HE who wins
Istanbul wins Turkey. Such was the maxim popularised by none other than Turkish
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the days when the AKP (Justice and
Development Party) was rising. Those were the good days and now those good days
may be going away, as Turkey’s inhabitants revisit their relations with the
began in March, when a mayoral election saw opposition party candidate Ekrem
Imamoglu winning against the AKP party candidate by approximately 14,000 votes.
Unsurprisingly, the AKP party was not happy with the outcome and it demanded a
recount. The winning margin, they noted, was very slim in a city with nearly 11
million voters. Turkey’s Supreme Election Council did not agree. Instead of
ordering a recount, it ordered another election. That election was held this
weekend and the voters of Istanbul went to the polls again to choose between
the AKP and the CHP (People’s Republican Party).
the result was definitive. Not long after polls had closed, it was clear that
Imamoglu was going to win with a much larger margin. The result was exactly
that. This time Imamoglu trounced the AKP candidate by over 700,000 votes. The
people of Istanbul seemed to have decided. Despite having to go through the
trouble of a second mayoral election and voting a second time, their minds were
made up. They had had quite enough of the AKP; it was time to give the
opposition a chance. In the aftermath of the result, Erdogan congratulated
Imamoglu and made all the moves required of a gracious loser. It was, many
supporters of the AKP insisted, only a municipal election for mayor.
the AKP may play down the significance of their defeat all they want, but
nearly everyone in Turkey knows that the turn of events is notable. Istanbul
continues to be the jewel in the country’s crown, producing nearly half of the
country’s tax revenue and controlling a huge chunk of the country’s commercial
activity. In recent months, residents of the city have seen the prices of food
and other goods rise. The value of the Turkish lira has fallen against the
dollar, spurring fears that the economy is heading for an even deeper downturn.
All of it, particularly the fears regarding the economy, was enough to make
voters choose the opposition CHP — not just once, but twice.
implications of the AKP’s defeat in Istanbul are significant even beyond
Turkey. The AKP was one of the first moderate Islamist parties to come to the
fore. Its primary appeal was populist, promising a better life to the ordinary
man or woman, without the seeming paternalism of the country’s elite-led (in
the AKP’s view) secular leaders. There are a lot of these in Istanbul, perhaps
not in the European parts of the city, but in areas like Uskudar, a middle-class
suburb on the Asian side. The cultural appeal of the party was summarised by
one voter who pointed out that 20 years ago, someone like her who chose to wear
a headscarf could not get a university education in the country.
the Turkey that chose the AKP and Erdogan again and again in successive
elections by tremendous margins. The party turned the country away from the
long-enduring Kemalist-style secularism that banned the headscarf in public
universities. It was a very popular move, symbolic of the agenda of cultural
reform and the embrace of religion. In the years that followed, the country and
especially the city, was transformed. No longer was the city the much-touted
bastion of secularism in the Muslim world. The bars in Eminonu on the European side
still served alcohol and women with bleach-blonde hair still walked up and down
its streets in impossibly tight mini-skirts, but the tide had shifted. There
were less of them and a lot more women with headscarves were seen and a lot
more men with beards. Religion, that had been banished from the public sphere,
was now squarely and indelibly a part of it.
generation of Turks has now grown up under the AKP and Erdogan. The struggles
of their forbears, against a secularism that seemed elitist, exclusionary and
imposed, may not resonate with them. In a tightening global order, increasingly
inhospitable to trade, economics may begin to matter more than issues like
religion in the public sphere. Latent frustration at the widespread firing of
professors at Turkish universities and the severe clampdown on the once-free
press (both of which took place after the failed coup attempt three years ago)
may also influence views. Istanbul voters may have concluded what critics of
the AKP have long argued: the party has weakened democratic institutions and
gobbled up too much power.
Istanbul, one of the most famous and best-loved cities of the Islamic world, is
looking away from an Islamist party and towards others, there may be signals
for the rest of the Muslim world. While right-leaning strongmen may be in power
in many Muslim countries, emerging younger voters are less than enthralled with
them. The cultural messaging that generated voter ire and got them to the polls
on symbolic issues like veiling is no longer working.
post-Islamist order it is not faith but rather the pragmatics of economic
opportunity and global inclusion that motivate voters. In a world increasingly
fighting over ever-meagre resources, the question of economic futures may
matter more than firebrand sermons. As a close ally of Turkey and Erdogan,
Pakistan needs to prepare for a future where the AKP party no longer controls
the country. Erdogan may still be the strongman at the centre, but the era of
leaders like him, lingering into these final years of the second decade of the
21st century, may well be coming to an end.
Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Source: The Dawn, Pakistan