What Does the Istanbul Mayoral Defeat Mean for Erdoğan and Turkey?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has suffered his first electoral defeat since he came to power. The decisive victory of opposition’s mayoral candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu at the end of last month is especially problematic for Mr. Erdoğan, given that Istanbul was instrumental in his political rise.  Additionally, the city’s financial resources have been vital for maintaining the president’s patronage system. Mr. Erdoğan’s allies in the media have been quick to lay the blame for the electoral defeat elsewhere, but critics of the administration argue that the president’s mishandling of the economy and crackdown on civil liberties are the real culprits. For some observers in the region, the main question becomes not when Mr. Erdoğan will exit the stage, but how.

Writing for the pro-government Daily Sabah, Markar Esayan acknowledges the impact that the economic downturn and instability may have had on Turkish voters, but he shifts the blame onto international credit agencies and “dishonest attacks” by shadowy international actors: “Of course, as in every other election, the main determinant of this election was the economy. Turkey has been facing a serious speculative attack for a while now. Credit agencies unfairly downgrade Turkey’s credit rating. It’s hard to deny that these moves are being made to shape Turkey’s elections and shake Erdoğan’s government…. At a time when national economies become highly integrated in a globalized world, it takes quite an effort to not see that the dishonest attacks on Turkey stem from political motivations.”

Hurriyet Daily News’ Barçin Yinanç provides a glowing commentary of Turkey’s progress under Mr. Erdoğan’s leadership, while warning Istanbul’s mayor-elect that he must now deliver on his electoral promises and improve the lives of the city’s residents:  “The AK Party owes its electoral success in the 2000s to its all-encompassing rhetoric as well the fact that it did not exclude and stigmatize liberals and social democrats. However, it owes it primarily to the economic growth the country has registered. Millions of people’s lives have improved in concrete terms. As mayor, İmamoğlu needs to prove that he can manage the city’s problems…. At least he needs to show that he is making the best with the resources at hand…. But no matter what the excuse is, underperformance does not help you win future elections. As is the case with other cities which are in the hands of the opposition, he will have to prove that he can come up with innovative solutions against all odds.”

Despite attempts to shield Mr. Erdoğan from the electoral fallout, a recent Gulf News editorial expressed what many have thought for some time, which is that the opposition victory in Istanbul sends a clear message to the ruling party and the Turkish president: “Turks…. have seen their freedoms gradually diminished, with those who speak out or comment against AKP policies facing spurious charges before the courts…. Independent voices on television, critical newspapers or [other] publications, websites that ask too many questions — all have been targeted by an increasingly authoritarian state, which seeks a media to speak with one view alone. Imamoglu’s election has changed this, with ground-shaking consequences for a coalition government that keeps the AKP in power. It is the first real clear sign that Turks have had enough of AKP.”

A recent editorial in The National argues that the loss of the mayoral election in Istanbul, especially following the arbitrary annulment of the original victory by the opposition in March 2019, may signal the “beginning of the end for Erdoğan” and “will fuel talk of Mr. Erdoğan’s political demise. Having enjoyed unfettered control over the city’s $4 billion municipal budget, the AKP runs a strong patronage network within Istanbul, which it is now on course to lose. It is worth noting that Mr. Erdoğan’s support base is largely rural, rather than metropolitan. But Istanbul hosts close-knit communities from all over Turkey. If they are voting against Mr. Erdoğan and the AKP in the city, there is a good chance that this current could exist elsewhere.”

Turkey’s ongoing economic challenges, which another editorial in the The National characterized as one of Erdoğan’s making, promises to make Turkish politics unpredictable in the short term, as demonstrated in the recent firing of the country’s central-bank governor: “With many ordinary Turks struggling financially, Mr. Erdoğan should be focusing on stabilizing an erratic economy. Instead, on Saturday, the Turkish president sacked central-bank governor Murat Cetinkaya by presidential decree. When markets opened on Monday morning, the lira’s value fell 3 percent. Again, Mr. Erdoğan has run roughshod over state institutions, after last year appointing his son-in-law Berat Albayrak as the country’s finance minister…. With the specter of fresh U.S. sanctions next week, the Turkish president has again undermined the credibility of an institution whose effectiveness depends entirely on its independence. In doing so, he has laid the groundwork for another recession and — if Turks respond again at the ballot box next time around — possibly his own downfall.”

The firing of the bank’s governor looks like a desperate attempt by Mr. Erdoğan to distract from the electoral loss and to shift the blame away from himself for Turkey’s economic instability. However, for Asharq Alawsat’s Amir Taheri, the writing is already on the wall, and the main question for Turkey’s president has now become not if, but how, he should exit the stage: “How and when you leave the stage is as important as when and how you enter it…. The problem is that Erdoğan may have already missed the ideal when and how of his eventual exit. But one thing is certain: the sand [in the hourglass] of his career has started flowing down faster…. Erdoğan may be intelligent enough to understand that things do not always go the way one likes…. Good or bad, the formerly successful Erdoğan recipe seems not to be working anymore. The baskhan (leader) has read his text, played his part and has nothing new to utter. The play has to go on, but, for him, the finger may be pointing to the exit.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top