Istanbul mayoral elections: in praise of human agency

The repeat election for Istanbul has brought a great victory for Ekrem İmamoğlu who received 54% of the vote. In the course of the past year, he has emerged as a candidate who has the potential to challenge the 17-year-long AKP rule in Turkey. There is no doubt that İmamoğlu’s unstinting recourse to what he calls the “language of love”, replacing rage and polarization, played a large role in his victory. He was able to win the hearts and minds of the citizens of Istanbul by breathing respect and reconciliation into a polarized society. With a new language, he energized Turkish politics and planted seeds of hope in despondent hearts.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to say that İmamoğlu did not achieve this victory all by himself. As he also underlined in his victory speech, there were many actors who made this historical dent in authoritarian rule possible.

First of all, there is no doubt that the citizens of Istanbul who not only voted but were notably organized to monitor/guard the ballots played an historically significant role in this victory. The history of Turkey’s citizen-initiated electoral monitoring remains to be written as an inspiring model for other electoral authoritarianisms in the world. Moreover, the inspiring stories of elderly citizens of Istanbul who went out of their ways to vote (such as returning from long distance summer vacations, some in wheelchairs, some walking only with the help of their sticks) revealed how the memory of the struggle for democracy could be instrumental in the fight for it.

Secondly, the role played by the imprisoned, young political leader of Turkey’s Kurdish (and clearly a rising number of Turkish) citizens, Selahattin Demirtaş, has to be acknowledged. Demirtaş channeled Turkey’s Kurds to cast an anti-AKP vote and support İmamoğlu despite their differences with the main opposition party. A few days before the elections, the founder and leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan (known as Apo) called for the Kurds to not take sides in Istanbul’s mayoral elections. The conflicting views of the two Kurdish leaders pointed to a split within the Kurdish movement. The AKP and even the hardline Turkish nationalist actors paradoxically seemed in agreement with their arch enemy, Apo. Yet, the victory for İmamoğlu portrays that Istanbul’s Kurdish citizens feel closer to a non-militant and all embracing perspective. It was Demirtaş’s call that prevailed. This may be the most important result of the June 23, 2019 Istanbul mayoral elections.

Thirdly, the detailed and arduous work behind İmamoğlu’s victory, sometimes against the winds blowing from within the main opposition party, has to be mentioned. A new kind of political leadership portrayed in the personality of Canan Kaftancıoğlu (CHP’s Istanbul Provincial Chair) who listened to her inner voice of reason rather than the party apparatchiks (who incidentally have called her “daring” and implied that she will be expelled from the party).

There are definitely more than the above three actors who were instrumental in Imamoğlu’s victory. However, it is specifically the alliance of these three actors, namely the citizens who were keen on voting and guarding their vote, an all-embracing Kurdish opposition, and some courageous members of the long ineffective CHP who together ignited the fire of a viable opposition in Turkey. We are grateful that they “dared” to use their own understanding (sapere aude!).

In his 2006 edited volume titled Electoral Authoritarianism: The Dynamics of Unfree Competition, A. Schedler maintains that “To the extent that they (elections) allow opposition forces to get stronger and to demonstrate that the emperor is naked, that his grip on power is based on manipulation rather than popular consent, elections tend to reinvigorate opposition parties.” The repeat of the Istanbul mayoral elections became a historically significant example of people insisting on participating wholeheartedly in elections despite existing and looming injustices. The case of Turkey constitutes a stark contrast with Venezuela where the opposition has long chosen to boycott the elections which made it impossible for the electoral route to reinvigorate opposition politics.

The Turkish case proves that you cannot abandon electoral politics even in the face of gross human rights violations for it may just become the crack that lets the light get in… For light to travel through the crack, there has to be a conviction about human agency, energized by determined and daring individuals who are set on making history irrespective of the visible obstacles in their way.

Turkey’s mayoral elections showed to the world the potential and beauty of human agency. Despite the unprecedented magnitude of the injustices, especially against Turkey’s academics and journalists – two irreplaceable sources of critical knowledge and information in any country – the beautiful sight of relentless human agency under authoritarianism calls for a celebration. Today, those who received life sentences or those facing trial after years in detention, and those in jail in order to resurrect the honor of the academy were perhaps able to breathe a little bit in the current suffocating, heavy atmosphere. Although the current regime shamelessly turned the courthouses into universities with hundreds of academics giving brilliant lectures on free speech in their defense statements, perhaps there is still a tiny possibility in Turkey that being a public intellectual will some day cease to be a crime.

It is certainly not possible to say that democracy is back in Turkey because of the results of the repeat Istanbul mayoral elections. There is still so much ongoing injustice. We cannot rejoice when human rights defenders, colleagues and friends are in jail. Yet, it is impossible to stay alive without hope. Hope is what keeps human agency alive. We die when we stop thinking we can make a difference. We had long stopped thinking we could make a difference, until June 23, 2019. The greatest gift of the Istanbul mayoral elections is the resurrection of human agency in Turkey. Istanbul, “the city of our fight” in the words of writer Vedat Türkali, looks beautiful today… In gratitude to İmamoğlu and the aforementioned actors for making us feel alive again.

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