ISTANBUL — Turkey’s ruling party wants to void a mayoral election in Istanbul that preliminary results show it lost, claiming Tuesday that irregularities had swayed the outcome and that electoral officials should order a new vote. The presumptive winner warned his opponents that the extraordinary measure would cost the city dearly.
Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) edged former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in the bitterly contested election March 31, but the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has thrown up a series of hurdles since to thwart Imamoglu's apparent victory.
The AKP will argue to the Supreme Electoral Council, a committee of judges that oversees Turkish elections and arbitrates disputes, “that there have been events that directly impacted the outcome of the elections and that we demand the renewal of the election in Istanbul," AKP Deputy Chairman Ali Ihsan Yavuz told reporters.
If the electoral council approves the AKP’s petition, the do-over election would be held June 2.
The AKP has already sought a series of recounts, first for spoiled ballots, then for all of the more than 8.3 million ballots that were cast. The electoral council refused to perform the full recount, a process that could have taken up to eight months by some estimates. But the board has approved most of the AKP’s requests, and still Yildirim has failed to overcome his deficit and is trailing Imamoglu by more than 15,000 votes.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ratcheted up the dispute Monday, when he said he possessed evidence of “organized crime” occurring during the balloting and alleged vote theft. The margin of victory — less than 0.2% — was too narrow for anyone to claim victory, he said. Erdogan's political movement has held power in the city since 1994, when Erdogan himself was elected mayor.
Imamoglu remains adamant that Istanbul’s voters have made their choice and that the AKP’s refusal to accept its loss is harming Turkey’s international standing. “The results of this election are clear, and people on the street have accepted it,” Imamoglu said at a news conference Tuesday. “Don’t play with Istanbul’s fate. The time that is being lost in Istanbul will come at a great cost.”
AKP spokesman Omer Celik told journalists Saturday that he believed the elections were carried out “soundly” and that the party would respect the final results of the electoral council’s recount.
But the AKP has stepped up its demands at the election board, especially after Imamoglu pledged to cut off funding to charities, some of which are linked to Erdogan’s inner circle, and an investigation into reports that municipal workers were absconding with documents that allegedly show misconduct under the previous administration. Celik dismissed those reports as “empty speculation.”
The AKP garnered more than 44% of the nationwide popular vote in the municipal elections, but the CHP snatched at least 10 provincial capitals from the ruling party after its campaign tapped into widespread discontent about Erdogan’s stewardship of an economy that has slid into recession and about his unbridled powers since winning election to a new executive presidency in June.
The AKP also challenged the result in the capital, Ankara, but CHP candidate Mansur Yavas’ victory was far more decisive than Imamoglu’s, and he was given his mandate Monday.
The real electoral prize was always Istanbul, Erdogan’s hometown. It accounts for nearly a third of Turkey’s $850 billion economy and is a vast source of lucrative infrastructure contracts and jobs for businesses close to the administration.
Worries that a prolonged dispute could harm much-needed economic reforms has dispirited financial markets, with the Turkish lira losing 3.6% of its value since the election. Turkey’s economy is still reeling from the aftershocks of a currency crisis last year that has unleashed sky-high inflation and pushed unemployment above 13%.
The fight is turning into a “lose-lose [situation], with democracy in Turkey now at risk,” wrote Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, in a note to investors. “Given the huge economic challenges facing Turkey, this is the last thing that Turkey needs at this stage: a period of continued political uncertainty, with the prospect of re-run elections in Istanbul.”
The AKP’s call for a fresh Istanbul vote came a day before Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, who is also Erdogan’s son-in-law, outlines an economic reform plan to lure investors back to Turkey who fled amid concerns about the government’s economic and foreign policies.
Should a new election be called and conducted under free and fair conditions, it is not at all clear that the AKP would be able to reverse its losses in Istanbul. Imamoglu’s demeanour — at times disarming, at others defiant — during this extraordinary period has won him new fans, even among those who voted for the AKP just 10 days ago.
Imamoglu appeared to be in campaign mode, traveling to the district of Buyukcekmece on Tuesday to address hundreds of supporters after police launched an operation in the sea-side suburb earlier in the day. The AKP alleged that thousands of non-residents had fraudulently registered to vote there to swing the vote to the CHP, which has run the local municipality since 2014.
“The voter gave a message at the ballot box, [and] I got that message. I promise to work for this city,” Imamoglu said, adding the raids were an attempt to suppress his supporters’ morale.
Imamoglu’s campaign still believes the AKP will step back from the precipice before plunging Turkey into political instability and rattling citizens’ confidence in the ballot box.
“We knew they would not give up Istanbul easily. This transition period was always going to be difficult, but it will eventually be resolved peacefully,” Necati Ozcan, Imamoglu’s campaign director, said in an interview.