contributor perspectives

Erdogan Pushes to Cement His Hold on Turkey

Sinan Ciddi
Board of Contributors
5 MINS READJun 5, 2019 | 20:29 GMT
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan campaigns for Justice and Development Party candidates in Ankara on March 28, 2019.
(ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the governing Justice and Development Party pushed for a do-over of this spring's mayoral election in Istanbul. A loss in the June 23 revote could prove more crushing for them than the initial loss they suffered on March 31.

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Highlights
  • The annulment of the March 31 mayoral election in Istanbul and the ordering of a do-over on June 23 raises questions about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government's willingness to recognize election results that do not produce favorable outcomes.
  • If the opposition candidate again wins the Istanbul mayoral election, there is a chance that Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party will not recognize the outcome and will appoint a caretaker appointee.
  • Erdogan and the ruling party seem determined to maintain their hold on Istanbul, which has served as a base of power for the party and offers lucrative financial resources.

Turkey's Supreme Electoral Board (YSK) last month narrowly voted to annul the results of the March 31 mayoral race in Istanbul and schedule a new election. So, on June 23, voters in Turkey's largest city will once again go to the polls to elect their next mayor. Under strong pressure from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's inner circle, the YSK cited unsubstantiated polling irregularities to justify the revote, thus underscoring a point that many Turkey watchers have long cautioned was coming: For the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), some electoral outcomes are only fair and valid if the AKP wins. Just as they did three months ago, the same candidates of the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the AKP are running to be mayor of Istanbul in what is expected to be another highly contentious race.

One Election Loss Too Many

The YSK's ruling on May 6 raised questions about the board's independence from Erdogan and the governing party. On March 31, there were four ballots for voters to mark and place in an envelope. Each ballot represented the election of one local government official. The YSK determined that three of the four ballots in each of the nearly 10 million envelopes sealed by voters were valid and that only the choice of mayor had to be redone. There has been speculation in Turkey that although Erdogan expected his party to lose the Istanbul mayoral race and was reluctantly willing to concede, his son-in-law and Economy Minister, Berat Albayrak, and people close to him pushed Erdogan to back a do-over, as they perceive the loss of Istanbul, which the AKP has controlled for years, as a bridge too far for the governing party. In addition to losing the capital, Ankara, during the March 31 local elections, the AKP lost control of provinces accounting for about 80 percent of Turkey's total GDP.

By pressing for the Istanbul election redo, Erdogan's regime has signaled that it is willing to pursue all means available to try to hold on to and consolidate its base of power. This pursuit, however, could end up undermining the image Erdogan and the AKP have projected as protectors of the will of the people and chip away at their legitimacy. A continued and pronounced attempt to hold on to power in Istanbul and elsewhere at any cost is likely to be unsustainable in the long term for Erdogan and the AKP.

There is no telling what the result of the June 23 revote will yield. The CHP's Ekrem Imamoglu won the March 31 vote and has both the moral high ground and the lion's share of public sympathy — not only among residents of Istanbul but also the country at large. Though his margin of victory was narrow, Imamoglu has electoral momentum heading toward Istanbul's June 23 revote similar to the momentum Erdogan relied on when he was elected Istanbul's mayor in 1994 and faced attempts by the secularist establishment, citing quasi-legal reasons, to stop him. Imamoglu already won the race once and is now carrying the additional advantage of having been denied victory on suspect grounds. Meanwhile, the AKP's candidate, Binali Yildirim, ran a lackluster first campaign and again seems at a loss to convey a vibrant message to sell voters on his candidacy.

A Platform to National Politics

Yildirim's campaign struggles can be seen in broader terms: Erdogan and the AKP also have yet to offer a clear message. Since the annulment of the March 31 result, the Imamoglu campaign has adopted the slogan "everything's going to be all right" — encouraging words shouted by a teenager chasing the campaign bus after a campaign rally. When an Imamoglu supporter recently mentioned the slogan to Erdogan, the president was taken aback. With no campaign slogan of the AKP's own, Erdogan could only retort, "Everything's going to be even better."

A continued and pronounced attempt to hold on to power in Istanbul and elsewhere at any cost is likely to be unsustainable in the long term for Erdogan and the AKP.

All told, if the June 23 revote results in yet another loss for the AKP and Erdogan, it will be more crushing than the first time. If they choose to accept the result, Erdogan will likely call for early presidential elections to try to renew his waning mandate. If they choose to not recognize the result, Turkey will look even more like a personality-based authoritarian regime rather than an electoral democracy.

The worry for the AKP is twofold: If Imamoglu again takes the mayor's seat, he is likely to expose the corruption and nepotism that has marked the AKP's rule in Istanbul. Images that will resonate with voters are likely: Just before his victory was declared invalid, Imamoglu was reported to be poised to put on public display all the luxury vehicles purchased and used by the mayor's office under the AKP, which are purported to number in the hundreds. Imamoglu is also likely to open the city's books to display corrupt spending by city officials, bribes, payoffs — in addition to making transparent how the AKP administered public tender, zoning and building permits. The CHP's newly elected mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavas, is already making such moves in his city.

This naturally worries Erdogan and his inner circle, and for another reason: because it could launch the national career of a local government official. After all, Erdogan was elevated to national politics when he exposed the corruption of his predecessors in Istanbul and seemingly began running the city for the people. In an increasingly crisis-ridden economy, if citizens bear witness to the AKP's excesses, it could prove to be the catalyst that spurs a massive loss of support for Erdogan and his party.

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