The lesson from Turkey’s elections: Charisma is key to defeating a strongman

Supporters of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, a leader in Turkey's opposition party, celebrate after polls closed in local elections on Sunday. (Erdem Sahin/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Supporters of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, a leader in Turkey's opposition party, celebrate after polls closed in local elections on Sunday. (Erdem Sahin/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

It’s a dangerous moment for Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has ruled comfortably for more than 20 years, with his political opponents squabbling and in disarray. But things are clearly changing. With a younger generation of leaders and mayors, Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), beat Erdogan’s ruling conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) in local elections this weekend for the first time ever.

This feels like a big moment.

There is no mistaking that this was a protest vote: Turkish voters expressed their discontent with the president and his policies less than a year after he won the general elections. Opposition candidates won across all major cities.

In the capital, Ankara, opposition mayor Mansur Yavas received double the vote of the AKP candidate.

More significantly, in the battle for Istanbul, the city’s popular mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, decisively defeated Erdogan’s handpicked candidate. With more than 15 million residents, Istanbul is more populous than many European countries and a microcosm of Turkey. As a young Islamist, Erdogan rose to prominence in national politics in 1994 by winning municipal elections there. He knows full well that “whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey”.

Imamoglu’s victory elevates the mayor to a de facto leadership role inside the opposition and makes him a likely competitor in the next presidential election, scheduled for 2028. As if to foreshadow this race, the mayor’s victory speech to a large crowd outside Istanbul city hall at midnight coincided with Erdogan’s concession speech in Ankara. Erdogan spoke humbly about engaging “boldly … in self-criticism”, while the younger Imamoglu roared onstage, proclaiming victory for “the republic and democracy” and the end of “the era of one man’s tutelage”.

I interviewed Imamoglu for The Post immediately after he was elected in 2019 and have come to know him personally since. He is competent and has the personal touch that has endeared him to Istanbul residents. With an economic downturn and rampant inflation, it’s hard to imagine Imamoglu waiting a full four years to challenge Erdogan. The opposition is likely to start asking for early elections soon.

There is a lesson here for other struggling democracies looking to defeat their strongmen: Charisma matters. Only a year ago, Turkey’s opposition failed to unseat Erdogan in general elections despite Turkey’s sputtering economy — in large part because opposition parties settled on a dull compromise candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. With Imamoglu as the new hopeful alternative, the dynamic shifted against Erdogan.

A top adviser for Imamoglu told me that in Istanbul and Ankara, opposition candidates’ success stemmed from being able to flip conservative and low-income districts where secularists have done poorly in the past. For a long time, Turkey’s secular opposition offered only ideology — a resistance to Erdogan’s Islamism — which appealed only to the urban middle class. Now, opposition leaders are offering the promise of good governance and, as a result, broadening their base to include the urban poor, Kurds and conservatives.

But it is too early to write off Erdogan. He is a survivor and pragmatist who can skillfully switch alliances to stay in power. Erdogan’s third and final presidential term is over in 2028, but few expect him to step down. His strategy will likely be to muddle through until 2028, hoping to reap the benefits if Turkey’s economy recovers on his watch. He will also likely push for constitutional changes to allow another term.

For that, Erdogan has to do what he did in the last election and cobble up a far-right coalition with Islamist parties to counter the oppositional wave — a strategy reminiscent of the one employed by his nemesis, Israel’s longtime prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. And, as in Israel, such a strategy will only deepen social polarization and further stress Turkey’s fragile democracy.

A different path is open to Erdogan. He could choose to step down after his third term and rightly claim to have been a transformational Turkish leader no less consequential than modern Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Instead of trying to be a forever president like Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, he should focus on his own legacy, on the livelihood of Turkey’s citizens and on securing Turkey’s place in a chaotic world until his term is over.

After this weekend, it’s clear that Turkey’s voters have spoken — and are ready for change. Will Erdogan hear them?

Asli Aydintasbas is a former journalist from Turkey and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C.

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