This article was published in Arab News on June 30, 2019.
How will Turkey’s ruling party respond to electoral setback?
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered a major setback last week in the rerun Istanbul mayoral election. Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of a little-known district of the city, ran on behalf of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), in coalition with the dynamic Meral Aksener’s Iyi Party and with the unofficial support of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). He was running against former Prime Minister and former Parliament Speaker Binali Yildirim, the candidate of the AKP, in coalition with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
The campaign for the original local elections, which were held on March 31, unfolded in extremely biased conditions, as the government coalition mobilized all public means and funds in its favor. Public servants were competing to better contribute to the ruling party’s performance.
Despite these efforts, Imamoglu scored a success and was about 27,000 votes ahead of his rival. The AKP asked for a recount of the votes, hoping that the result may change in its favor because of the ballots that could be found to be invalid. Ultimately, the difference came down to 13,000 votes.
Encouraged by this decline, the AKP had to invent a pretext to ask for the rerun of the elections in Istanbul. The pretext was that the ballot box committees had to be composed of public servants, while in certain localities they contained non-public servants. The Higher Electoral Board (YSK), which is the ultimate authority to rule on elections-related issues, accepted the AKP’s demand and decided to rerun the vote. This verdict was wrong for two reasons. First was that the composition of the ballot box committees was screened and approved before the elections by the same YSK. Second, the YSK had decided on a previous occasion that an absence of public servants on the ballot box committees would not affect the results of the elections. Kadri Gursel wrote that this looked like a football match where an indisputable goal was ruled out because of a detail on the assistant referee’s license.
Erdogan has already started giving strong signals that he will do everything he can to hamper the success of the newly elected mayors
The renewed elections were held on June 23. The AKP used all its ammunition, including the Kurdish card. While AKP leaders always used to refer to the jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan as a “murderer of babies,” two days before the rerun an academic of Kurdish origin was sent to the prison where Ocalan is serving a life sentence. He brought back a letter from Ocalan asking the Kurds living in Istanbul to remain neutral — meaning not to vote for Imamoglu. This unskillful step was received as a scandal, especially by the right wing electorate in Turkey. Furthermore, Ocalan’s brother Osman, who is on the government’s wanted list, was allowed to appear on Turkey’s state-run Kurdish language TV channel.
This and many other mistakes by the AKP helped Imamoglu increase his margin of victory 58-fold. The difference in votes between the two candidates went from 13,739 in the March 31 elections to 806,415 in the rerun.
This outcome does not, of course, bring the main opposition to power in Turkey — the unofficial government coalition of AKP and MHP holds the majority in Parliament. Furthermore, the ruling coalition also holds a majority in many municipal councils. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already started giving strong signals that he will do everything he can to hamper the success of the newly elected mayors from opposition lists. He will probably do this in two ways: By obstructing decisions in the municipal councils where the ruling coalition has a majority, and by cutting the subsidies from central government. There is a third tool that could be used in more extreme cases, as the president is entitled to dismiss a mayor and replace him with a caretaker. He has already done this in several Kurdish-majority districts but, if he were to do it in a big city like Istanbul or Ankara, it may prompt a backlash against the government.
Winning the elections in major cities that control two-thirds of Turkey’s economy is an enormous advantage for the main opposition party, but the country’s structural problems persist. A stubborn fragility has dominated the economy for years. And the US continues to threaten Turkey with economic sanctions because of its insistence on the purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system.
Despite all these constraints, the Turkish electorate has proved that it is capable of saying no, even to a strong political leader. The experience that this electorate has gained in the multi-party democracy for more than 70 years has produced fruits.
No doubt the ruling party will also draw the right conclusions from the municipal elections. But whether the corrective measures it will take will be enough to keep it in power is another question.