In high-risk move, Erdogan calls for Istanbul election to be annulled

Erdogan’s stance could become costly for the AKP because many of its voters would be hard to motivate for another election.
Sunday 14/04/2019
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul prior to his departure for Russia, April 8. (AP)
Sore loser. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul prior to his departure for Russia, April 8. (AP)

ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not accepted his party’s defeat in local elections in Istanbul and may call for a rerun of the vote in a high-risk move that could undermine his 16-year grip on the country.

Official results indicate that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) narrowly lost the mayoral race in Istanbul during countrywide municipal elections March 31 against the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Ekrem Imamoglu, the CHP candidate, defeated the AKP’s Binali Yildirim by less than 20,000 votes in a city with 10 million registered voters.

The loss was a bitter blow for Erdogan, whose rise to power began when he was elected mayor of Istanbul 25 years ago. The 65-year-old president has refused to concede, arguing that foul play by the opposition distorted the result. Some analysts said Erdogan’s stance could become costly for the AKP because many of its voters would be hard to motivate for another election.

Speaking during the return trip from Moscow, Erdogan said election regulations had been violated. “Our colleagues have established this. Naturally all this casts doubt. If they take a sincere view, this will lead to annulment,” he said.

AKP Deputy Chairman Ali Ihsan Yavuz called for new elections in Istanbul, which would probably take place in June, news reports said. The decision to schedule a new election rests with Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council (YSK). There has been no announcement by the board that an official request for new elections had been made.

Erdogan met his political partner, Devlet Bahceli, leader of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, April 10 but did not say whether the AKP would ask the YSK to renew the Istanbul vote.

A repeat election could produce an even worse result for the AKP because people were critical of Erdogan’s decision not to accept the outcome of the March 31 poll.

CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said the YSK should reject efforts by the AKP to change the election outcome in Istanbul. “The YSK must stand up to the leaders of the government who want a Turkey without elections instead of democracy,” he said. A decision by the YSK on new elections in Istanbul would “lead Turkey towards the light or throw it into chaos.”

Reports said there was unease within the AKP regarding a possible rerun. Some party officials were reportedly concerned that Imamoglu would present himself as the victim of AKP pressure during a new election campaign, the opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper said. Kemal Ozturk, a columnist for the pro-Erdogan Yeni Safak newspaper, wrote that the opposition would be “unbelievably motivated” in a rerun election.

If the YSK does schedule a new election in Istanbul, Erdogan would lead the AKP into a new campaign in the middle of an economic crisis. Turkey’s economy is in recession and facing rising unemployment and inflation as well as jittery investors. There are also rising tensions with the United States over Erdogan’s plan to buy a Russian missile defence system that Washington say could make NATO military assets vulnerable to Russian spying.

Turkish Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, a son-in law of the president, has presented an economic reform programme that includes stronger state support for the banking sector.

However, the government may be powerless to prevent an even worse economic downturn if a decision to renew the Istanbul election triggered a negative response by the international community and by investors concerned about growing authoritarianism in Turkey.

“There will be reactions by the US and the EU and there will be reactions by the markets,” Emre Deliveli, a Turkish economist, said by telephone.

Deliveli said efforts by the Turkish government to prop up the economy before the March 31 elections by asking companies not to raise prices and other measures were not sustainable. “They were trying to hold the economy together before the election,” he said. “They cannot keep that up for another few months without risking a wave of bankruptcies.”

Given those risks, observers said Erdogan might not be preparing a formal call for a new vote in Istanbul.

Instead, the president’s statements could serve the purpose of creating a “narrative of victimhood,” said Kristian Brakel, Turkey representative of the Heinrich Boll Foundation, a think-tank close to Germany’s Green party. It was possible that Erdogan was trying to present the AKP as a victim that has been cheated by its political adversaries, Brakel said by telephone. “After all, Erdogan has been using the narrative of victimhood for years.”

Some observers wondered whether Erdogan, who has dominated Turkey since the AKP’s first election victory in 2002, has lost his touch.

Rusen Cakir, a respected journalist and expert on the AKP, said Erdogan made a series of strategic mistakes, the most important of which was to polarise society with his sharp rhetoric.