ISTANBUL — Turkey’s opposition has begun restaging an electoral battle for control of Istanbul after its candidate’s historic victory as Istanbul mayor was voided, and the ruling party has started a public relations push to explain the contentious nullification, which has hit the country's financial markets.
The Supreme Electoral Council on Monday stunned the country when it scrapped the result of the March 31 mayoral election and stripped the winner, Ekrem Imamoglu, of his mandate to lead Istanbul. The council cited irregularities in the appointment of some polling station officials in its extraordinary decision — the first time an election in a major Turkish city has been overturned.
The decision has hurtled Turkey into unmapped political terrain. While its record on democratic and human rights has been tarnished since the collapse of a peace process with Kurdish militants in 2015 and a failed military coup in 2016, it has continued to hold elections in which the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) successive victories were largely unquestioned.
But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s public entreaty for a new vote to be held after his party refused to concede defeat has worried some that the ballot box may no longer be sacrosanct in Turkey.
“What is at stake is the question of whether elections still count. The [Supreme Electoral Council] decision, which was taken under pressure from Erdogan, shows that may no longer be the case. Erdogan is saying that if he loses, he will repeat elections until he wins,” said Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute.
Senior AKP members on Thursday shared pamphlets with the press that explained the electoral council ruling and the party’s own stance, including that Imamoglu won by less than 0.25% in a city with 10 million voters, necessitating the party's petition to the Supreme Electoral Council to repeat the poll, now scheduled for June 23.
“For any political party competing in such a politically, psychologically and symbolically important major city, it would be imperative to exhaust every legal avenue to make sure their voters’ votes are properly counted,” the AKP said, pointing out that it had accepted the results in the nine other cities where it had lost.
“The June 23 election results will hopefully be much clearer and with far fewer contestations and everyone, including the AKP, will respect the official results. It would be a serious exaggeration, to say the least, to suggest that peaceful transition of power will not be possible,” the party said.
The AKP has also defended a quirk in the electoral council ruling that allows Istanbul’s other votes for district mayors and city council members to stand, a majority of which were won by the AKP, arguing that the Supreme Electoral Council could only rule on the election for which it had received an objection. Erdogan’s political movement has dominated Istanbul since he was elected its mayor in 1994.
“What magical intervention caused my vote for Imamoglu to be spoiled, but my other votes, which were placed in the same envelope and ballot box, to be secure?” asked one 45-year-old voter who declined to give his name.
Imamoglu told reporters Thursday that his campaign for the new election has begun and promised to retain the positive message he crafted as a unity candidate who drew support from nationalists, religious conservatives, secularists and Kurds in the March vote.
“We will tour the entire city with the same grace, the same gracious tone, the same enthusiasm and this time even more love,” he said, according to a release from the Republican People's Party (CHP). “I will visit every part of Istanbul. The [Supreme Electoral Council] decision has no bearing on my mind, on my spirit. I am touring Istanbul as its mayor.”
The electoral council ruling has weighed on investor sentiment, however, deepening fears about the rule of law in the emerging market and the government’s determination to see through the economic reforms it must implement to rein in soaring inflation and bring Turkey out of recession during yet another election campaign.
The Turkish lira hit an eight-month low against the dollar Thursday, bringing losses this week to 4%. In response, the central bank announced a “backdoor rate rise” by suspending one-week repurchase agreement auctions. Relief for the battered currency was short-lived, and it returned to the same levels within a couple of hours of the central bank’s move.
A poll of 5,500 people conducted by MAK Consultancy at the end of April showed a majority of voters support Imamoglu, pollster Mehmet Ali Kulat was quoted as saying by the Cumhuriyet newspaper. He did not give an exact figure.
About 16% of voters may switch their candidates this time around, and Kulat said a majority of those respondents had voted for AKP candidate Binali Yildirim in March. As many as 10% of voters may skip the second poll, fewer than the number who sat out the last vote, he added.
With all eyes trained on Istanbul, the plight of opposition mayors in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast has been overshadowed. Six mayors from the left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who were elected in the region have been barred from taking up their posts after the Supreme Electoral Council ruled their previous dismissals from government posts under emergency rule disqualified them. Those mayoral mandates have been given to the election runners-up, who are members of the AKP.
Dozens of elected city council members in the southeast have also been barred, prompting the HDP this week to apply to the Constitutional Court to overturn the Supreme Electoral Council decision. The party argues that the election board knew of their dismissals when it approved their candidacies ahead of the vote.
For Istanbul, the HDP will prove decisive. Its estimated 1.2 million voters likely swung the vote for Imamoglu after Selahattin Demirtas, the party’s former chairman who was jailed in 2016, urged them to vote “strategically,” widely understood to be a call to support the opposition in cities, including Istanbul, where the HDP did not field candidates.
Now the AKP may try to win back Kurdish voters disaffected by Erdogan’s rhetoric during the election, in which he inflamed Turkish nationalist sentiment by referring to the HDP as “terrorists” over their purported affiliation with the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade campaign for autonomy at a cost of 40,000 lives. The HDP denies links with the militants and supports a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
Last week, the government permitted lawyers to visit PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, in prison for two decades for treason, for the first time since 2011. The HDP has long decried his harsh prison conditions, and party members are staging a mass hunger strike over his isolation.
“Erdogan may seek to split nationalist Kurdish voters from the opposition,” said Cagaptay. Courting Kurds through Ocalan would “lose Erdogan a few nationalists but the larger number of Kurdish votes will deliver him the election. If Kurdish voters just stay home, Imamoglu loses.”
The AKP plans to quietly seek Kurds’ support through community leaders in parts of the city with large numbers of the ethnic group, Deutsche Welle reported, citing AKP sources. The low-key campaign is aimed at assuaging objections from its ultranationalist alliance partners, the news organization reported.
But for some Kurds, that outreach comes too late. Hasan, 57, who asked that his surname not be used, is a lifelong supporter of the HDP and its predecessor parties but voted for the CHP for the first time in March. He said he would do so again in June.
“I don’t care if they bring Ocalan and place him here right in front of me. I will still vote for Imamoglu,” he told Al-Monitor. “There’s something called a conscience, and if anyone still has one in this country, it’s Kurds. We know injustice when we see it.”
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