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Opposition candidate wins Istanbul mayor's race in blow to AKP

Voters rebuke long-time AKP dominance in Istanbul, delivering victory to CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu in a controversial election do-over.

ISTANBUL, Turkey — In a country that has been in perpetual campaign mode for the last five years, the sudden end of the Istanbul election do-over came as shock few could have predicted. Cheers and car horns echoed through the streets of the central Beyoglu district as the Binali Yildirim, the candidate of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), conceded defeat in a televised speech, ending his party’s long dominance over Turkey’s largest city.

“As of now my rival is leading,” Yildirim said minutes after the initial results were released, showing Ekrem Imamoglu, the candidate of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), with 54% of the vote. “I congratulate him and wish him all the luck. My wish is for Imamoglu to serve Istanbul well.”

Preliminary results reported by the state news outlet Anadolu Agency showed Imamoglu with 4.7 million votes to Yildirim’s 3.9 million votes with more than 99% of ballots counted at 9 p.m. Sunday night.

The election do-over came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AKP contested the initial March 31 municipal vote in which Imamoglu won by a slim margin. Following the original defeat, AKP officials brought forth a succession of vote recounts and appeals until Turkey’s top election board annulled the results, citing irregularities due to the credentials of some ballot box observers.

Preliminary results indicate Imamoglu significantly widened his margin in Sunday’s election, which saw a voter participation of roughly 84%. In a televised speech, the Istanbul mayor-elect warned party officials and ballot box observers not to leave their posts until all ballots had been officially registered, and to avoid early celebrations.

“This victory will pave the way for the democratization of Turkey,” Tuba Torun, a CHP official, told Al-Monitor. “We have a government that is ready to do anything to keep its power. As you know, we won last time and they didn’t accept the results, but this time the voting margin is so wide that they can’t deny the defeat here.”

The results come after a largely uneventful voting day, in which people streaming into polling stations largely spoke of election fatigue, citing the fact Turkey has gone through six elections in the last five years. The day’s main controversy came when a number of ballot envelopes stamped with parliamentary election seals, instead of municipal election seals, were discovered in the Uskudar district of Istanbul. Following complaints from both AKP and CHP officials, the election board ruled that the votes cast in the mislabeled envelopes would be considered valid in the final count.

According to the news outlet Bianet, a total of 111 people reportedly violated election laws. Forty-three people were accused of photographing their stamped ballots, 22 were apprehended for disturbing order in polling stations, nine individuals were found to be casting votes simultaneously and 14 were written up for entering voting areas with their phones.

Overall, voting proceeded without serious ballot box irregularities that have cast doubt on recent Turkish elections.

While exiting a polling station in Sisli, Fikri Aksu, a 35-year-old businessman, said he voted for Yildirim. “We vote according to our belief,” Aksu told Al-Monitor. “We must support the blessed one. It’s a relationship from the heart.”

Asked what he would like to see the Istanbul mayor-elect pursue regarding policy and municipal governance, Aksu presented a more cynical view. “At the end of the day, politicians are all the same,” Aksu told Al-Monitor. “They do everything out of self interest.”

A ballot box worker at the station who overheard Aksu's statement said the frequency of elections was having negative impacts on the economy, political discourse and social relations. The worker, who only gave his first name, Emre, told Al-Monitor he hoped this would be the last vote until the next presidential and parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for 2023.

“People are tired,” he said. “Everything is based on ideological views and people are loyal to political parties like they are to soccer clubs. They don’t vote with what is in the public interest, so until we change our minds, it doesn’t matter how many times we vote, we will continue to have the same problems.”

He also said politicians “should know that we don’t belong to them. Instead they should act like public officials and serve us.”

Polling stations closed at 5 p.m. in Istanbul, where more than 10.56 million registered voters were eligible to cast ballots in about 31,000 ballot boxes. Campaigning efforts in the lead-up to the election do-over brought about a string of unusual events for contemporary Turkish politics, including a rare televised debate between the leading candidates, as well as a public letter from imprisoned Kurdistan Workers Party leader Abdullah Ocalan, who urged Kurdish voters not to be swayed by AKP and CHP attempts to draw their votes.

The unprecedented events came as officials from both parties took Erdogan’s oft-repeated line “Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey” to heart and campaigned for the mayoral seat accordingly. Such rhetoric has grown tiresome for people such as Yasmin, a five-time ballot box observer volunteering in Sisli who only provided her first name.

“I think we shouldn’t mix state policy and foreign policy with city politics,” she told Al-Monitor. “This is only a municipal vote. We don’t need to make it more complicated than that. If people want a mayor, they should be able to vote without outside inference.”

Political observers have raised concerns over an ongoing fraud case against Imamoglu, which could be used to distract or limit the governing abilities of the mayor-elect in the coming months. For the time being, Erdogan recognized the election outcome in a tweet sent out Sunday night.

“Many people assumed that Erdogan wouldn’t have decided to re-run the election unless he had a clear-cut plan for winning it,” Nicholas Danforth, a senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, told Al-Monitor. “That seems not have been the case.”

“Imamoglu’s been allowed to win, it remains to be seen if he’s allowed to govern,” Danforth added. “The government has shown it has a range of tools at its disposal to limit his power and even remove him from office, although the margin of his victory will make it more politically costly for them to do so.”

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