Turkish football club passes democracy test

Turkish football club passes democracy test

“I’ll wake up at 6 a.m. to take the early morning plane to Istanbul to cast my vote at the Fenerbahçe congress,” the owner of a restaurant in the Aegean town of Ayvalık told me on the night of June 2.

Although I thought this was pretty amazing, I learned through social media that some fans came from as far away as the U.S. and China to be present at the congress, which took place on June 3. I am not sure you can explain this only with football fanaticism; after all, football is never just football.

The congress that ended Aziz Yıldırım’s 20-year reign as the chair of one of Turkey’s oldest and biggest sports clubs was preceded by the congress of another one of the country’s oldest and biggest sports clubs, Galatasaray.

Mustafa Cengiz, an energy-sector businessman and former bureaucrat who narrowly beat former Galatasaray chair Dursun Özbek on Jan. 20, again won the elections on May 26 with an even bigger difference against Özbek.

The common point shared by both Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe was the psychological breaking point they symbolized, achieving the so-called “mission impossible” of dethroning those in power.

Özbek had called for snap elections for January ahead of regular polls in May, calculating that the short notice would not allow his rivals to prepare well. He was also relying on the fact that an incumbent chair had never lost an election in Galasataray’s history.

Cengiz was not a figure familiar to Galatasaray members and he was not even a graduate of Galatasaray High School. This was thought to be a big disadvantage compared to his competitor Özbek, as Galatasaray High School graduates see themselves as the essential pillar of the club.

Cengiz received 80 more votes than Özbek in January, but the jury was still out for Cengiz because he promised to hold the general congress in May.

Many were surprised by the outcome of Cengiz’s win, as it represented a first in Galatasaray’s history in which as a chairperson lost an election while in the position. The difference came from the votes of the final ballot boxes, which were lined up in order of the oldest to the most recent membership dates. In other words, it was the young members’ votes that handed Cengiz the win.

So the first psychological break up came in the January vote and on May 26 - which came after Galatasaray won the Super League title - Cengiz received a solid vote of confidence and won with a big margin against his rival. Of the 4,803 votes Cengiz received 2,525, over 1,050 votes more than Özbek.

As for Fenerbahçe, more than 20,000 members went to the stadium to cast their votes on a hot Sunday. Ali Koç, a third-generation member of Turkey’s wealthiest family, ended up winning a landslide victory, getting 16,092 of the 20,736 votes cast, while Aziz Yıldırım received 4,644 votes.

The huge difference came as a surprise to many, which also represented a psychological breaking point for Fenerbahçe. After being at the helm of the club for 20 years, Yıldırım was seen as a strong and near-invincible leader, while Koç had to face several injustices during the campaign.

Counterintuitively, it is probably Yıldırım’s “one-man show/one-man rule” appearance, and the perception he created of having everything under control, that ultimately cost him the election.

When Koç called his campaign team to the stage, the number of young and female members was striking. The youngest one was just 23 years old, and Koç introduced him as the social media “machine.” He said he himself was surprised to have found out that he was only 23.

Meanwhile, next to Yıldırım was Faruk Acar, whose polling company has a high reputation for making correct predictions in elections and who is currently at the helm of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s campaign. This triggered speculation that Acar was working for Yıldırım, but it is not clear whether or not he actively worked on the dethroned Fenerbahçe chair’s campaign.