Istanbul election rerun leaves Erdogan lonely at the top

One sound-bite explains the drama surrounding Turkey’s voting

May 14, 2019 21:25
Istanbul election rerun leaves Erdogan lonely at the top

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a joint news conference with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani (not seen) after their meeting in Ankara, Turkey, December 20, 2018. (photo credit: UMIT BEKTAS / REUTERS)

As Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan grabbed more power over the years, he simply dismissed colleagues he did not like. Imprisoning opposition leaders, including Selahattin Demirtas, and ostracizing the top echelons of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) have become routine. Erdogan also replaced elected mayors in the last two years with state appointees.

During the last municipal election process, one of Erdogan’s promises was to prosecute opposition figures if they won. In Istanbul, Erdogan resisted accepting Ekrem Imamoglu’s victory. He told the press multiple times that the election was too close to call (with a difference of 13,000 votes) and should be annulled.

If there is no rule of law, contradictory and mind-boggling decisions can be made conveniently for those in power. In the Kurdish town of Baglar in Diyarbakir Province, the opposition candidate won 70% of the vote, yet the position was handed to the AKP in second place. Opposition party leaders and lawyers protested, saying the election was not a beauty contest, but it did not change the result.

Still, no other seat has been more controversial than that of Istanbul metropolitan mayor. After several mind-bending fraud allegations, AKP finally complained that officials at the ballot boxes were not meeting standards. Everyone with a basic understanding of election law sees that the annulment decision cannot be explained by reason.

All officials are vetted and approved by government agencies, which are again staffed with AKP members. On March 31, Istanbul residents put four pieces of paper in one envelope to choose four different layers of local government. The party is content with three of these papers. So the fraud was carried out by some magical mechanism that affected only one of the choices of each voter. The nifty sound-bite explanation of all this drama was in the infamous line of an AKP official, “Even if nothing happened, for sure something happened.”

That something is the fast increasing popularity of the opposition candidate. Imamoglu is a left-wing politician. In a country where politics has become the source of problems, Imamoglu appeared as a resolute leader who would not bully or bow to anyone but would produce much needed solutions to Istanbul. He has taken the high ground with genuine smiles in order to escape the low blows of pro-government media. As state-controlled voices went lower, he reached higher.

AKP’s top echelons decided on March 31 that Istanbul could not be lost. For the next 36 days, party elites were seen on television busily searching for a cause to justify a rerun. However, the real cause of the delay was to gain time to prepare the necessary and sufficient conditions for an absolute victory in a June 23 rerun. Erdogan has been using this time to update his election strategy, and to design a sustainable road map to win the vote next time around.

Most of the independent pundits calculated that Erdogan could not afford to repeat the elections. This is not how the president assessed the value of the city. Istanbul represents sustainability of palace life for the Erdogan family. The dismissal by independent pundits of the possibility of rerun elections is indeed a symptom of denial of Turkey’s exit from democracy.

That said, the electoral board’s rerun decision, coerced by the government, is a big mistake and will cost Erdogan significantly. There are three crucial reasons to assess the decision as a miscarriage of justice.

First, public criticism of Erdogan is now pouring in from the least expected figures. Former president Abdullah Gul and former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu have for the first time openly criticized a government agency’s decision that was endorsed by Erdogan. Their courage comes from the fact that Erdogan is now seen to be losing popularity.

Several celebrities have also jumped on the bandwagon in a more subtle way. On May 6, when Imamoglu told the public to speak up, several well known names tweeted #HerseyGuzelOlacak, the hashtag for the “Everything will be beautiful” slogan, which is associated with the Imamoglu campaign. The hashtag topped the list of trending topic on Twitter for Turkey on the evening of May 6. Considering that the punishment for offending the president is up to four years in prison, this outburst of resilient opposition is noteworthy.

Second, in those 36 days, Imamoglu earned more name recognition and visibility in the media than ever before. He was able to gain the hearts and minds of people who are least likely to support a left-wing politician. Imamoglu (whose last name means “son of an imam”) comes from a pious Muslim family, and is viewed as being a religiously observant man himself. When he was able to recite the Quran from Arabic script, it impressed even prominent members of religious orders. Imamoglu also endorsed transparent policies, deciding to air live all municipality gatherings.

Millions tuned in and saw Imamoglu as a patient and kind man, as opposed to arrogant statements made by AKP city council members. 

Third, Erdogan’s insistence on a rerun election has confirmed once again that he cares more about his own individual success rather than about the country. As Turkey slides rapidly into recession, the lavish lifestyles of AKP elites, the reckless spending of government officials and the grandiose yet ineffective public projects have become not only more visible but also more despicable. Party officials, who have so far felt entitled to all benefits of the state, now are being pressured to see that the public prefers the humility of opposition figures. Imamoglu’s promise not to serve one man but 16 million Istanbul residents resonated even with AKP voters.

The decision to void Imamoglu’s victory is quite likely to complete a self-fulfilling prophecy by Erdogan. He cannot govern from Ankara without Istanbul. This was his own preaching for decades; it is gradually becoming true.

The writer is a visiting scholar of political science in Los Angeles at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and a columnist for

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