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Istanbul Shows How Democracy Is Won

For months, the world looked on as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attempted to reverse the outcome of the city's municipal election. But now that Erdoğan's party has been defeated once again, his fundamental weakness has been exposed – as has that of populist authoritarians everywhere.

ISTANBUL – When the Turkish High Election Council, dominated by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s appointees, annulled Istanbul’s all-important municipal election on May 6, the world was right to be concerned. But now that another vote has been held, it is Erdoğan who should be worried.

This year’s local elections – originally held on March 31 – have been widely regarded as a referendum on Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule. With the re-vote in Istanbul, the full results are now in. The opposition coalition, led by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), won in Turkey’s three most important metropolitan areas: Ankara, Izmir, and Istanbul. As the country’s economic capital and most populous city, Istanbul was the real prize. In addition to its symbolic importance, it also confers significant power and resources (and opportunities for corruption) on those who control it. As Erdoğan himself has said, “whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey.”

Like populist leaders in the Philippines, Brazil, Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere, Erdoğan, who began his own political career as Istanbul’s mayor in the 1990s, seemed prepared to do what was needed to reverse an electoral outcome that didn’t go his way. But the opposition ignored those who wanted it to boycott the re-vote, and instead went into the new election with even stronger resolve, soundly defeating Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has ruled Turkey since 2002, and Istanbul since 1994. The new mayor, Ekrem Imamoğlu of the CHP, captured over 54% of the vote against former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım of the AKP.