Istanbul's mayoral election will be rerun following an appeal from the strongman-president's party. The exiled journalist Can Dundar gave DW his appraisal of the complex situation leading up to the June 23 election.
Can Dundar, the former editor-in-chief of Turkish daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, currently lives in exile in Germany
Ever since Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994, I have followed him closely. At the beginning of his political journey, he said, verbatim: "Democracy, for us, is not a final goal, but a means to an end. We will take the democracy train as long as we can, and then at some point we will get off it." I think that was the most candid remark he has ever made.
Ultimately, now that he is president, he has decided to get off the democracy train at the "political Islam" stop. In the past 25 years, he first utilized all the facets of democracy. Then, he systematically decimated them: the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, the media, the universities, civil society, and, finally, free elections.
"Everything is mine," he said — and with that, became an autocrat.
Nevertheless, Turkey's democratic chapter is not yet finished. Although Erdogan may have stepped off, the democracy train rolls on. Sometimes it is brought to a halt, sometimes it advances, sometimes obstacles get in the way, but somehow it continues. One must not forget: At least half the country wants a democratic, free and secular Turkey.
Erdogan's opposition: Stronger than ever
The fact that Erdogan, with the help of obedient judges, has managed to annul the Istanbul mayoral elections has led to an unexpected outcome: For the first time, the various opposition parties have put aside their deep political divisions and formed an alliance.
This large coalition has united social democrats, socialists, nationalists, and conservative religious groups who respect and support the will of the those who cast their vote at the ballot box. No other goal than having Erdogan as their common opponent could bring them together in such a way. The polarization that he himself brought about is now coming back to bite him.
Investors, artists, lawyers and most notably opponents from within the ranks of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), who until now have remained silent, have taken to the streets. People who had holidays planned have canceled their flights so they can participate in the electoral re-do. June 23 — the day set for the local elections in Istanbul — is something of a last chance for a final stop before the collapse of Turkish democracy.
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What happens now?
Can the opposition, which won the Istanbul municipal elections but lost them again to the judicial authorities, repeat its victory under these circumstances?
It's too early for optimism. We still have seven weeks to go. I know Erdogan well, and I know he will use every opportunity to ensure he does not lose again. And there's an example from the past that makes me pessimistic: When Erdogan suffered his first heavy loss of votes in the 2015 parliamentary elections, he ditched peace negotiations with the Kurds — and the country plunged into chaos.
In the summer that followed, over 600 people died in terrorist attacks. Erdogan offered his people a way out of chaos: "Give me 400 seats in Parliament [an absolute majority, Eds.] so the problem can be solved in peace." In the next elections, he picked up an additional five million votes, and the chaos was over.
These examples indicate what could happen in Turkey over the next seven weeks. The president will use provocation tactics to drum up support, such as warning that more Turkish soldiers will return home in coffins after dying fighting Kurdish militias.
Istanbul 'a staircase to success'
Istanbul's mayoral candidates are running neck-and-neck. But AKP candidate and former prime minister Binali Yildirim, who represents Erdogan's establishment, is actually looking rather weak. Opposition candidate and previously declared winner Ekrem Imamoglu, however — he's rolling up his sleeves and digging in.
Imamoglu, of the Republican People's Party (CHP), had already been verified as the winner of the March 31 election prior to the electoral council's re-do announcement on Tuesday. With his shining demeanor and engagement, Imamoglu has become a political star; with amicable determination, he confronts the raging Erdogan. Many secular commentators have already pegged him as a future president of Turkey.
Istanbul is like a staircase to political success. Erdogan's career began on this staircase, which he climbed to the top and then went down again. Imamoglu is only at the start but moving steadily upwards; now the two are standing eye-to-eye on the same step in what will be Turkey's hottest summer yet.
As for the country as a whole: Turkey is like a bag of surprises. Both hope and pessimism are bouncing around inside, and when you reach in, anything could come out. But one thing is sure: The democracy train keeps rolling along, faster and faster, now that Erdogan has stepped off.
Can Dundar is a prominent Turkish journalist and the former editor-in-chief of Turkish daily newspaper Cumhuriyet. He currently lives in exile in Germany.