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Turkish opposition will not boycott Istanbul election rerun

As the Turkish opposition party whose victory in the municipal elections agrees to participate in a new vote, critics of the regime fear any outcome of the rematch for control of Istanbul.
Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), who was elected mayor after the March 31 elections, addresses his supporters after the High Election Board (YSK) decided to re-run the mayoral election, in Istanbul, Turkey, May 6, 2019. REUTERS/Murad Sezer - RC134ED8A270

Snuffing out speculation of a boycott, Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said it would participate in a controversial rerun of the Istanbul municipal elections following a meeting of its central committee today. Ekrem Imamoglu, the CHP candidate whose slim victory in the March 31 polls was overturned by the Supreme Electoral Commission (YSK) yesterday, projected calm, saying, “A huge blow has been dealt to our democracy. We must repair and heal this [wound] together.” Imamoglu repeated what has now become a rallying cry for the opposition, “Everything will be fine.”

But few analysts share his optimism, saying yesterday’s decision effectively pulled the plug on a democracy that has long been on life support. Sinem Adar summed up their sentiments in a series of tweets: “The decision to rerun Istanbul elections undoubtedly shows that the ruling regime has reached its limits, meaning that it will only get more violent and suppressive. And yes, it will eventually collapse.”

Adar cautioned, “But make no mistake — its collapse does not automatically imply institutional repair. As we do not know how soon that would be and more importantly who/what would replace it.”

It's not just Turkey’s institutions that are collapsing. The country’s battered currency took a further plunge following the news of a redo, hitting a seven-month low at 6.1944 to the dollar in morning trade.

Wolfango Piccoli, co-director of London-based risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence, told Al-Monitor, “The cancellation of the Istanbul election unequivocally demonstrates that Erdogan is willing to throw Turkey’s economy under the bus before ceding any power.” Piccoli’s comment echoed the widespread view that the YSK had bent to pressure from Erdogan, who claimed after his demands for recounts left the outcome unchanged that the election results had been rigged by shady officials overseeing them. He pointed fingers at his favorite bugbear Fethullah Gulen and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), but offered no evidence.

On Saturday, prosecutors summoned 100 polling station chiefs as “suspects.”

Mehmet Hadimi Yakupoglu, the CHP’s representative on the YSK board, aired his outrage at the claims, saying, “I looked into all the evidence. I haven’t come across any conspiracy, suspicious or dubious case or any organized corruption.” He called the decision for a rerun a “political decision which will they will [trip over] in the future.” CHP deputy chair Onursal Adiguzel labeled it “plain dictatorship.”

The big question is whether Erdogan can pull off a victory after having failed with all the odds — a pliant media and blanket repression chief among them — stacked in his favor.

“By forcing a rerun, Erdogan has taken a major risk,” Piccoli observed. “The annulment will put in question, more than ever before, the veneer of legitimacy that elections have traditionally provided to his governing Justice and Development Party [AKP] — a move that could backfire badly for the ruling party in the future."

But Erdogan shows few signs of caring what the public says, confident that his propaganda machine will bring them around and that prosecutors can handle the rest. He declared without the slightest hint of irony, “We see this decision as the best step that will stiffen our resolve to fix problems within the framework of democracy and law. We sincerely believe there was organized corruption and irregularities.”

A Western official speaking on condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor, “The opposition are fools to participate in new elections. Do they think Erdogan would allow himself to be humiliated a second time? He will make sure that he wins. That’s the only possible outcome.” The CHP's participation, he said, “would paint a fresh coat of legitimacy over his regime because he can claim to have won in a fair race.” And with no further elections slated until 2023, the official predicted, “it will be business as usual again.”

It was clearly with fear of fraud in mind that top EU officials Federica Mogherini and Johannes Hahn put out a statement calling for free, fair and transparent elections, a factor they said is “essential to any democracy and is at the heart of the European Union’s relations with Turkey.”

The pair also said they expected the Turkish government to allow international monitors to observe the re-run.

But Erdogan probably believes the EU won’t have the stomach to formally freeze moribund accession talks with Turkey because it continues to rely on his government to hold millions of Syrian refugees at bay.

Erdogan took a thinly veiled swipe at the country’s largest industrial lobby TUSIAD today after it put out a wimpish tweet airing concerns about the rerun. Addressing AKP lawmakers in the parliament, Erdogan thundered, “We see some business groups making weird statements after the [rerun] decision. Everyone should know their place.”

He also quashed rumors that he was planning to resume peace talks with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan after the latter was granted access to his lawyers for the first time in eight years on May 2. “There is no question of such a thing as the peace process,” Erdogan said. His words signal that his alliance with far-right nationalist leader Devlet Bahceli remains intact despite recent turbulence.

There may be a silver lining to all the gloom. Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor of Middle East history at St Lawrence University and a non-resident fellow at POMED, told Al-Monitor, “I think that forcing Erdogan to be openly repressive, to openly cheat, is in fact a good thing. And I don’t think a more violent regime — which I think is a distinct possibility — is necessarily a stronger one.” Besides, Eissenstat noted, “Turkey is still a market economy. The personalized and erratic behavior that Erdogan shows slowly weakens his support.”

Based on that assumption, perhaps, his long-time ally and would-be nemesis, former President Abdullah Gul, is said to be getting ready to form a new party with former Economy Minister Ali Babacan in the hope of coaxing likeminded souls away from the AKP. Gul excited further speculation today when he expressed his displeasure with the YSK in a mildly reproachful tweet.

Ahmet Davutoglu, the former prime minister Erdogan booted out for getting too ambitious, is also forming his own party, hoping to nibble at the AKP as well.

Whether any of this will accelerate Erdogan’s political demise is questionable. His troubles with the United States over the S-400 missiles, the effects of US sanctions on Iran and PKK headaches in Syria as well as a looming row with Greece, Cyprus and Israel over the eastern Mediterranean will only compound his economic woes as foreign investors continue to take flight. All of it will squeeze him.

But the lesson of the March 31 elections is that Erdogan will stop at nothing to prevail. And the lesson of the 16 years he has held onto power is that he ultimately always does.

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