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Why couldn't Erdogan's populist politics win Istanbul?

The president's polarising discourse ultimately lost his party the election in a controversial repeat vote
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan casts his ballot in Istanbul on 23 June (AFP)

While the currency and debt crisis of 2018 was the main reason why Turkish voters moved away from the ruling AKP in the country’s local elections, the party’s grave political communication errors also played a key role in the repeat victory of opposition figure Ekrem Imamoglu. 

The AKP deployed emotional rhetoric throughout the campaign, with messages such as “Istanbul is a love story for us” on huge billboards. At the same time, the election was framed as a matter of national survival, with Imamoglu and his supporters characterised as enemies or traitors. 

Turkish voters did not buy into the contradictory messaging. Despite the AKP’s positive slogans, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used a polarising tone in rallies across Istanbul, talked about terrorism, and used the recent Christchurch attack as fuel to go after the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Adding fuel to the fire

While the difference in votes between the ruling party’s candidate, Binali Yildirim, and Imamoglu was fewer than 14,000 in the first round, the repeat election saw that number rise to more than 800,000. After the first vote was controversially annulled, Yildirim suggested that the CHP “stole” the AKP’s votes. 

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This added fuel to the fire, even for AKP supporters. The resulting rerun election saw Yildirim lose even in conservative districts, such as Fatih. The AKP failed to provide a satisfactory answer as to why a repeat vote was needed. 

Imamoglu's campaign was masterfully managed, keeping up with the pulse of the Turkish populace

In 1997, Erdogan’s popularity was boosted after he was jailed for reciting at a political rally a poem by Ziya Gokalp, a controversial Ottoman-era poet and activist. This time around, Erdogan compared the opposition candidate to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, just as the Muslim world mourned the death of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.

Erdogan’s populist tone has been his key strategy for the past decade. During election periods, he tends to use geopolitical or internal conflicts to distinguish his party from his opponents, underlining that his victory is a matter of “survival” - not only for his country, but for the Muslim world. This time, it failed.

The Kurdish factor

Also factoring in to the AKP’s loss was the Kurds. In a bizarre 11th-hour development, Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), urged his supporters not to go the polls - but the plea backfired after Kurdish voters confirmed they would turn out for the opposition candidate.

Besides its incumbent advantage and past economic wins, the AKP owes its success in previous elections to its creative campaigns. The fact that Erol Olcok, Erdogan’s PR guru and spin doctor who was behind the AKP’s inspirational campaigns, was killed in the 2016 coup attempt explains the deterioration of the discourse and perception management. 

Istanbul’s new mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, speaks on 28 June (AFP)
Istanbul’s new mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, speaks on 28 June (AFP)

On the other hand, Imamoglu’s campaign was masterfully managed, keeping up with the pulse of the Turkish populace. For example, after a young man ran alongside Imamoglu’s campaign bus and shouted: “Don’t worry brother Ekrem, everything will be fine”, this became the opposition candidate’s official rerun campaign slogan.

Erdogan later tried to play off of this; when a voter indicated her support for him by referencing his opponent’s slogan, the president responded: “[Everything] will be even better.” While this might have been clever repartee by a charismatic leader, it did not get the same traction as Imamoglu’s slogan, as it was merely a spin-off.

A future Erdogan?

Surprisingly, the CHP ignored Erdogan’s polarising tone, instead focusing on the deep divisions within society. Rather than pledging new projects for the city, Imamoglu pointed to the economic failures of the AKP. 

AKP's defeat in Istanbul marks a new phase in Turkish politics
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While Erdogan’s populist politics has worked in nearly every election period, this time around, it cost him the vote. Turks were fed up with this type of polarised discourse, and the people of Istanbul were not convinced that the repeat election was legitimate. It was especially hard to win over young people, who have grown up in a digital era and may not be swayed by promises of new metro lines or hospitals.

The fact that Imamoglu, a figure barely known in Turkey three months ago, earned 54 percent of the votes in Istanbul raises the question: could he be an Erdogan in the making, in terms of popularity? 

This will depend on how Imamoglu manages Istanbul, a city of more than 15 million people, in the next five years, as he juggles the competing expectations of his diverse electorate: conservatives, liberals, ultra-nationalists and Kurds. Everything can be “fine” only if he can find solutions to soaring poverty and unemployment, with the economy cited as a key reason for the AKP’s loss.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Taner Dogan is the author of Communication Strategies in Turkey: Erdoğan, the AKP and Political Messaging (I.B.Tauris Bloomsbury 2021). He holds a PhD from City, University of London, and is researching political communication, journalism, digital culture, populism, and Islamism in Turkey and the Middle East. He tweets @tnrdogan1
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