Erdogan gambles big with rerun of Istanbul election

Erdogan faces a political landscape that makes it hard for him to find new allies beyond the AKP and the MHP in time for the June vote.
Sunday 12/05/2019
Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration in Istanbul following a decision by the authorities to rerun the city’s mayoral election, May 8. (AFP)
A stolen victory. Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration in Istanbul following a decision by the authorities to rerun the city’s mayoral election, May 8. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Even for a political street fighter such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pushing through a rerun election in Turkey’s biggest city against an opposition that feels it has the moral high ground and is enjoying support from all parts of society seems like a big gamble. But he is going for it, guns blazing.

Under severe pressure from Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) ordered that the March 31 mayoral election in Istanbul be repeated June 23 because of alleged irregularities.

Observers inside and outside Turkey said the decision reflected Erdogan’s aim to snatch back power from opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, who had won the March vote and had been installed as Istanbul’s mayor.

Imamoglu was stripped of his title by the decision. The YSK’s order was “taken in a highly politicised context,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said in a statement.

In parts of Istanbul, people opened their apartment windows and banged pots and pans in protest of the decision. “There is no democracy and no rule of law left in the Turkish Republic,” said Ahmet, a barber in Istanbul. “They stole Imamoglu’s election victory,” said Ilhan, a shopkeeper.

Erdogan welcomed the rerun vote. “We sincerely believe there were organised corruption and irregularities,” Erdogan told party members in parliament, saying a new election was the “best step” for the country.

The Islamic-conservative AKP and its predecessors have ruled Istanbul for 25 years and the city is an especially sensitive issue for Erdogan, who grew up in the metropolis and rose to power after serving as mayor.

The new election is still a big political risk for the president. The March vote showed that the AKP, while remaining the biggest party in Turkey, and its right-wing partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), do not have a majority in Istanbul. The joint candidate of the two parties, Binali Yildirim, received 48.55% of the vote, about 14,000 votes fewer than Imamoglu, the candidate of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), who also relied on support by other parties.

Erdogan faces a political landscape that makes it hard for him to find new allies beyond the AKP and the MHP in time for the June vote. “The sea has ended, you have run ashore,” US-based Turkey expert Selim Sazak said by telephone. “This is a usurpation in the mind of most of the Turkish public.”

He added that Imamoglu’s win in March had demonstrated to government foes that they could beat Erdogan at the ballot box after years of AKP successes in election after election. “The opposition is saying: We have won. That is a fundamental paradigm shift,” Sazak said.

Imamoglu is banking on the emergence of a broad, if informal, coalition that could carry him to another victory. He called on CHP supporters and nationalists, Kurds and disgruntled AKP voters to support him. Several smaller parties that fielded mayoral candidates in March said they were thinking about withdrawing their candidates for the June vote in support of Imamoglu.

“What we are doing now is a fight for democracy and mobilisation for democracy,” Imamoglu told Agence France-Presse. “It will, of course, be a revolution once we carry it to its conclusion.”

Some observers say Erdogan could try to woo Kurdish voters. For the first time in eight years, the government allowed lawyers of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), to visit their client on the prison island of Imrali near Istanbul just days before the rerun decision. The PKK is seen as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the West,

However, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party, said support for Erdogan was out of the question. “We will urge our voters to support the opposition,” HDP lawmaker Nazmi Gur said by telephone. The HDP stood behind Imamoglu in March.

The controversial decision for a rerun in Istanbul has widened cracks within the AKP. Former Turkish President Abdullah Gul and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu both criticised the move. Reports said Davutoglu was planning to set up his own party before July.

Meanwhile, the opposition campaign got off to a fast start. A poll placed Imamoglu at around 50% of the vote and Yildirim at approximately 48%, suggesting that Imamoglu’s lead has widened since the March election.

Using the motto “Her sey cok guzel olacak” (“All will be well”), Imamoglu called on artists and the business community to take a stand against Erdogan and the AKP.

In some cases, Imamoglu’s call clearly hit a nerve. Tarkan Tevetoglu, Turkey’s biggest pop star, tweeted to his 3.5 million followers that he had not been able to sleep because of the YSK’s decision. “Then the first light of the morning was brighter than ever. I understood that #HerseyGuzelOlacak,” he posted.

Erdogan also faces scepticism abroad. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the decision to annul the election was “not transparent and incomprehensible to us.” The European Union called for the election body to produce its reasons “without delay.”

“Ensuring a free, fair and transparent election process is essential to any democracy and is at the heart of the European Union’s relations with Turkey,” Mogherini said.

France urged Turkish authorities to justify the move and ensure “respect for democratic principles, pluralism, fairness, transparency and, in particular, the presence of foreign observers” in the new vote.

Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism has rekindled debate whether political Islam is compatible with a Western-style democracy. The AKP, with roots in political Islam, said it remains committed to democratic norms and the rule of law but critics said the annulment of the Istanbul election showed that this is not the case.

“The decision to rerun the local elections in Istanbul: Political Islam is proven finally & irrevocably incompatible with democracy,” Kadri Gursel, a respected journalist who is critical of the government, wrote on Twitter. “Political Islam puts an end to its very existence in the legitimate democratic playground of politics.”