Turkey – a setback for Erdoğan

Summary: Mayoral elections do not go Erdoğan’s way, his first experience of the tendency of the democratic pendulum to swing. A test for Turkish democracy.

President Erdoğan’s Turkey is an active player in the final stages of the Syria war and an important factor at least potentially in other areas of conflict in the Arab world such as Qatar and Libya, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and moderate Islam and therefore an important counterweight to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. An election setback for Erdoğan has not changed that – yet.

We are again grateful for the article below to David Barchard, a writer on Turkish history and politics.

Two weeks ago, Turks woke up to find that – contrary to most though not quite all expectations – the candidate of the opposition CHP (Republican Peoples Party) had won the mayoral elections in Istanbul. Victory came by an extremely narrow margin of just 19,000 votes  in a city where nearly 8.5 million electors had voted. It was part of a swing away from the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) in Turkey’s larger cities. The opposition took five of Turkey’s six biggest cities. It was the biggest and more or less the only defeat the AKP has had since it came to power, and indeed since its Islamist predecessors first made their breakthrough into national politics in 1994, by taking Istanbul and Ankara from the centre-left.

The scale of the setback should not be exaggerated. A ruling party in Western Europe would find a midterm reverse of this kind fairly normal. The AKP still polled 44% percent nationally (slightly ahead of the 42% it obtained in the general elections last June) and with its allies in the ultra-nationalist MHP (Nationalist Action Party) has a combined 51% ofthe votes.

A drift away from the AKP in the large metropolitan areas has been observable in recent elections and it seems to have been accelerated by last summer’s economic crisis which saw the Turkish lira lose 40% of its value, and interest rates rising to 24% and inflation to 20%, events which would buffet any government’s majority.

More than two weeks have now passed. The CHP’s slender majority has survived two weeks of intensive recounts ordered by the AKP, though it has been whittled down by about 5,000 to 13,900. But the winning candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu, a businessman with a notably relaxed and cheerful demeanour who, a little unusually for a Turkish politician, tried to exclude confrontation and hostility from his campaign, has still not been given confirmation of office.

The AKP line is that opposition supporters– very much the underdog as far as administrative control is concerned – somehow committed electoral fraud, dropped some of its voters from the lists, added fictitious ones of its own. Currently it is pressing for yet more recounts and is dangling the possibility of a rerun of the elections on 2 June – on the eve of the end of Ramazan and the start of national holidays.

But meanwhile the count is still on in several districts of Istanbul including Maltepe and Büyükçekmece. The High Electoral Council (YSK), the panel of former judges which regulates elections and the counting process in Turkey, is caught in the cross-fire. It is no stranger to controversy. In the 2017 referendum on the introduction of an executive presidency, it allowed unconfirmed ballot papers to be included late in the count, a decision which may have swung the outcome. But this time it seems it has found it less easy to bow to pressure and has fended off requests to widen the recount to more ballot boxes. The AKP line is that further total recounts of the entire city would bring victory. This view is expressed by the AKP candidate, the former prime minister Binali Yıldırım, who gave up a much more appealing position as President of the Grand National Assembly to run for office, and is now out in the cold. He was perhaps the wrong man to field for the mayoralty, having been defeated in Izmir in 2014, but he is a staunch loyalist where his party and president are concerned and if elected would have been unlikely to grow into a rival.

With a barrage of pressure like this will the YSK be able to resist calls to cancel the elections and hold them again? It is at best doubtful.

The biggest snag about a rerun is of course that such a gigantic electoral area is hard to manipulate; the population of Istanbul would be strongly resentful; and so the AKP might lose the new poll even more heavily than it has already done. In March most people did not realise that İmamoğlu might win, but he is now an established national figure, well known to all TV viewers and probably more appealing to many voters than the elderly AKP candidate.

There are solid reasons behind the AKP’s reluctance to admit defeat. Prestige apart, the size and wealth of Istanbul means that loss of the city – particularly coming along with the loss of Ankara, whose opposition mayor has now been confirmed in office and is preparing a clean-out of the long established AKP cadres in the municipality – would mean a substantial loss of income, jobs, contracts, and donations to pro-Islamist and similar groups close to the AKP.

It would also give the opposition some real power and a political platform that under successive CHP leaders the party has not enjoyed. It is not a forgone conclusion that even if the party is allowed to run Istanbul it will be up to the job. There are some municipalities like Izmir and Eskisehir and (before 2014) Mersin in Turkey where CHP administration has performed well. But the last time the CHP ran Istanbul in the early 1990s its then mayor proved ineffective and his successor – the young Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – clearly did a better job.

Though the CHP has done well, its support was clearly mostly a protest vote and the leadership does not appear very interesting in rejuvenating its provincial organization which it has allowed to languish for decades, hence its poor showing in the interior of Anatolia.

If the government and the YSK decide not to go for a rerun, what will the future hold for Istanbul? One possibility might be that the new mayor could be removed from office and replaced by a trustee from the ministry of the interior. This would be a fateful and perhaps internationally embarrassing move for Turkey’s largest city, but there are plenty of precedents. 95 mayors of towns in eastern Turkey coming from the pro-Kurdish HDP had been suspended (and mostly imprisoned on terrorist charges) before the elections. Of the newly elected mayors, seven have already been denied permission to take up office, while there is talking of removing the mayor of Mardin, Ahmet Türk, a nationally respected figure, on the grounds that he is too old for the post. Adnan Selcuk Mızraklı, the HDP mayor elect of Diyarbakir, is facing an ominous enquiry into alleged terrorism and has been denied ratification  This is line with pre-election warnings by President Erdoğan that mayors with unacceptable links would be removed.

Prospects of whether Turkey will now bed down to a more pluralist and tolerant political life with opposition and government coexisting are still unclear. But precedents are not very encouraging. In 2015, the AKP lost control of parliament but ramped up tensions and then went to a second election five months later in which it regained control of the country. These elections are being described by AKP writers as ‘a matter of survival’ implying perhaps that if the ball slips from their hands, the Islamists will be ousted by secularists. Meanwhile it is not economic hardship, the country’s isolation, or the accumulated discontents of having the same party in power for seventeen years which getting the blame in AKP circles for the election upset. It is, yet again, Europe and the US, the country’s erstwhile allies.

This is a sample Arab Digest newsletter.

To start receiving complete daily newsletters, click on the link below for your Free 30-day Trial or Join Arab Digest now to receive full membership benefits.

Join TodayBack to Sample NewslettersFree 30-day Trial