In a dramatic re-run, the citizens of Istanbul recently elected the opposition’s candidate as their new mayor. “The era of partisanship will end!” was one of his slogans. A Turkey beyond authoritarianism and populism depends on ending partisan politics.
On Sunday, June 23, 2019, the citizens of Istanbul went once again to the ballot box in a dramatic re-run of the elections for the mayor of Istanbul. The first elections were held on March 31 as part of nation-wide local elections, and the oppositional candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) unexpectedly defeated Binali Yıldırım, president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s loyal but uncharismatic candidate. Yet, in a very dubious series of decisions, the Supreme Electoral Council declared the elections in Istanbul invalid.
Why did the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) made such a big deal to re-run the Istanbul elections? My colleague, Ottoman historian Abdulhamit Kırmızı, was certainly on point when tweeting that Erdoğan’s constant fetishization of Istanbul as his great love (he was the mayor of Istanbul in 1994) would end up in a hysterical vendetta after losing his beloved to another. Beyond emotions, however, as I have recently stated in an interview, Istanbul provides irreplaceable resources which are of vital importance for the AKP regime to maintain a lucrative informal economy in the bureaucracy-business complex.
Despite these high stakes, AKP led a very terrible second election campaign, further alienating potential swing-voters, disappointing its own conservative base, and enhancing the opposition’s hand. AKP’s vulgar populism which has become its dominant feature since the failed Gülenist coup attempt of 15 July 2016, made the AKP a caricature of itself: AKP officials publicly made racist allegations that İmamoğlu with family ties to Trabzon was a crypto-Greek; Erdoğan himself compared İmamoğlu to Egypt’s dictator Abdul Fattah al-Sisi; the AKP propagated a letter by the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, in which Öcalan called the Kurdish voters to boycott the elections, in an attempt to discourage Kurds who had pre-dominantly voted for İmamoğlu following the party line of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
All in all, the AKP relied on the established mindset of partisanship among Turkey’s conservatives, seculars, and Kurds, but this time it backfired. İmamoğlu won the re-election, drawing even more votes from all sections of society. This is a signal that long-established attitudes towards political leadership and party mobilization are shifting.
İmamoğlu’s campaign successfully embraced and mobilized a wide popular basis that reached well beyond CHP’s conventional voters. Its most famous slogan, borrowed from a young boy cheering him, “everything will be great”, became an instant and constant trending hashtag #HerŞeyÇokGüzelOlacak.
For the first time after the Gezi Park protests, the dispersed secular, cosmopolitan, and liberal opposition is united under a collective feeling of hope and, now, triumph. Because the AKP regime and its informal networks within the bureaucracy will make life difficult for mayor İmamoğlu in bringing change to Istanbul, it is critical to maintain a sustainable spirit of change.
However, one other slogan of İmamoğlu, admittedly less covered by the media, could be more important if Turkey wants to bring an end to majoritarian authoritarianism and vulgar populism. Since March, İmamoğlu had declared time and time again in his rallies that “the era of partisanship will end!” (partizanlık devri bitecek!). This is very crucial in Turkey’s new and heavily centralized presidential system, because the partisan rhetoric of Erdoğan highly polarized society in a non-stopping marathon of elections in the last decade or more.
The diverse movement that supported İmamoğlu is based on a formal coalition between the CHP and the center-right İYİ Party (Good Party), but also on informal arrangements with the Islamist-conservative Felicity Party and the pro-Kurdish HDP. Moreover, many traditional AKP voters have voted for İmamoğlu as well. This is a remarkable achievement for the Turkish political culture.
The culture of partisanship in Turkey has deep roots. In different contexts throughout history, partisanship played key roles in contentious events of civil wars, military coups, and political violence. The culture of partisanship remained a constant feature of political life, although political parties changed, were outlawed, or dissolved in the process. A transition towards a culture of democratic participation requires power-sharing and societal integration.
Today, Turkey is at a crossroads of post-Kemalism. Until recently, post-Kemalism was the state of the art in understanding modern Turkey—and this was so for a good reason. As an intellectual and political movement, post-Kemalism aimed to deconstruct the military tutelage over democracy, deep state schemes over the Kurdish question, and the Kemalist cult of a singular and secular modernity that marginalized conservative Muslims and rural populations. Hence, the post-Kemalist project campaigned for the AKP’s rise to power since the early 2000s. In the partisan practice of Turkish politics, however, post-Kemalism soon turned to blunt anti-Kemalism.
Not surprisingly, there was a remarkable blindness among Turkey’s post-Kemalist experts to AKP’s growing Islamist, populist, and authoritarian tendencies before the Gezi Park protests of 2013. Today, we once again experience a collective feeling of hope which is led by an openly Kemalist leader who is, however, supported by leftists, center-rights, Kurds, and conservatives because of his integrative messages. Only when this diverse opposition proves able to bring an end to partisanship, as İmamoğlu repeatedly calls, there will be a future for Turkey beyond authoritarianism and populism.