Written by Richard Pérez-Peña
Trying to reverse a stinging setback, Turkey’s ruling party Tuesday demanded a redo of last week’s election for mayor of Istanbul, the country’s largest city and long a source of power and prestige for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The extraordinary stance came as it became increasingly clear that a dayslong recounting of ballots would not change the result that Binali Yildirim, the candidate of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, had lost to the opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, in the March 31 election.
Erdogan’s party had already demanded a recount of spoiled ballots in all of Istanbul and a full recount in some of the city’s districts. When that did not change the result, it called for a recount of the entire Istanbul vote, which the High Election Council refused.
The latest demand now puts the High Election Council squarely on the spot and threatens to precipitate a crisis for both Istanbul and the entire country, becoming the latest test of democratic institutions already groaning under the authoritarian strains of Erdogan’s 16 years in power.
“I find the chances extremely high that the election board will accept AKP’s request to repeat the elections,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Far from being independent, the election board, like other institutions, has fallen under Erdogan’s power, and I would say the board has thus far taken steps to facilitate Erdogan’s each and every next move,” he added.
He noted that the council had already allowed a recount of invalid ballots, even though the AKP presented no credible evidence, other than a narrow margin, that there had been irregularities.
That has not stopped the party or the president from alleging that the irregularities were systemic in Istanbul, where the candidates are separated by less than 0.3 percent of almost 9 million votes cast.
“We will use the extraordinary appeal grounds and say we want to renew the elections in Istanbul,” Ali Ihsan Yavuz, deputy head of the party, said at a televised news conference in Ankara, the capital. “Everywhere in Istanbul, organized acts were done. That is why we called it organized irregularity.”
Erdogan has cast doubt on the election and pressed the case for a do-over by citing examples of U.S. elections in which the margin was so narrow that the balloting was redone.
“Irregularities are not just a few, almost entirely it is irregular,” he said Monday of the election in Istanbul, speaking at Ataturk Airport before leaving for a visit to Moscow.
Murat Yetkin, formerly the editor-in-chief of Hurriyet Daily News, wrote on his blog this week that even those in the president’s circle were divided about how far to push the challenge, with a small, determined group urging the president to “put his weight for renewing Istanbul elections.”
A second, larger group of more experienced politicians have argued to accept the results, because the challenge is actually benefiting Imamoglu by elevating his stature.
Judging by Erdogan’s statement this week, the hard-liners may be carrying the day, though it may also be a way for the president “to manage the trauma,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of German Marshall Fund.
“This looks like more to redefine the defeat in Istanbul as if it was actually won but stolen by illegitimate means,” said Unluhisarcikli, who noted that a new election would actually be quite risky for the president as the economy continues to deteriorate.
“I do not believe that Erdogan actually wants to renew the elections,” Unluhisarcikli said. “The economic realities do not allow this. It would be a huge gamble.”
The result in Istanbul carries enormous weight, however, and there are clear incentives for the president and his party to fight a loss.
With 15 million people, most of them on the European side of the Bosporus, Istanbul is the most populous city on the Continent and Turkey’s economic capital. It is also Erdogan’s hometown and has long been a base of support for him.
Just as important, the opposition and some analysts say, the city has become a vital source of wealth in a network of cronyism and nepotism that has benefited from the awarding of municipal contracts and the distribution of city funds to charitable foundations with links to the president’s family.
Even before he has been officially declared the winner, Imamoglu, who ran for the opposition Republican People’s Party, has vowed to open the books of the city, which Erdogan and his party have controlled since 2002, to expose long-simmering accusations of corruption.
“The result of this election is clear,” Imamoglu said at a televised news conference Tuesday, when he repeated his desire to take office and start working immediately. “The streets accepted the result. You can work hard, and win five years later. We have won, admit it.”
Last week, Imamoglu said that with its continuing challenges to the result of the election, Erdogan’s party was stalling for time so that it could erase City Hall records from computers before independent auditors could carry out the review he promises.
Such allegations have taken on more weight with voters as the Turkish economy falters, undercutting the president’s long record of nearly unbroken economic growth. Turkey entered recession this year, and the currency, the lira, has continued to slide amid increasing worry by investors and markets.
The opposition party also won a close mayoral election in Ankara, a result that the election council has finalized. The potential loss of Istanbul would place both the country’s political and financial capitals in opposition hands.
Taken together with the rest of the results from the March 31 elections, the balloting reflected increasing discontent among voters with Erdogan, who has concentrated executive powers, carried out a sweeping purge of opponents after a failed 2016 coup, and brought a once-vibrant media to heel.
The High Election Council must consider the request by Erdogan’s party for a new election, but the opposition party insisted that the result was legitimate and clear.
“Both legally and conscientiously, there is no obstacle to giving Ekrem Imamoglu his mayoral certificate,” Faik Oztrak, the opposition spokesman, said in televised remarks. “Mr. Imamoglu is right now the elected mayor of Istanbul, as he was on the morning of April 1.”
He pointed out that Erdogan’s AKP party had won many districts in Istanbul as well as other towns across the country, results that were not being challenged.
“So when AKP mayors are elected, it is the national will, but when the votes go to Imamoglu, it is dubious,” Oztrak said. “Even crows laugh at that. They should leave the nation alone.”