Last Sunday, the Metropolitan Municipality of Istanbul elected Ekrem Imamoglu its mayor for the second time in just three months, as the city returned to the polls following allegations of impropriety in a previous vote in March. Imamoglu claimed around 54% of the vote, wildly extending his lead – from around 13,000 votes in the first poll to more than 806,000 this time – against his opponent Binali Yildirim of the ruling AKP party. As the result became obvious on Sunday evening, President Recep Erdogan took to Twitter to concede defeat, bringing this bitterly fought contest to a conclusion.
For the first time since 1994, Erdogan, or an ally of his, will not govern the city. In a previous SR article, I noted that strongman Erdogan's immediate response to the March result was to demand a recount. This was resisted by Imamoglu, a member of the secular republican CHP party. Subsequently, in a move widely believed to have been at the behest of Erdogan and his AKP party, the Supreme Electoral Council ruled that the election must be re-run due to 'irregularities'.
The significance of losing the mayoralty of Istanbul is hard to understate. The role commands a huge budget, around $7.3bn in 2018, and rumours abound that the AKP has long funded itself by allocating grants to charitable foundations related to the party. Perhaps more importantly, elections in Istanbul are a litmus test of the political mood across the country. As Erdogan himself is fond of saying: 'Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey'.
I arrived in the city earlier in the week, combining a work trip with a friend's wedding. We touch down in the recently opened Third Istanbul Airport; the sprawling building will feel immediately familiar to anyone who has spent time in the ostentatious, petrodollar-funded airports of the Middle East. However, unlike Qatar or Abu Dhabi, Turkey does not have a bottomless well of oil money. Despite assurances no government funds were used to finance it, the new airport is emblematic of the vanity projects that – among other things – Turks are now rejecting at the ballot box.
It's not difficult to see why Erdogan's electoral allure is slipping. Turkey is sailing in treacherous economic waters; the lira diving to historic lows last August and bad debts mounting in the banking system. Ratcheting political tension between the US and Turkey over the latter's purchase of a military missile system from Russia – with the potential for sanctions to be implemented – contributes to the sense of a country on the edge.
From a humanitarian perspective, perhaps most worrying is the country's ballooning inflation. As of May, the price of food and non-alcoholic beverages rose 28.44% from the year before. Many now struggle to feed themselves, a factor pushing many of the conservative religious poor, historically a mainstay of AKP support, toward the opposition.
Were it not for the background presence of special forces soldiers, the historic Ortakoy area retains a carnival feel. Competition between street-food stands selling kumpir (a type of baked potato filled with butter, cheese, green olives, black olives, Russian salad, sweetcorn, sausage, pickle, ketchup and mayonnaise) is unimaginably fierce. One might imagine that, having purchased kumpir from one stall, the others would sense you are no longer in the market for an overfilled jacket potato. One would be wrong – these committed salespeople simply urge you to chuck it in the bin and try their superior offering.
Strolling past the street vendors down to the banks of the Bosporus, we spot two small marquees. The first is manned by Imamoglu supporters, the second by Yildirim supporters. Dropping into the Imamoglu tent, I'm given a cup of hot black tea and a canvas tote bag bearing his campaign slogan: 'Her sey cok guzel olacak', which roughly translates as 'Everything will be alright'.
According to the, possibly apocryphal, story of how this tagline came into being, a young boy approached the candidate's bus shortly after the electoral council ruled the election must be re-run, and reassured him: 'Ekrem brother, everything will be okay'. It is a message that resonates with the Istanbulites I meet, fed up with a society that has become starkly polarised along religious and economic lines under AKP rule.
An ageing Che Guevara type in a black beret relates how a young woman came to his door late the previous night bearing bread and olives. 'Gifts from Binali Yildirim,', she told him. While buying votes with food is hardly an original tactic, it is altogether more effective when the electorate cannot afford to eat.
Indeed, the first page of Imamoglu's campaign literature is itself dedicated to promises to provide bread and milk to the city's poorest inhabitants. I have to hide my surprise when the friendly man who gave me tea, on finding out I'm Scottish, exclaims: 'My daughter has visited! She worked as a volunteer helping the poor people'.
At a mid-week dinner following a financial conference, Istanbul proves its reputation as the city that never sleeps. Raki balik – a meal that combines small seafood mezze dishes with the lethal local spirit Raki – slowly morphs into a dance party accompanied by upbeat Turkish pop songs from the 1990s. The music is, I'm told time and again, the perfect analogy for everything Turkey has lost over the last two decades: vibrant, inclusive and with one foot planted firmly in the west, the other in the east. The middle-class diners at this rooftop restaurant know all the words by heart.
After a final work meeting, we meet a friend for a drink in a trendy downtown beer garden. The two beer mega-brands in Turkey, Efes and Tuborg, still dominate, but the country is not immune to the now ubiquitous craft beer craze – Aberdeen-based BrewDog's Punk IPA is listed in the menu right next to Turkey's own Pablo IPA – despite the higher alcohol taxation that has been a feature of Erdogan's time in power.
'We need to normalise the situation without blood, we need hope', the friend says. Imamoglu is not a panacea; his powers as mayor are limited and he is as much a member of Turkey's political caste as any other. But as a secularist who prays, he is maybe the one candidate who can straddle many of the divides that have come to define the new Turkey.
The possibility of early parliamentary and presidential elections is now growing, and many do not believe the uneasy parliamentary alliance between the nationalist MHP and the AKP can last much longer. Imamoglu is the logical choice to lead the CHP into national elections, whenever they arrive. Don't forget, Erdogan himself started political life as mayor of the city.
The night before the vote, I attend a wedding at the opulent Four Seasons hotel. The party goes on late into the night, but several of the guests, especially the lawyers among them, go easy on the drink and leave early. They must wake at the crack of dawn to be at polling stations by 6am to serve as ballot box monitors – they are adamant, this is one election that will not be stolen.
David Graves is a journalist from Edinburgh, living in London. His reporting is mainly focused on finance in emerging markets