Istanbul and the AKP: Springboard, Showcase and Ali Baba’s Cave

The election of Ekrem İmamoğlu, candidate of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) for mayor of Istanbul was finally cancelled, after unbelievable government pressure. It will be held again on June 23 and, for economic, political and symbolic reasons, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decided that he could not afford to lose this “Ali Baba’s cave”.

21 April 2019 in Malpete (Istanbul district). Meeting organized by Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, six days after his election.

The announcement on 6 May 2019 that the recent election (31 March 2019) of Ekrem İmamoğlu as the mayor of metropolitan Istanbul was null and void and the immediate appointment of the prefect as interim mayor put an end to over a month of worried waiting and wild hopes among Erdoğan’s opponents following the victory of the young opposition candidate by some tens of thousands of votes out of the more than ten million voters in the district. The Higher Council on Elections (YSK), the competent court in the matter, reached this decision by (only) seven votes to four after the results were challenged by the local leadership of the AKP. The pretext was that some of the officials in charge of the ballot boxes had been dismissed from the civil service by decree during the state of exception that followed the failed coup of 15 July 2016. Incidentally, one wonders why the three other elections of district mayors, municipal assemblies and borough mayors were not cancelled as well, considering they all took place at the same time under the same conditions.

The Kurdistan precedent

This new development which was greeted with outraged stupefaction among sectors of Turkish opinion and abroad is actually in line with a political evolution which dates from before the attempted coup. It dates from early in 2014 at least, and tended to devitalise the country’s institutions in favour of the presidency (and the person who has held that office since the first presidential election by direct universal suffrage in August 2015). Thus the judicial system has lost its autonomy in the same way that there no longer exist any local powers properly speaking, so frequent and irrevocable are the interventions of the State in their sphere of competence. Moreover, this “coup” of 6 May 2019 merely applies to Istanbul a principle of non-recognition of election results when these are not to the liking of the President and his entourage, a principle which was already commonplace in Eastern Turkey. There, indeed, the candidates of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) who came out on top were forced to step aside in favour of the presidential coalition. These shows of strength in contempt of the absolute or relative majority of voters, actually went further than in Istanbul insofar as the government didn’t even bother to cancel the election in Turkish Kurdistan,1 merely invalidating the victory of the HDP candidates on the grounds they had been ousted from the civil service by law decree several years earlier, and installing candidates who had sometimes come in second, far behind the winners.

And long before March 2019, as early as 2014, the elected mayors of towns in Eastern Turkey had been replaced by straw men and even, after 2017, in Ankara and Istanbul. Indeed the Mayor of metropolitan Istanbul was removed from office in 2017. Which goes to show the disregard in which local institutions and their autonomy have come to be held. To which must be added a tendency to restrict the decisional leeway of these same local institutions through repeated interference from the presidency or from certain intrusive ministries with policies of urban transformation (renovation) and other vast projects which have governmental priority. Indeed it is through huge urban projects, such as the giant Çamlıca mosque, finally inaugurated in May 2019, or transport infrastructures such as the Istanbul airport inaugurated at the end of 2018, that the AKP’s will to power and its determination to enhance its international prestige is most clearly demonstrated.

In the name of the people

In other words, the cancellation of the election of 31 March 2019 is merely the latest episode, no doubt more spectacular in some ways than its predecessors, of the erosion of democracy begun several years ago. Whatever the chronology of this process and, however it may be called, it feeds on the argument that Turkey must cope with exceptional circumstances which justify, so to speak, these breaches in the fundamental principles of a country which prides itself on being a democracy. The AKP power structure claims it must combat more and more “internal enemies”: this time-worn rhetoric was revived after the 2016 coup and it now encompasses both the Kurdish movement and the followers of Fethulla Gülen, the CHP and all the country’s protest movements, workers, feminists, environmentalists, religious minorities (non-Sunni) or socialists, and is becoming increasingly paranoid, obsessed with security and militarised. The big increase in military spending (up 25% in 2018 compared with 2017, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Sipri) or the spectacular rise in Turkish arms exports (also by 25% in 2018 compared with the previous year) are only a few symptoms among many.

One of the apparent ironies of these recent developments is that this authoritarian interference is supposedly being carried out in the name of the people and in accordance with its wishes. On 8 May 1919 the headlines of the mainstream newspapers all claimed that the cancellation of the Istanbul election would to give the people back its voice in public affairs which had been confiscated or perverted by devious enemies. The electoral legitimation of the existing power structure has been increasingly exclusive; presidential elections of 2014 and 2018; referendum on the “presidentialisation” of the regime in 2016; parliamentary elections in June 2015 and then again in November of that same year. The idea is to make people believe that the voting process remains decisive, but only provided it takes place according to Erdoğan’s wishes. Which is why, ignoring completely the local nature of the elections held at the end of March 2019, he analysed the results solely in nationwide terms: the presidential coalition claimed to still hold a majority since it garnered 52% of the total suffrage. But this bizarre calculation was overturned in Istanbul, where support for the AKP in national elections has been steadily declining since 2011. In this case, it was the number of municipal districts won by a candidate of the presidential coalition (25 out of 39) which was spotlighted by the AKP to support its clam to a majority in Istanbul! “Majority” is a very elastic notion for the AKP which exploits it as it sees fit.

A city full of history and laden with symbols

But what exactly is behind these relentless efforts to keep Istanbul? Much has already been made of the demographic and economic stakes (a population of 16 million), about the way public contracts are put out to tender, about the thirty private companies in which 51% of the stock is held by the city of Istanbul and whose combined budgets are greater than that of the municipality itself (20 billion TRY in 2018).2 The legal status of these companies poses a boggles the mind. They are companies ruled by private law but controlled by the city which each case benefits from a monopoly in order to guarantee public services. The impossibility of privatising them—with the exception of one, IDO, the company in charge of municipal maritime transports (created in 1987 and privatised in April 2011)—appears to reside in the difficulty of providing prospective buyers with credible accounts. There are also the two municipal agencies in charge of the water supply and transports with totally opaque accounting, and the huge system of redistribution and circulation of money established in 1994 for the benefit of a nebulous body of players who owe their sole subsistence to their special relations with the power structure. For years now, Networks of Dispossession has done a remarkable job of showing with the aid of graphics the network of business connections tightly knitted over the years and which associates the metropolitan municipality, its private companies, its agencies and the big private groups, especially in the building industry, which is the first to benefit from public commissions.

However, in order to fully grasp what is at stake here, we must look more closely at the history of political Islam in Turkey. The movement received its original impetus in Istanbul with the Welfare Party (Refah) created immediately after the September 1980 coup. Erdoğan became its provincial head in June 1985 and its unsuccessful candidate for Parliament in September 1986 and then in the municipal elections of March 1989. From its base in Istanbul, the movement learned to negotiate the ins and outs of politics and got its first taste of power, locally at first after 1992 in district municipalities, and then, from March 1994, with the same Erdoğan, at the head of the metropolitan municipality of Istanbul.

The takeover of Turkey’s largest city by political Islam was a founding moment in the consolidation of that current and a critical stage in its ultimate conquest of national power. In this sense, Istanbul was an ideal springboard for Erdoğan: his whole political career after 5 November 1998 (when he was removed from office by decision of the Council of State) was to take place with reference to those “golden years”3 when he was free to build his powerful networks and acquire the stature of a national political figure. Thus the principal place for the “primitive accumulation” of Turkish political Islam in all its dimensions is undeniably Istanbul.

“As long as the world exists”

In addition, Istanbul is a cardinal component of Turkish political Islam insofar as it was a city long held sacred and coveted by the True Believers and finally conquered in 1453; as former capital of the Ottoman Empire (1454–1922) transformed into the beacon of Sunni Islam. For the conservative ideologues and writers of the period 1940–1960 who shaped Erdoğan’s thinking (like the poet Yahya Kemal (1882–1958), author of Turkish Istambul4) it was the defeat of Byzance at Constantinople in May 1453, seen as a key moment of civilisational changeover, that Turkish superiority was established and the synthesis between Islam and “Turkishness” was concretely achieved.

One of the major assertions of Turkish Istanbul, written in the forties, is this: “Henceforward this land (Istanbul), as long as the world exists, will remain Turkish.” This is why the victory of the Refah party in March 1994 was presented as a kind of reconquest and that the possibility that the AKP might “lose” Istanbul is now experienced as a threat to the nation’s very identity. The reigning party, founded in Istanbul in August 2001 by politicians seasoned by their years of administering the city by Erdoğan’s side is totally steeped in this Istanbul imaginary. The city is in fact a part of the party’s identity. The AKP’s highly emotional relationship to Istanbul, which had an exacerbated visibility during the 2019 electoral campaign, harks back to a long history, and goes far beyond the issue of who will control the city’s financial manna.

Object of desire for the cadres of the AKP with its gilded splendours and opportunities for personal gain perceived as unlimited, Istanbul also continues to delight and fascinate as a symbol of Turkey’s role in world history. As Erdoğan recently suggested, Istanbul is consubstantial with the “permanence of the Turkish State,” a concept which has recently been conjured up obsessively in order to dramatise and generalise what is at stake in this local election and make him personally the sole guarantor of that permanence.

As Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, Erdoğan’s main ally, declared at the presidential coalition’s last mass meeting in Istanbul before March 31 election, “If Istanbul falls, all of Turkey will fall.” For President Erdoğan as well, to give up Istanbul would be to admit the possibility of giving up Turkey. Which is as things stand an unbearable prospect for him. Consequently, in order to prevent that unthinkable eventuality, it seems that no holds are barred!

1To be exact in the municipalities of Bağlar (province of Diyarbakır), Tuşba (Van), Edremit (Van), Çaldıran (Van), Digor (Kars) and Tekman (Erzurum).

2On 15 MAY 2019, one pound sterling was worth 7.72 TRY. When the 2018 budget was adopted the pound was worth around 6.2 TRY.

3Title of a thick propaganda tome glorifying the ousted leader and published by the City Hall of metropolitan Istanbul at the end of 1998.

4In the journal Tore, May 1972. The Turkish original, which appeared long after his death, is currently available. Kemal is a permanent reference in Turkish conservative circles (at least those of Erdoğan’s generation). He is also the author of the poem “Saint Istanbul,” emblematic of the emotional relationship to that city.