The cloud of uncertainty cloaking Istanbul’s future government has yet to clear as Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Commission (YSK) delivered mixed signals on demands by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for a rerun of the March 31 polls in the country’s largest city.
The body convened for a second day running to weigh the AKP petition to invalidate the ballot that gave the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem Imamoglu a narrow victory. The opposition took heart when the YSK rejected the AKP’s claim that some 14,712 former civil servants sacked under emergency decrees in the wake of the failed 2016 coup were ineligible to vote and should not be counted.
But the YSK said it would investigate another AKP complaint to do with the status of around 41,132 voters including 21,782 mental patients, 1,229 dead people and other ghost voters who allegedly inflated the opposition’s numbers. The YSK also agreed to look into charges that almost 20,000 balloting personnel who took part in the count were ineligible to serve in the role.
CHP lawmaker Sezgin Tanrikulu told Al-Monitor that by his party’s reckoning, between 2,000 and 4,000 such “irregulars” voted, leaving Imamoglu’s 13,000-vote lead over his AKP opponent intact.
The YSK’s decision was nonetheless hailed by the AKP’s deputy chairman for electoral affairs as something as a victory. Recep Ozel gloated in a tweet, “The YSK agreed to investigate eight of the claims we presented with regard to the Istanbul elections.”
The lack of closure more than three weeks since the election has fueled intense debate as to the independence of the YSK, which has the final say over election results. The broad consensus is that it will tilt whichever way Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan points. The YSK gave itself five days to reach a final verdict, according to the text of its statement today.
One popular theory is that Erdogan has signaled through a mix of conciliatory public comments and tweets that he is willing to concede Istanbul knowing that his own political survival is in question should he not. He wants to revert to a reform agenda of a kind that would restore investor confidence in the tottering economy, ease polarization, reset relations with the United States and maybe even resume peace talks with the Kurds in a bid to return to the AKP’s glory days of soaring growth and regional soft power.
But such thinking holds that Erdogan is under siege by a hawkish and paranoid “deep state” that feeds on chaos and uncertainty and can call the shots, ensuring that Erdogan bends to its will, and does not, among other things, empower the Kurdish political movement, which poses an existential threat to Turkey’s unity. In other words, Erdogan wants to be do the right things if only for selfish reasons but his hands are tied by the deep state whose public face is far-right nationalist leader Devlet Bahceli.
The opposite camp pooh-poohs this version, saying the AKP’s poor showing, winning the overall vote but losing nearly all of Turkey’s biggest cities, was the fruit of Erdogan’s own recklessly polarizing and confrontational politics. Erdogan is in league with the deep state and has no intention of letting go of Istanbul, which is central to his patronage network, no matter the price. So the YSK will annul the elections.
But Sunday’s attempted mob lynching in Sogut of CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu at the funeral of a soldier slain by Kurdish militants may have been more than Erdogan reckoned for.
The president had painted the CHP leader and his party as being in cahoots with the militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party throughout the election campaign. Osman Sarigun, who punched Kilicdaroglu during the melee, said he had believed that claim and that’s why he did it. It was later established that Sarigun was a card-carrying AKP member and he has since been booted from the party.
Erdogan has in past campaigns targeted Kilicdaroglu’s Alevi faith to stir Sunni passions. This ire seems to have also infected Sogut, where one woman was allegedly heard screeching “burn the Alevi” as Kilicdaroglu sheltered in a local home until he was escorted to safety by security forces. The incident recalled painful memories of the 1993 torching of a hotel full of Alevi intellectuals in the city of Sivas by an inflamed Sunni mob, killing 33 people.
Sectarian or ethnic violence, which Turkey has avoided so far, would certainly give the security establishment a renewed say over the country’s affairs. After all his coup-proofing since the abortive 2016 putsch, that's the last thing Erdogan wants.
Cynics recall Erdogan’s obsession with poll numbers and speculate that he will have used the past three weeks to do do more polling in Istanbul to assess whether the AKP could prevail in a rerun without having to resort to massive fraud of a kind he accused the CHP of but has failed to prove thus far.
Then there are those who see a heroic YSK doggedly maintaining its independence. It refused the AKP’s demands for a recount for all of Istanbul and today declined to invalidate the votes cast by purged civil servants. A source with close knowledge of the day’s proceedings told Al-Monitor that the margin was tight, with six members of the body voting against the invalidation and five in favor. Most importantly, the source asserted, YSK President Sadi Guven “is solid as a rock.” Al-Monitor was unable to independently confirm the source's claims.
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