The historic local elections of 31st March, which were sort of a referendum on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule, did not really work out for him to say the least. In fact, they were a major setback for him. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) did not win a majority in Ankara for the first time since the party’s founding in 2001. To top it all off, the AKP surprisingly lost Istanbul to the opposition, namely, Ekrem İmamoğlu and the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The elections were supposed to be an important turning point in proving that a democracy could truly be possible in Turkey at a time where the country seems to be moving closer to a dictatorship. However, the 31st March elections have not been the turning point that everybody expected them to be.
The battle for Istanbul
Erdoğan famously stated that “whoever loses Istanbul, loses Turkey”, inferring that Istanbul is the key to controlling Turkey. Istanbul’s importance lies in the fact that it is not only three times the size of the capital, but it is also the city where Erdoğan launched his political career and served as a mayor in the 1990s. And let’s not forget that 15 percent of Turkey’s 57 million voters – who account for 31 percent of its GDP – are located in the city.
Losing Istanbul, and thus, losing Turkey is exactly what happened to Erdoğan. Ironic? Maybe, because Erdoğan does not plan on accepting his defeat so easily: the so-called battle for Istanbul will be held on the 23rd of June 2019. On this day, a mayoral re-election will take place in Istanbul after Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Board cancelled the city’s first election result on 6th May. With this decision, the Supreme Electoral Board– has reduced itself to an instrument of Erdoğan and the AKP.
Electoral fraud, conspiracies and complots
In the wake of the election, the AKP had already plastered the streets of Istanbul with victory banners featuring Erdoğan and Yildirim. This blunder may raise questions about the AKP’s motivation to re-do the election: perhaps they are disappointed with the outcome and truly believe that their candidate would be the best mayor of Istanbul.
The AKP and its allies believe that the outcome of the 31st March elections was due to electoral “irregularities” rather than the Turkish citizens’ discontentment with the nationalist course the AKP has embarked on in recent years as well as the economic recession following last year’s collapse of the Lira. As a consequence of the economic recession, Turkish citizens experienced a major drop in standards of living, and their aggrievement is clear in the 31st March result. It is also important to add that the local nature of the elections meant that Turkish citizens living abroad were not able to cast a vote. Many commentators have posited that significant chunk of Erdoğan’s support comes from the Turkish international diaspora and perhaps, the AKP’s losses on 31st March are reflective of the negative effects of Erdoğan’s rule felt by Turkish people “on the ground”.
However, typical of modern Turkish politics, there were fears of conspiracy and complot. Whilst the opposition is accusing the Supreme Electoral Board of “betrayal”, more controversially, Erdoğan is making claims that Istanbul’s mayoral election was affected by “organised crime and serious corruption”. He also stated that “dark circles, economic saboteurs and so-called elitists” colluded to “rob the nation of its will”.
More concretely, the AKP claims that 11,000 voters illegally registered to vote in the city’s suburb of Büyükçekmece in order to cast their vote in the Istanbul election. Indeed, given that İmamoğlu won by a thin 13,000-vote margin, if the Büyükçekmece claims are true, then the 31st March elections truly took place under undemocratic pretences. If, however, on the 23rd of June the same result is achieved, Erdoğan and its AKP party will have to accept that the elections were free and that there were no acts of fraud.
Strenghtening a non-existant democracy
Erdoğan asserts that the re-do will strengthen democracy. Unfortunately, the question arises as to how plausible Turkey’s democracy is today and, given that it has been tainted already, whether a re-election is the right way of strengthening democracy. One could argue that, at present, there is no real democracy in Turkey, and thus one cannot strengthen something that is not even there.
Even in the context of the latest elections, the democratic landscape is questionable. In January 2019, an unpublished report by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality allegedly detailed how millions of Turkish Lira had been transferred from the municipality to foundations headed by Erdoğan’s family members and other pro-government organisations. Indeed, it may be argued that the foundations are non-political and such municipal grants are standard procedure, however, in light of other anti-pluralist measures, these transfers perhaps need further investigation.
Press and human rights organisations around the world have recognised that approximately 80% of Turkish media is affiliated with the state and that outlets or journalists critical of Erdoğan and the AKP are quickly shut down. In a comment on the surprise pro-government media outlets must have felt following the 31st March results, Ahval labels the AKP media machine “well-heeled and well-oiled”. Even CNN’s Turkish channel was criticised for not giving fair coverage to candidates from all parties and becoming just another cog in the AKP’s apparatus.
Indeed, a true democracy is difficult – if not, impossible – to achieve. However, a country claiming to operate under democratic principles ought to be transparent in its finances and allow for a free, open and pluralist media backdrop. It has been widely accepted for a while now that the Turkish government has shown growing contempt for political rights and civil liberties in recent years, perpetrating serious abuses in areas such as minority rights, freedom of expression, associational rights and the rule of law. After the attempted coup the situation deteriorated further: just separation of power has been dissipated by constitutional changes that have concentrated power in the hands of the president.
Democracy in Turkey has been absent for a while and thus, Erdoğan stating that he wants to “strengthen democracy” is meaningless. Indeed, the only annulled election results were those in Istanbul, which proves that Erdoğan is not planning on strengthening democracy but simply wants the most important city for himself again instead of letting democracy speak for itself. If the 31st March elections are to be held again in order to truly “strengthen democracy”, then the results in every municipality would have to be nullified, Erdoğan and the AKP would have to surrender powers and the entire political landscape of Turkey would have to be overhauled.