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CELEBRATIONS are continuing across Turkey after the crushing defeat for the ruling Justice & Development Party (AKP) in Sunday’s rerun Istanbul mayoral election.
Successful candidate Ekrem Imamoglu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) swept to victory polling about 800,000 more votes than his rival, former prime minister Binali Yildirim of the AKP.
The scale of the defeat should not be underestimated. It was the biggest winning margin in an Istanbul mayoral election for 35 years.
Mr Imamoglu won the election by a landslide, delivering a hammer blow to Turkey’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who forced a rerun of March’s election, which was lost in the initial poll by just 15,000 votes.
It was a serious miscalculation by Mr Erdogan and he could pay a heavy price for his high-stakes gamble.
Voters swung against Mr Erdogan’s party, with the CHP winning in conservative Sunni areas, the traditional powerbase of the AKP that has kept parties associated with the president in control of Istanbul since 1994.
Losing areas such as Fatih, along with Mr Yildirim’s constituency of Tuzla & Uskudar, where Mr Erdogan lives, would have been previously unthinkable.
It in part reflects a deepening economic crisis, that is having an effect on the urban poor and all sectors of Turkish society. It was the economy that propelled the AKP to power — and it could be the economy that condemns it to defeat.
But a local source urged caution against becoming starry-eyed about Mr Imamoglu and the CHP, saying: “The history of the party shouldn’t be forgotten in the blink of an eye.”
Amid the sheer elation at dislodging the AKP in Turkey’s biggest city, there are some, including those on the left, who are lauding Mr Imamoglu, even speaking about him in terms of the country’s next president.
For those suggesting that “Turkish democracy has life still in it,” there are a few sobering reminders: eight parliamentarians from the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) are still in prison for the “crime” of representing those who elected them, along with dozens of HDP mayors. And thousands of HDP activists are behind bars for the “crime” of supporting an opposition political party.
About 190 journalists are in prison on trumped-up charges of spreading terrorist propaganda or membership of terrorist organisation and the press remains tightly controlled by Mr Erdogan.
Constitutional changes introduced following a rigged 2017 referendum introduced a presidential system granting unprecedented powers to Mr Erdogan, including the right to dissolve parliament and rule by decree.
Many warn that talk of “the beginning of the end of Erdogan” is premature, with the system that maintains his power still in place.
The celebrations taking place in Turkey are less to do with the victory of Mr Imamoglu and more to do with the defeat of Mr Yildirim.
Mr Imamoglu remains a politician cut from the CHP cloth. In his victory speech he insisted: “I am a project, I am a project of the republic, I am a project of the republic of Turkey, the republic of Ataturk” — words that will play well to his voter base.
The former construction company boss entered politics in 2009 for personal reasons amid frustrations over “red tape” and other issues that impacted on the family business.
He joined the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemalist nationalists and Turkey’s oldest surviving political party.
Many have highlighted the historical role of the CHP, from the Armenian genocide and massacre of the Kurds in Dersim in the early 20th century to more recent times. It has backed Mr Erdogan’s war in Afrin and supported the lifting of immunity from prosecution for parliamentarians — a move it knew would be used to jail HDP politicians.
Viewing the CHP as progressives is a mistake. Its politicians are chauvinists, who formed an alliance with the Iyi (Good) Party.
The CHP Mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavas, is a former mayor for the MHP ultranationalist/fascist party — a transition that was made without anyone batting an eyelid.
In this election HDP electoral strategy was entirely vindicated, aiming at loosening the grip of the AKP/MHP on the country.
However, it was done with no illusions about the CHP. It is the HDP, the labour movement and the forces of democracy that will bring about real change.
The defeat of the AKP in Istanbul is a platform to build on — but the struggle for democracy continues.
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