Istanbul: One city, two mayors

Workers pick up the garbage next to a billboard reading "Thank You Istanbul" and portraying AKP ruling party mayor candidate Binali Yildirim and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Istanbul, on April 2, 2019 (photo credit: BULENT KILIC / AFP)
Workers pick up the garbage next to a billboard reading "Thank You Istanbul" and portraying AKP ruling party mayor candidate Binali Yildirim and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Istanbul, on April 2, 2019
(photo credit: BULENT KILIC / AFP)
Turkey’s March 31st local elections were the scene of some of the most hotly contested mayoral races in the country’s history. Now that election fever has subsided in most of the country, all eyes have shifted to Istanbul where the race is too close to call and confusion has set in as to who will be its next mayor. Currently, the Nation’s Alliance, a coalition between the major opposition CHP and nationalist IYI, candidate Ekrem Imamoglu holds an approximate 20,000 vote lead over the People’s Alliance, a coalition between the governing AKP and nationalist MHP, candidate Binali Yildirim.  But, a possible recount of the more than 8.5 million votes cast by Istanbul residents could evaporate Imamoglu’s 0.002% margin.
Vote counting discrepancies
With election day over, multiple political parties began contesting polling results in 12 cities. Both the AKP and CHP have now filed challenges in Istanbul, citing various grievances. The main issue being contested is a discrepancy in vote counting. After the polls closed on Sunday night, votes were tallied by the polling station’s election council. This council is comprised of one government employee and a representative from each political party participating in the election. The vote count was recorded onto a certificate and signed by each member of the council, with signatory receiving a copy. The poll station tally certificate was then taken to the District Election Committee (DEC) along with the sealed bags of votes. The 39 DECs compile all the vote count tally certificates in their district into one master list – which is signed by members from all of the parties in the DEC. The DECs then passed these results to the Provincial Election Committee which calculated voting results for the city.
Upon closer examination both the AKP and CHP discovered data errors when information was being transferred from polling stations to district election committees. These claims were easily proven by reviewing the signed copies of the tally certificates held by each political party. While the miscalculations had hurt both parties, the correction benefitted the People’s Alliance candidate Binali Yildirim, allowing him to close the already razor thin gap.
Invalid votes
Another topic of debate has become the more than 319,000 votes that have been ruled invalid due to various reasons. The volume of these spoiled ballots have the potential to change the outcome of the Istanbul mayoral race. When Istanbul residents headed to the polls Sunday, they were asked to vote for a city mayor, district mayor, city council member and neighborhood official candidates. If a vote was deemed invalid for one of these positions, then the entire ballot was thrown out. AKP officials have filed a challenge requesting that the electoral committee re-evaluate disqualified votes and only remove the part of the ballot that does not abide by electoral regulations, reinstating the remainder of the ballot. The CHP has protested this move, stating that invalid votes should not be considered. At the time when this article was being drafted 17 district committees have agreed to reinstate over 100,000 invalid votes.
Tensions mount amid reversal possibility
Now with a recount initiated and reclaimed votes being factored in, the race for Istanbul mayor has started once again. The possibility that Sunday’s outcome could be reversed has become a very real possibility. Many in the AK Party camp have criticized opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu more acting too hastily in changing his twitter bio to read Mayor of Istanbul and demanding he receive his certificate of election, calling the move provocative and polarizing. Istanbul’s former mayor Kadir Topbas from the AK Party had waited nine days before receiving his certificate of election due to challenges. The struggle for Istanbul municipality’s top seat has also raised tensions amongst the supporters of both parties as well. And some analysts are concerned that the tense atmosphere coupled with a reversal decision could spark protests. People’s Alliance candidate Binali Yildirim has urged his supporters to remain calm and patiently wait for the appeals process to be finalized. The High Election Committee is expected to announce final results by April 13th. If decision to recount votes results in a reversal decision the 2019 Istanbul elections would become the highest profile election to be reversed since the 2000 US Presidential race’s Florida recount which vaulted Republican candidate George W. Bush past Democratic candidate Al Gore.
US State Dept chimes in
While Turks are anxiously awaiting the results of the Istanbul election recount, US State Department Deputy Spokesperson Robert Palladino called on the Turkish Government to respect the results of the vote stating that “Free and fair elections are essential for any democracy.” Palladino continued “This means acceptance of legitimate election results are essential … and we expect nothing less from Turkey,” adding, that the NATO ally had “a long, proud tradition in this respect.” Many in Ankara viewed Palladino’s comments as foreign intervention in an ongoing election including Turkey's presidential communications director Fahrettin Altun, who responded over twitter by saying, “We urge all parties, including foreign governments, to respect the legal process and refrain from taking any steps that may be construed as meddling in Turkey’s internal affairs,”. Palladino’s comments have a bit of irony to them when one takes into account that if the Istanbul election result occurred in Washington DC, election laws allow for a recount if the difference is less than 1 percent of the total votes cast.
Turkey’s handling of the Istanbul election has been very transparent and with an impressive voter turnout rate of 84%, Turks have shown they believe their vote counts. While an opposition victory has been hailed as a show of democracy by the West, the right to recount votes should also be considered part of that process. Ultimately all challenges have a paper trail to signed and sealed documents housed by all political parties that participated in the election, leaving little room for question marks regarding a final decision. Regardless of the final result, both candidates have shown that they have the potential to lead Europe’s most populated city for the next five years.