HE who wins Istanbul wins Turkey. Such was the maxim popularised by none other than Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the days when the AKP (Justice and Development Party) was rising. Those were the good days and now those good days may be going away, as Turkey’s inhabitants revisit their relations with the Islamist party.
The story began in March, when a mayoral election saw opposition party candidate Ekrem Imamoglu winning against the AKP party candidate by approximately 14,000 votes. Unsurprisingly, the AKP party was not happy with the outcome and it demanded a recount. The winning margin, they noted, was very slim in a city with nearly 11 million voters. Turkey’s Supreme Election Council did not agree. Instead of ordering a recount, it ordered another election. That election was held this weekend and the voters of Istanbul went to the polls again to choose between the AKP and the CHP (People’s Republican Party).
This time the result was definitive. Not long after polls had closed, it was clear that Imamoglu was going to win with a much larger margin. The result was exactly that. This time Imamoglu trounced the AKP candidate by over 700,000 votes. The people of Istanbul seemed to have decided. Despite having to go through the trouble of a second mayoral election and voting a second time, their minds were made up. They had had quite enough of the AKP; it was time to give the opposition a chance. In the aftermath of the result, Erdogan congratulated Imamoglu and made all the moves required of a gracious loser. It was, many supporters of the AKP insisted, only a municipal election for mayor.
Erdogan and the AKP may play down the significance of their defeat all they want, but nearly everyone in Turkey knows that the turn of events is notable.
Erdogan and the AKP may play down the significance of their defeat all they want, but nearly everyone in Turkey knows that the turn of events is notable. Istanbul continues to be the jewel in the country’s crown, producing nearly half of the country’s tax revenue and controlling a huge chunk of the country’s commercial activity. In recent months, residents of the city have seen the prices of food and other goods rise. The value of the Turkish lira has fallen against the dollar, spurring fears that the economy is heading for an even deeper downturn. All of it, particularly the fears regarding the economy, was enough to make voters choose the opposition CHP — not just once, but twice.
The implications of the AKP’s defeat in Istanbul are significant even beyond Turkey. The AKP was one of the first moderate Islamist parties to come to the fore. Its primary appeal was populist, promising a better life to the ordinary man or woman, without the seeming paternalism of the country’s elite-led (in the AKP’s view) secular leaders. There are a lot of these in Istanbul, perhaps not in the European parts of the city, but in areas like Uskudar, a middle-class suburb on the Asian side. The cultural appeal of the party was summarised by one voter who pointed out that 20 years ago, someone like her who chose to wear a headscarf could not get a university education in the country.
That was the Turkey that chose the AKP and Erdogan again and again in successive elections by tremendous margins. The party turned the country away from the long-enduring Kemalist-style secularism that banned the headscarf in public universities. It was a very popular move, symbolic of the agenda of cultural reform and the embrace of religion. In the years that followed, the country and especially the city, was transformed. No longer was the city the much-touted bastion of secularism in the Muslim world. The bars in Eminonu on the European side still served alcohol and women with bleach-blonde hair still walked up and down its streets in impossibly tight mini-skirts, but the tide had shifted. There were less of them and a lot more women with headscarves were seen and a lot more men with beards. Religion, that had been banished from the public sphere, was now squarely and indelibly a part of it.
A whole generation of Turks has now grown up under the AKP and Erdogan. The struggles of their forbears, against a secularism that seemed elitist, exclusionary and imposed, may not resonate with them. In a tightening global order, increasingly inhospitable to trade, economics may begin to matter more than issues like religion in the public sphere. Latent frustration at the widespread firing of professors at Turkish universities and the severe clampdown on the once-free press (both of which took place after the failed coup attempt three years ago) may also influence views. Istanbul voters may have concluded what critics of the AKP have long argued: the party has weakened democratic institutions and gobbled up too much power.
If Istanbul, one of the most famous and best-loved cities of the Islamic world, is looking away from an Islamist party and towards others, there may be signals for the rest of the Muslim world. While right-leaning strongmen may be in power in many Muslim countries, emerging younger voters are less than enthralled with them. The cultural messaging that generated voter ire and got them to the polls on symbolic issues like veiling is no longer working.
In this post-Islamist order it is not faith but rather the pragmatics of economic opportunity and global inclusion that motivate voters. In a world increasingly fighting over ever-meagre resources, the question of economic futures may matter more than firebrand sermons. As a close ally of Turkey and Erdogan, Pakistan needs to prepare for a future where the AKP party no longer controls the country. Erdogan may still be the strongman at the centre, but the era of leaders like him, lingering into these final years of the second decade of the 21st century, may well be coming to an end.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2019