Shortly after the local elections in Turkey on March 31 when it became clear that the ruling party for the first time has lost the mayoral post of Istanbul – one of Turkey’s most influential political positions, president Recep Erdogan seemed to have swallowed the bad result. He said there will be no more elections in the next four years and it is time for the country to calm down, even promising to crown his leadership with new “great deeds”.
And just a month and a half later, after the elections, though local but deemed by many as extremely important for the future of the country, Turkey suddenly faces a re-run of the election in the largest Turkish city – Istanbul. Indeed, the mayor from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Ekrem Imamoglu, was elected with a margin of only 13,000 ahead of the candidate of the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) – former prime minister Binali Yildirim, who is a close associate of Erdogan. This is a negligible margin for the megapolis, populated by over 15 million people. However, the re-counts carried out in the disputed constituencies confirmed it and Imamoglu even took office.
Erdogan’s ego, however, apparently could not bear this loss. After weeks of appeals and pressure from the AKP, the Supreme Electoral Commission (SEC), apparently at Erdogan’s will, canceled the election of the new mayor and appointed an election re-run in Istanbul on June 23rd.
Many analysts have called this decision of the president an own goal, and others even defined it as political suicide. Negatives for both the ruling party and the president itself are beginning to emerge.
Erdogan may have clearly figured out what a blow to his political position this loss is with a certain delay after the initial shock of loosing Istanbul, and decided to switch on the vote cancellation mechanism
The first sign was the sharp decline of the Turkish lira. In an economy that is on the brink of a severe crisis, every political quake naturally affects the stock markets as well. And the control over Istanbul – the economic and financial heart of Turkey with one-fifth of its population, is of crucial importance to anyone who rules the country. Erdogan may have clearly figured out what a blow to his political position this loss is with a certain delay after the initial shock of loosing Istanbul, and decided to switch on the vote cancellation mechanism.
In fact, the decision of the SEC justifies the annulment of the March 31 vote with very superficial arguments. After the re-counts showed that Imamoglu’s victory, albeit minimal, was quite regular, the SEC resorted to absolutely fictional irregularities, such as the fact that several dozen members of local electoral commissions were not civil servants as required by law. With this argument, however, the SEC cancels only the vote in Istanbul. But it is more than clear that among the tens of thousands of local electoral volunteer officials in the country there are certainly many more, who do not meet this requirement.
Some analyst even suggest that this concealed irregularity in the constituencies has been deliberately set long before the elections as a time bomb to be used if needed, as it happens now.
Erdogan’s attempts to impose his style and create a political base in the rich and most developed areas along the Mediterranean-Aegean coast obviously hit a stone
The very reaction of the markets is indicative of the fact that the business community is already concerned about Erdogan’s economic voluntarism. They are worried that the grim prospects for the economy are related to his megalomaniac projects, his style of government, in which political narcissism and ideological dogmas prevail over economic logic. When one of the influential business groups criticized the Istanbul re-run decision, Erdogan turned most unceremoniously to its members, saying, “Everyone needs to know his place.”
Erdogan’s attempts to impose his style and create a political base in the rich and most developed areas along the Mediterranean-Aegean coast obviously hit a stone. It is these areas that are the backbone of the opposition CHP, which has served as the guardian of the state’s secular base set up by Atatürk.
The defeat suffered by the AKP in the local elections in these areas have become a personal humiliation for Erdogan after the AKP lost some of the most important cities in the country, such as Adana, Mersin and Izmir. Now Istanbul and the capital Ankara were added to them.
Istanbul, of course, has a very complex electoral profile, because it draws millions of migrants from the poorer eastern areas where the political base of the president’s Islamist AKP is. The city embodies a representative picture of the entire Turkish society. And its loss was a serious signal for Erdogan, who knows well the old rule that whoever loses Istanbul, loses Turkey.
Istanbul since the very emergence of the AKP has become a financial footing for its governance, even more so, when the mayor of the city was Erdogan himself. It is from here that his stormy political rise started. It was he who controlled the enormous financial resources generated in the city that were redistributed in support of the AKP and of Erdogan’s grandiose projects first as prime minister and now also as president. A victory by the opposition here would mean that the financial “cow” is gone.
A second negative effect of thе decision to re-run the vote is the open appearance – for the first time – of signs of dissatisfaction within the ruling party itself. Former Turkish president Abdullah Gul, one of the co-founders of the AKP together with Erdogan, was very critical of his former political ally. He said he felt a sense of injustice from this decision. The ways of the two parted after the protests for the Gezy Park and they gradually became political opponents. The political gossip says that Gul and former economy minister Ali Babacan are being approached to found a new political party as an alternative to Erdogan.
Former prime minister (also former foreign minister) Ahmet Davutoglu, a former Erdogan and AKP veteran, said the decision to cancel the Istanbul election “damages our fundamental values” because “a bigger loss than losing an elections is to lose the supremacy of morality in the public consciousness.”
Erdogan, blinded by his ego, failed to predict that with this reckless move he practically “ordered” the political opposition and all his opponents to unite
These are the words of a career politician who knows perfectly well the history of the Turkish democratic system and its relationship with the psychology of his people. The decision to cancel the election in the city, which embodies Turkey, mines its already faltering democracy. In all its shortcomings, Turkey over the last 70 years has been able to hold some acceptable democratic elections in a multi-party system and the results have been accepted by all. An unprecedented case like the current one in Istanbul crashes the confidence in this process of consolidating democracy in the country and in its highest expression – fair elections.
The third consequence, which Erdogan, blinded by his ego, failed to predict, and which, moreover, was close to the mind, was that with this reckless move he practically “ordered” the political opposition and all his opponents to unite. Now all of them realize what a huge price Erdogan’s second defeat would have. In this sense, the new election in Istanbul really takes on the importance of a decisive and unprecedented political battle that has not been seen in Turkey for decades, though it is only for a mayor, even though the mayor of Istanbul. After the initial shock, the CHP quickly realized that the calls for boycott of the new vote were meaningless, that whatever the outcome, the party could only win. Immediately there was a grand effort to fully mobilize all Erdogan’s opponents and it is already yielding results.
The remaining candidate-mayors have already announced their withdrawal from the race to enable their supporters to vote for Imamoglu. For the wealthier voters for whom the end of June is a preferred vacation time, meteorologists – in an ironical way – predicted storms and even snow on 23 June at the seaside resorts, thus urging people on that day to stay in Istanbul and vote. This joking message is obviously perceived.
Of course, the AKP and Erdogan already understand that the forthcoming showdown is a decisive trial of strength and they are ready to do anything to prevent a new defeat. It is imminent that they will resort to any permitted and illegal means to obtain the desired result of the vote. In fact, the unprincipled and unlawful annulment of the first vote shows that they have already embarked along this path.
A repeated victory for the opposition in the re-run would inspire all opponents of the current regime and would mark the beginning of the end of Erdogan and his party
In fact, only a landslide victory can be a desired result for them. As the first vote showed, this is practically impossible, because it can only be achieved by a massive electoral fraud that will be exposed and condemned by the entire democratic world. A minimal victory for Binali Yldirim will only show that, even with the utmost mobilization of its electorate, the AKP has a powerful opposition that breathes down its neck and can overturn the vote, nationally, at the first major crisis. Such crises in the country are set on the political, economic and foreign policy horizons.
A repeated victory for the opposition in the re-run would inspire all opponents of the current regime and would mark the beginning of the end of Erdogan and his party. It would also have a strong international reaction at a time when Turkey is trying to play a role as a regional power influencing the processes in the Balkans, the Black Sea and the Middle East, and when its future as a European country is at stake. Erdogan himself practically turned this electoral battle into a referendum on himself and on the rule of the AKP. Undoubtedly, in the days until June 23, and possibly after them, we will witness stormy political turbulence not only around the Bosporus, but all over Turkey, because the stakes in the electoral battle for Istanbul are enormous.