The mayoral election in Istanbul on 23 June 2019 represents a significant blow to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) won with almost 55 percent of the vote, bringing an end to the AKP’s dominance of the city, which lasted over 20 years. Despite being a local election, it has been become a rallying point for anti-AKP sentiments and ultimately a damning referendum on the current leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
With local elections already having taken place across Turkey in March, this was the election that was never meant to have happened. In the March elections, the AKP lost in Istanbul by 13,000 votes (0.16 percent) however Erdogan demanded that the vote be rerun due to supposed voting irregularities.
This was a desperate attempt by Erdogan to save face and avoid a humiliating loss in the city where he began his political career and where his party has dominated ever since. As has become clear, however, the 23 June rerun of the mayoral elections did not go to plan, with the CHP not only holding its majority, but growing it from 13,000 to almost 800,000 votes. This shows the resentment that has been growing throughout Turkey against the prevailing economic situation and Erdogan’s authoritarian rule.
With Istanbul being the largest and most prosperous city in the country, the significance of this mayoral election is not to be underestimated. In 2017 the GDP of the city of Istanbul represented over 30 percent of Turkey’s total, more than three times higher than that of the capital, Ankara. The municipality is an important employer of AKP cronies and its funds play an important role in feeding Erdogan’s networks with lucrative contracts for public works and megaprojects. In fact, seeing which way the winds were blowing Erdogan has been removing many of these budgets from the metropolitan municipality, placing them instead in the district municipalities and under the presidency itself. Nevertheless, the loss of Istanbul will be felt in the AKP linked bourgeois.
The defeat in Istanbul is also symbolically significant for the AKP, as Erdogan himself began his political career as mayor of the city in 1994. Until now, Istanbul had been a stronghold of the AKP for over 20 years, with Erdogan’s party consistently winning over half the vote. In recent years, however, this dominance has entered a decline, and the AKP has increasingly had to rely on political allies, such as the right-wing Nationalist Movement party (MHP), in order to maintain a slim majority. This most recent mayoral election represents the embarrassing end of Erdogan’s popularity in his former political heartland. In the words of Erdogan himself, "whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey".
The steady decline of Erdogan and the AKP in Istanbul has clear links to the ongoing economic crisis in Turkey. Erdogan rose to power in 2002 on the back of huge discontentment with the old Kemalist establishment and the weak economic position of the country, which had led to massive underdevelopment, corruption and inequality. The bankruptcy of the old regime and the economic boom of the early 2000s allowed Erdogan to present himself as a liberal reformer, giving substantial concessions to the Turkish working class and funding huge development projects across the country. As GDP rose (quadrupling between 2001 and 2013) Erdogan was able to take credit for the improvements in living standards, riding the wave of relative economic boom in the early 2000s for his own political benefit. Between 2002 and 2008, Turkey was in a uniquely favourable position, due to its location at the border of the EU. Cheap labour from Turkey was useful and lucrative for the stronger European economies throughout the pre-2008 boom, allowing significant amounts of money to flow into Turkey.
In the past few years however, the economy has shown serious signs of weakness and it is now seeping down to the workers and poor who are under enormous burdens of rising debts and high inflation. Since the 2008 crisis, the Turkish economy has become reliant on cheap credit and speculative investment from western countries. Net foreign debt in Turkey reached $100bn in 2018 and has been rising ever since, putting huge pressure on the economy. In the same year as the US dollar was gaining in strength, the Lira lost a quarter of its value putting enormous pressures on foreign currency denominated debt and causing the price of essential goods such as food to skyrocket. Despite the symbolic attempts by the government to increase the minimum wage, the current monthly income for a wage worker stands at $413, hardly enough to pay rent. In the leadup to the local elections the AKP even resorted to organising their own vegetable stalls selling cheap produce in order to try to halt the growing disillusionment and frustration within the working class. No longer able to present himself as a reformer, Erdogan is increasingly dependant on his bureaucratic network of patronage and corruption. But this only further undermines his rule.
In an attempt to keep the economy afloat, employment up and to channel money into the pockets of AKP linked capitalists, the party has, in recent years, increasingly borrowed money to finance elaborate construction projects. The construction sector now makes up almost a fifth of Turkish GDP, however the vast majority of this is wholly reliant on foreign loans. The AKP’s dependence on deficit spending in order to artificially inflate their status among voters is, however, doomed to fail. The Turkish economy cannot be kept alive by endless borrowing and cheap credit, however much Erdogan might wish it could be. Foreign debt currently stands at over half of Turkish GDP and this debt will need to be repaid, however the Turkish ruling class is presented with no way out. This economic fragility is only worsened by Turkey’s deteriorating geopolitical standing in the west, particularly with the US (to whom half of Turkey’s foreign debt is owed). With the devaluation of the Lira and the inability of Turkey to pay off its mounting debts, a crisis looms for the Turkish economy. A crisis which will hit the working class hardest.
Both the economic hardship facing working people as well as Erdogan’s strongman image and bullying tactics have led to a decline in the enthusiasm of the AKP’s natural support base. In Istanbul, the CHP did well not only among their traditionally more secular supporters, but also in the more religious neighbourhoods such as Fatih, where the AKP used to have extensive support. In fact Erdogan’s blatant attempt at changing the Istanbul vote by forcing a rerun caused a major backlash with many disillusioned traditional AKP voters staying away from the polls and others throwing their support behind the CHP in open defiance of Erdogan. The AK Party came to power claiming to be pure and pious, above the corruption and authoritarianism which plagued the Kemalist establishment. But almost 20 years in power has seen the party comfortably taking on the same role, and even attempting at going further in terms of concentrating power in the hands of a single individual, Erdogan.
All of this is weighing down the brewing crisis behind Erdogan. All of Erdogan’s promises of peace, purity and prosperity have in fact turned into their opposite. And it is beginning to have an effect on consciousness. When Erdogan first came to power, his foreign policy was defined as “Zero problems with all of our neighbours”. Today, the policy appears to be “Zero problems with zero neighbours”. Erdogan’s foreign policy has been nothing but a failure. His imperialist ambitions of resurrecting a neo-Ottoman empire have completely collapsed. In Syria he was soundly defeated by Russia and Iran, with whom he today forms an uneasy alliance. But it also left him in conflict with the Turkey’s former traditional ally, the US, who he has been trying to balance off against Russia. In the eyes of many all of these conflicts have served no purpose than to drain the coffers of the state.
In the meantime, Turkey has seen a wave of millions of Syrian refugees whom Erdogan is trying to use as voting cattle and as tools to change the demographic of certain areas. But as the economic crisis bites, the refugees who are conveniently also used as cheap labour by the bourgeois are becoming a source of tension. This is not helped by the CHP leaders who demagogically whip up anti-refugee sentiments to attack Erdogan.
Despite the widespread feelings of dissatisfaction with Erdogan and the AKP, however, it must be remembered that the CHP does not offer a meaningful alternative. The Istanbul elections were won almost entirely on the basis of anti-Erdogan sentiment, with opposition parties sidelining political issues in favour of emphasising their position as an alternative to the AKP. Newly elected CHP mayor Ekrem Imamoglu presented little in terms of meaningful gains for working people in the city, instead using the hollow slogan: “Everything is going to be fine.” That the CHP was able to win the election seemingly without proposing any significant improvements to the conditions of working people shows both the fragility of Erdogan’s position in Turkish society and the immense discontent felt by the masses in Istanbul.
However, the election of Imamoglu is unlikely to bring much change to the situation. In recent years the CHP, although traditionally secular and reformist, has begun flirting with conservative rhetoric in attempts to woo voters away from the AKP. Imamoglu epitomises this trend within the CHP. He is a right wing bourgeois conservative in favour of attacking living standards and working conditions, which he of course could not spell out during the elections. In the run up to the election, he also publically recited the Quran and emphasised his strong religious values in order to appeal to the more reactionary, conservative layers of Istanbul, who formerly would have voted for the AKP. In practice, Imamoglu’s ‘opposition’ to Erdogan represents little more than the cynical and tokenistic self-interest of another (equally conservative) wing of the ruling class. The swell of support for this candidate should be attributed more to an anti-establishment (or anti-Erdogan) sentiment among the people of Istanbul, rather than to the CHP’s programme or Imamoglu’s conservative rhetoric itself.
What we see in Turkey is that the crisis of capitalism is finally asserting itself in Turkish politics. As long as the economy was advancing, the ruling class could give some relative concessions. But as the crisis is deepening, it is increasingly unloading the burden on the working masses. In these conditions, the AKP’s true class standpoint is being exposed to the masses who are now beginning to look for a way out. That is the root of the crisis in Turkey. In the absence of a working class party, some layers are swinging behind the CHP to oppose Erdogan. But the CHP will not solve any of their problems and sooner rather than later this will also be exposed. All of this, points to the opening of a new period in the history of Turkey. An end to Erdgogan’s so called New Turkey, and the opening of a period of crisis, instability and intense class struggle.
If meaningful improvements in the economic and social conditions in Turkey are to be achieved, this cannot be done within the current political framework and, more generally, within capitalism. The consciousness of the masses has already begun to move away from the AKP, however Erdogan's betrayals will not be unique in the coming period. The mayoral election in Istanbul is a clear sign that Erdogan’s stranglehold on Turkish politics is beginning to slip and that the working class is frustrated with the establishment, yet Imamoglu and the CHP’s inability to resolve any of the problems facing the masses will inevitably stir up significant political instability in the near future. As movements begin to take shape, it remains only for the working class to act against the bourgeoisie as a whole, against both the betrayals of the AKP and the inevitable failure of Imamoglu and the CHP to combat the crisis of capitalism.