greater than many governmental departments, including the ministry of health, with over £3 billion. The AKP has been ruling Istanbul since 1994 and since then, awarding lucrative contracts to its cronies.

The rerun Istanbul elections ended with the victory of businessman Ekrem Imamoglu, the candidate of self-proclaimed ‘Kemalist’ social-democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP). This time the margin was not 13,000; it was a landslide victory of 800,000 more votes than the AKP! Once the results were announced, hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets to celebrate.

The support of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) – the left pro-Kurdish party – to Imamoglu was decisive in this victory. Despite the last-minute effort of Erdogan to convince Kurdish people living in Istanbul to vote for the AKP, Kurdish workers punished Erdogan for inducing poverty and war in Kurdistan.

Economic Crisis

The root cause of this defeat for Erdogan is the economic crisis and the ensuing mass anger. 

The economic crisis was triggered last summer when the Turkish Lira rapidly depreciated after political tensions between the US and Turkey.

As Turkish companies and banks borrowed cheap credit to finance their investments, the falling price of the Lira made it increasingly difficult for debtors to pay their dollar-denominated loans back, causing a debt and currency crisis.

The political uncertainties and speculations in financial markets further exacerbated the situation.

As a result, the prices of goods, such as food and electricity, rapidly increased, and by December 2018 official inflation reached 25%.

Many businesses that struggled with the crisis either went bankrupt or saw it as an opportunity to dismiss workers, leading to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. The number of unemployed rose by 1.33 million to 4.54 million in just under a year.

Working-class anger

The defeat of the AKP in the mayoral elections in cities such as Istanbul and other industrial heartlands reflects working-class anger at deteriorating living standards.

The decision to rerun the mayoral election in Istanbul further frustrated many working-class people who expressed their grievance about the government spending money once again on an election instead of dealing with the crisis.

In fact, many working-class neighbourhoods in Istanbul that previously supported Erdogan swung to the opposition on 23 June.

However important this victory is to boost the confidence of the opposition against the one-man rule of Erdogan, the left should not carry illusions into believing that Erdogan will retreat. Without a struggle led by the working class, neither Erdogan nor the capitalist system he hinges on will be defeated.

The constitutional change in 2017 gave President Erdogan supreme powers, and through decrees he can execute important decisions – in practice, without the consent of parliament. He maintains a firm grip on the state bureaucracy and media.

No difference

Rather than challenging Erdogan, the main opposition party CHP says they are willing to work with Erdogan to solve the economic crisis. But the CHP is a pro-big business party and it offers no solutions in favour of the working class. In terms of managing the economy, there is no difference between the two parties.

Workers should take matters into their own hands. Already, some are taking strike action to demand an increase in their salaries, given the soaring rates of inflation. Trade unions have also organised several demonstrations over the course of the year to protect workers’ rights and to put demands on the AKP.

In a period where there will be more vicious attacks on workers’ living standards, it is urgent for the left in Turkey to create a working-class alternative.

Trade unions, the socialist left and the HDP must build a mass, working-class fightback to defend the wages, jobs and rights of all workers.

Such a movement should be armed with a socialist programme, to not only topple Erdogan’s anti-democratic regime but also to create a society based on working-class ownership and control of the commanding heights of the economy.

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July 2019