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All Power to the Margins! On tomorrow’s election in Istanbul

A crowd in Trabzon waits to hear Istanbul mayoral candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu.

“They want to entrust Istanbul to a very mixed-up marginal group. They want to hand the city over to a group including FETÖ, Kandil, the PKK, the LGBT’s, Gezi and the whole confused mess of the CHP…and this group will reduce Istanbul to ruins.”

Thus spoke Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu to his interviewer on the news channel Habertürk this past Wednesday evening. Invoking the entire panoply of “marginal groups” which somehow inexplicably amounted to an electoral plurality and 49% of the total vote in the March 31 election for Mayor of Istanbul. Not that Soylu or his Justice and Development Party (AKP) colleagues would admit that. To them their party won the election, only to have it “stolen” by a small handful of local election officials who were up to no good. Hence the rematch set for tomorrow, between former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and Ekrem İmamoğlu, former mayor of the local municipality of Beylikdüzü and now the Turkish mainstream opposition’s most popular figure.

We should of course review what happened on March 31 and in the days immediately afterward. But first let us stop to admire the breathtaking list of enemies whose grand conspiracy Interior Minister Soylu, in keeping with the imperatives of his office, has just exposed. From this list we can learn that gay, lesbian and queer citizens of Turkey are on the same level as the PKK, the Fethullah Gülen network accused of masterminding failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016, which took at least 270 lives, and the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the country’s oldest continuous political party, founded by Atatürk himself. Indiscriminately stringing together all of its rivals under the heading of traitors and terrorists has long been the modus operandi of Turkey’s ruling party.

Even before the AKP managed to wrest the Istanbul municipality from Mayor İmamoğlu per court order, the campaign to discredit him by association with the country’s real or alleged enemies began. First a journalist at a press conference asked the new mayor whether or not he sympathized with Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-chairman of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), in prison on charges of producing propaganda for terrorism. As one of two leaders of a party representing Kurds and anti-militarist Turkish leftists and liberals, Demirtaş had called on his partisans to come out and vote on March 31 against the AKP. It was as clear as possible a signal that those who oppose the Turkish state’s harsh domination of predominantly Kurdish lands should vote for the CHP, in spite of that party’s traditionally nationalist stance and the undeniable anti-Kurdish prejudice of many of its core supporters. Demirtaş clearly knew that had he mentioned the CHP by name, he may well have cost it votes from its more traditional base. By asking İmamoğlu what he thought of Demirtaş, the journalist was presumably trying to lure him into a trap; either way, he risked offending some portion of those who had voted for him on March 31. İmamoğlu said that he was among those who admired Demirtaş, though he has sedulously avoided the issue of Kurdish identity or the Turkish military campaigns against the PKK and YPG since then. So far the fall-out from his answer has been less than expected.

Yet more concerted smear attempts were on their way. Once he had been ousted as mayor, İmamoğlu faced another conspiracy theory linking him to another one of Turkey’s traditional enemies, the Greeks. A smidgen of a rationale for this claim appeared in his family background in the eastern Black Sea region, where the seafaring Greeks once established colonies and where a (miniscule) Greek minority carries on to this day. Now, people with roots in the eastern Black Sea include one Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but never mind. In İmamoğlu’s case the ancestry is decisive! In a television interview Ahmet Hakan, who once hosted a program misnamed “impartial zone” (Tarafsız Bölge), demanded over and over again that İmamoğlu comment on a newspaper article that had allegedly appeared in the Greek press heralding him as the “champion of the Greeks” and the man destined to avenge them by “taking back Hagia Sophia.” İmamoğlu dismissed the story as unworthy of his attention. Then came his trip to the eastern Black Sea region.

It might seem strange that a candidate for Mayor of Istanbul would campaign in another part of the country, hundreds of kilometers away. İmamoğlu’s celebrated trip to the cities of Trabzon, Giresun and Ordu and the crowds that greeted him there, filling the largest city squares in a festival atmosphere reminiscent of any large-scale election campaign, is a signal of just how nationalized the Istanbul Mayoralty has become. Istanbul is not only the largest city in Turkey and the traditional capital of its commercial, media and artistic scenes, but it is also the major city that is the closest to being a microcosm of the entire country. As AKP officials are especially fond of pointing out, Istanbul is not just another coastal city in western Turkey (attributes that would make it unfriendly to Islamic conservatism), but includes residents from all 81 districts of Turkey. There are indeed sizable groups from every region of the country, and they tend to stick together, retaining at least to some degree their local allegiances. It is logical to expect that many of those who gathered to hear İmamoğlu speak have relatives in Istanbul who will be voting in tomorrow’s election. But that is probably not even the most important reason for him to have campaigned in such far-flung places. Appearing on television (if only on the very few remaining stations not in the AKP’s pocket) before large and enthusiastic crowds is a way of showing the Turks that he is their man, not just a local politician but someone capable of representing Turkey, which fits in miniature within Istanbul. It has become axiomatic in recent decades that only a leader with national appeal and ambitions is worthy of governing that colossal city.

President Erdoğan did more than anyone else to cement this perception. Along with İbrahim Melih Gökçek’s electoral triumph in Ankara, Erdoğan’s victory in the 1994 mayoral election in Istanbul marked the beginning of the Islamic conservative bloc’s predominance in Turkish politics. Since then, the Metropolitan Municipality of Istanbul, which governs not only the city proper but also its surrounding suburban and rural areas, has been in the conservatives’ hands. By besting former Prime Minister Yıldırım on March 31 by the narrow margin of 14,000 votes, İmamoğlu forcefully signaled the end of an era. Unofficially, of course. Or rather, first officially, and then not. After about two weeks of contests in court as the AKP filed various objections to the outcome, İmamoğlu finally received his mazbata, the ornately calligraphed, framed letter that officially designates someone’s right to elective office in Turkey. Eighteen days later, however, the High Election Commission (YSK) yielded to AKP requests that the election be redone, under the rationale that certain officials chosen to oversee the ballot boxes in a few localities did not have their positions lawfully. Though no allegations of ballot-stuffing appear in the YSK’s decision, AKP politicians very quickly shifted to calling the CHP “thieves,” closely echoing the opposition’s own claims in past elections–such as the 2017 referendum solidifying presidential power–in which such “theft” of votes seems to have taken place. And this in spite of the fact that, as İmamoğlu never tired of pointing out, the districts in question turned in AKP majorities–and even the YSK, in a later decision, allowed the same election officials to serve in different districts for the repeat election!

The murkiness of what happened on March 31 allows for endless dispute, which unfortunately took up much of the televised debate between İmamoğlu and Yıldırım on June 16. It was the first such debate between rival candidates since the AKP’s ascent to national power in 2002! Just the fact that the debate took place at all signals a major shift. Until now the AKP has generally acted as if it were by definition the party of the people and thus had no need or duty to condescend to debate on an equal level with the coup-plotters and traitors. Yıldırım’s surprise acceptance of İmamoğlu’s invitation to a debate set off a flurry of speculation as to what had changed. Is the AKP now aware that its support has slipped, and that it needs to take its case to the people in this manner? Or has Erdoğan decided that if the party is to lose the election, Yıldırım himself must take the blame?

Whatever the reason, it is unlikely that the president is ready to let Istanbul go just to purge the party of political losers. Istanbul is massively important to the AKP, not just symbolically but materially as well. Political scientists Berk Esen and Şebnem Gümüşçü have recently analyzed the political-economic infrastructure behind AKP rule with a close look at Istanbul in particular. Esen and Gümüşçü argue that the party’s dominance, and its recent unwillingness to accept constitutional legal constraints, stem from the triangular relationship the party has established among conservative businessmen, a chain of religious social foundations, and the urban poor. In exchange for state tenders and other favorable treatment, businesses are encouraged to donate money to foundations which then administer an unofficial private welfare system.

The urban poor–what Marxists might call the lumpenproletariat–vote for the AKP on the understanding that if they did not, they would be cut out of the system. Municipal workers carry the message door to door, bringing promises and on occasion even threats. Meanwhile, the official, state-managed welfare system operates on a logic of favoritism and gratitude, with specific groups targeted for assistance according to the party’s need to attract them as voters. As Erdem Yörük has also pointed out, prior to the 2015 collapse of the peace-talks between the state and the PKK, municipal officials gave priority to Kurdish households as claimants of social assistance, only to reverse this policy once it became clear that the peace process was not leading more Kurds to vote for the AKP.

It is crucial that the Left neither scorn these “lumpens” nor ignore the real accomplishments of the AKP welfare system, at least as it operated in the boom years of the first decade of the new century. Esen and Gümüşoğlu note the dramatic decline in extreme poverty under the AKP. Even while acknowledging the catastrophic plight of the proletariat as a whole, as union power declines still further and a record number of fatal “work accidents” accumulates, the opposition needs a strategy for building on the AKP’s successes on the welfare front while decoupling those successes decisively from the clientelist logic under which they have advanced. Yet Esen and Gümüşçü think that even the CHP and Ekrem İmamoğlu have in their modest way begun to advance such an agenda. Of the few local municipalities in Istanbul that shifted from AKP to CHP administrations during the brief economic downturn of 2009, they note, none has slid back into the AKP camp since. This fact suggests that, though many working in the informal sector initially fear that an AKP defeat will mean the end of social assistance, CHP municipalities have managed to dispel these fears convincingly once in office. One of İmamoğlu’s first acts as mayor was to cut public transportation prices, and since losing the office to an Erdoğan-appointed AKP “caretaker,” he has argued repeatedly that with the corrupt patronage-system brought under control, the city will be able to make life more affordable for the greater part of the populace.

Though disappointingly little of the televised debate focused on policy, when İmamoğlu was able to wrench himself and his opponent away from the endless tally of accusations and counter-accusations on what happened on March 31, he argued clearly for the end of the patronage network. Pressing Yıldırım on the voluminous array of cooperative projects undertaken by the municipality with private foundations, İmamoğlu declared that the state should maintain public services on its own. İmamoğlu’s success in appealing to poorer voters who have supported the AKP in the past will depend on whether or not he is able to convince them that social programs will operate more transparently, justly and efficiently without the corporate middleman, and without the concessions to favored capitalists which are the price the state pays to keep the system in place.

İmamoğlu had his one “gotcha” moment when, after getting Yıldırım to denounce as a “lie” rumors of a report issued by the national Court of Accounts (Sayıştay) criticizing the Istanbul Municipality for misuse of funds, he then produced the account, a bound volume on glossy paper, from beneath the table. Yet the most sensational “gotcha” came from the other side. During his campaign trip to the northeast, İmamoğlu got into a spat with the presidentially appointed Governer (Vali) of Ordu, whom he allegedly called a “dog” (it). İmamoğlu for his part claims that this syllable, captured on video tape no less, was merely the tail end of the word “simple” (basit). He also expressed bafflement at how they can call him to account for this alleged insult while calling him much worse insults like “Greek,” “traitor” and “terrorist.” (Unfortunately, like John McCain reassuring a potential supporter during his 2008 run for the US Presidency that Barack Obama was “not an Arab,” İmamoğlu did not call into question the imputation of evil to Greeks).

One person not willing to forgive İmamoğlu for insulting “his” Vali is the man who appointed him, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Here a word is in order on the governmental overlap between the governor and mayor’s offices in the Republic of Turkey. As Alp Kayserilioğlu noted in a previous LeftEast article, the Vilayet system dividing Turkey into 81 provinces is a legacy of the centralist Ottoman system. The Vali is appointed directly by the President and coordinates police powers in the district (il or vilayet). While the Vali‘s job is to keep order, mayors of municipalities have the task of delivering local public services. Only in districts designated Metropolitan Municipalities (Büyükşehir Belediyesi) does the remit of the municipal government cover the entire province.

In principle, the overlap of governorship and municipality creates a balance–or tension–of local and national control. In regions with strong rebellious currents, most of all the Southeast, the contrast between the two authorities can be striking. Since the AKP’s hard authoritarian turn around 2015, though, local governments have come directly under attack as the national state moves to administer everything from Ankara. As the AKP moved away from the peace process, dissatisfied its failure to deliver a lasting Kurdish majority for the party, HDP mayors across the Southeast were charged with, and convicted of, terrorism-related offenses, and relieved of their duties and imprisoned. The serial appointment of “caretaker” (kayyum) mayors to replace those democratically elected is in fact the precedent behind what has just happened in Istanbul. Since May 6 Vali Ali Yerlikaya has also governed as interim mayor.

In a recent interview, Erdoğan declared that he would not stand by while someone insults “his” Vali. Such an insult is a crime, he said, and will not go unpunished. If the court decides on a prison sentence, then of course İmamoğlu will no longer be able to serve as mayor. “It will be taken away from him, just as it was taken away from me,” he said, alluding to the 1997 court decision that convicted then-Mayor Erdoğan of stoking communal hatred by publicly reciting a poem by Ziya Gökalp that declares mosques barracks, believers soldiers, minarets bayonets and cupolas helmets. Erdoğan’s fantasy of revenge has accompanied him throughout his political life. What becomes ever clearer, though, is his desire to do exactly the same to his rivals as what was done to him on account of his words, having long ago discarded the pretense that has a former convicted “thought-criminal” he might be motivated to set aside such restrictions on expression as a matter of principle.

So far none of AKP’s attempts to tar Ekrem İmamoğlu as an enemy of the people has worked. He shrugged aside Yıldırım’s clumsy attempts during the debate to tie him to FETÖ, and his (very indirect) association with HDP’s Selahattin Demirtaş does not seem to have hurt him. It is hard to imagine him as a Greek asset with such a large Turkish following, and besides, Hellenophobia is not nearly as charged a passion in Turkish politics as it once was. Yet this week Erdoğan and his allies, including Devlet Bahçeli of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) showed that they have one more, apparently desperate, trick up their sleeves, one that throws over the delicate balancing act that the ruling party has played for years in order to maintain a ruling coalition. That trick’s name is Abdullah Öcalan. At least that is what they say. On Friday Erdoğan announced that a lawyer had met with the founder of the PKK in his prison cell on the island of İmralı and emerged with a hand-written letter from the guerrilla leader to his followers. Its message: don’t vote for the CHP!

Almost gleefully, Erdoğan explained that a “power struggle” has opened up within the Kurdish movement, pitting the old leader of the armed struggle against that upstart lawyer and populist politician Selahattin Demirtaş. In choreographed messages, both Erdoğan and Bahçeli–the most unlikely ally imaginable for Öcalan–warned Kurdish fellow-citizens not to be taken in by the CHP and its accomplices. The strangest thing about their analysis of the Kurdish situation is that it may actually be true. Before the elections of 2017, Demirtaş in fact accused Erdoğan of using Öcalan against him! Whatever the facts behind the claims on which the nationalist-cum-religious Right is now banking, the transactional nature of all of the AKP’s alliances has been made clearer than ever. Neither the “peace process” from 2009-2015, nor the “local and national” (yerli ve milli) commitments that the party has signposted since then in tandem with its ultranationalist ally MHP, have been worth the grey paper that its captive media (90% of the Turkish press on Esen and Gümüşçü’s estimation) have printed it on. By now, it should be clear that the party’s commitments to the most impoverished portions of the working class is no less transactional. It is well past time that the city of Istanbul show it the door.