The Istanbul Rerun Isn’t About the Mayor. It’s About Turkey’s Future.
The controversial decision to hold a new mayoral election after Erdogan’s party narrowly lost has divided the ruling AKP and further imperiled Turkey’s democratic credentials.
In a historic decision on May 6, Turkey’s Supreme Election Council called for a repeat of Istanbul’s mayoral election. Accordingly, the mandate of Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition candidate from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), who won the race by a margin of 13,000 votes after several recounts on March 31, has been annulled. The current provincial governor of Istanbul has been appointed to the post in the interim.
The decision undermines Turkey’s already beleaguered democracy. For all its faults, Turkey had a track record, going back to 1946, of being able to hold multiparty elections with outcomes that were accepted by all. Confidence in that process has now evaporated. The rules governing elections have, it seems, become haphazard, thereby undermining citizens’ trust in the integrity of the most fundamental democratic process.
Indeed, by reinterpreting its past jurisprudence, the election board based its decision on the fact that ballot councils (the group of people that is responsible for the proper functioning of voting at each ballot box) were unlawfully constituted—namely, the legal obligation that ballot council presidents must be civil servants was not met.
Yet the board failed to demonstrate how this irregularity had affected the outcome of the elections given that the ballot boxes were also monitored by political party representatives; if the non-civil servant ballot council president attempted any foul play, political party representatives would have intervened. The board’s decision was also inconsistent in so far as it decided to nullify the ballot for the metropolitan candidates while accepting the votes cast for the other races.
Indeed, in the same envelope in which the voters cast their vote for the mayor of Istanbul, they also did so for district mayors, members of district municipal assemblies, and muhtars (neighborhood representatives). For the sake of consistency, if the procedural rules were deemed to have been violated, then the results of the other three elections should also be nullified.
The immediate legal explanation is that the Supreme Election Council has the mandate only to make decisions on the results that were contested. In this case, only the Istanbul mayoral election was contested—quite possibly because the Justice and Development Party (AKP) did well in the other races. While this may be legally correct, it is morally wrong. The decision to rerun only the race that the ruling party requested, despite all races being potentially affected by the alleged irregularities, hurts public confidence and creates a precedent that can be exploited in the future by any ruling party at times when the election results are not to its liking.
Some Imamoglu supporters reacted to the board’s decision by calling for a boycott of the rerun. However, Imamoglu managed to quash this movement when he vowed in a speech to never give up and to keep fighting. In the same speech, he called on businesspeople and artists to not stay silent and react to the decisions. A wide range of artists responded to the call over social media, reversing any momentum for a boycott.
The discontent sparked by the decision has reached beyond the opposition ranks. Indeed, not everyone within the AKP or its voter base is pleased with the outcome. This is likely to make the cracks within the ruling party more visible. Abdullah Gul, a former president and one of the founders of the AKP, already tweeted his blunt criticism of the decision. He does not deny the rumors that he is backing the formation of a new party to be headed by Ali Babacan, a former deputy prime minister and economy and finance minister.
For some time, Babacan, Gul, and Ahmet Davutoglu, a former foreign minister and prime minister, have been rumored to be preparing the formation of a new political party. Two weeks ago, Davutoglu released a 15-page manifesto that criticized both the AKP and the president. There is no time for a new party to be established and compete in the Istanbul mayoral rerun.
But recent events seem to have expedited the process. A new party could hurt the AKP in two ways. First, the new party’s immediate target electorate would be disgruntled AKP voters. Second, if any new party were to attract deputies who are currently part of the AKP, then that would potentially disrupt the majority that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan currently enjoys in parliament.
Initial polling after the election revealed that the prolonged process of objection to the results had helped the challenger Imamoglu. In our own polling, with 1,500 participants a week after the March 31 election, we found Imamoglu increasing his margin to 8 percentage points, at 54 percent to Binali Yildirim’s 46 percent. The reasons are twofold. First, AKP officials failed to convince the public of the fairness of their appeal; it seemed an overreach. Second, voters are tired of economic pressures; the electorate wanted the government to get back to getting the house in order.
If history has taught us anything, it is that Turkish people like their ballot box unfettered. A recent example is the popular reaction to the military’s interference in advance of the 2007 presidential elections. Back then, the armed forces had published a statement warning the AKP’s favored candidate—the then-foreign minister, Gul—not to stand for election. The AKP briskly called for early elections and obtained 46 percent, adding 10 points to its previous level of support.
Going forward, four main factors will weigh heavily on the results of the rerun on June 23: First, in a race so tight, the position of small parties, previously deemed irrelevant, will matter. Other than the CHP and the AKP, six other parties got a total vote of 2.47 percent, which amounts to a little over 210,000 votes. In addition, three independent candidates have already declared that they will not run again. Once the parties decide whether to participate or not in the rerun, it will be possible to make an assessment with regards to their impact. For now, they are all potential kingmakers.
The second and third factors relate to voter turnout. On March 31, the city’s participation rate was 83 percent as opposed to 88 percent for parliamentary elections on June 24, 2018. Therefore, the mobilization of nonvoters will be critical for each side. Another determinant of voter turnout is the fact that many people will already have left the city to spend the summer in their hometowns or villages.
This factor, while relevant across the political spectrum, works against the AKP the most, as this practice is more common in low-income households. The same risk remains for vacationing opposition voters, who are likely to come from wealthier families, but their financial conditions make it easier for most to take a break from their time down south and return to Istanbul to vote.
To underline how critical voter turnout will be, municipalities in Turkey’s resort towns—mostly held by the opposition—have turned to social media, putting across satirical content such as expected shark attacks or snow flurries to dissuade Istanbul residents from traveling south on the day of the election. Bodrum, a much favored summer location in southern Turkey, tweeted that it was expecting the weather to be snowy on the day of the election. The seasonal average there is above 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Cesme, a similar holiday destination, tweeted that it was expecting a hurricane from Istanbul on the day of the election, which would make entry into the district and its beach dangerous and forbidden.
The economy was one of the main determinants of voting behavior before the March 31 election, and voters will continue to be sensitive to its state. The Turkish lira already fell against the dollar, from 5.98 to 6.17, following the announcement of the rerun—further weakening a currency that has been in free fall and exacerbating the structural imbalances of the economy and endangering a faster recovery.
Under these circumstances, the new election will no longer be about who will take the helm in Istanbul. It will be widely viewed as Imamoglu’s race against Erdogan, possibly presaging the next round of presidential elections in a few years’ time.
Can Selcuki is the managing director of Istanbul Economics Research, a polling company, and a board member of EDAM, an Istanbul-based think tank.