Turkey’s High Election Board or Supreme Election Council (Yüksek Seçim Kurulu-YSK) decided for the renewal of March 31, 2019 local election for Istanbul metropolitan municipality due to allegations of electoral fraud with a 7-4 decision on Monday. The decision caused anger in Turkey and Western capitals since the main opposition party pro-secular CHP’s (Republican People’s Party) candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu had a surprising narrow victory against governing Islamist-originated AK Parti’s (Justice and Development Party) strong candidate and former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım in the previous election. Although the decision was legitimized as a technical issue related to the non-existence of public official ballot box personnel, many authorities in Turkey suggest that this was a politically-motivated judgment that overshadowed impartiality of YSK and decreased confidence towards state institutions and legal authorities in the country. It should not be forgotten that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan repeatedly asked for the cancellation of the previous election and claimed that “organized crimes” took place during this election before this decision was announced. It is also highly interesting that YSK only cancelled Istanbul metropolitan municipality election and did not annul elections for Istanbul’s district municipalities although all elections were conducted with the same ballot box personnel. Whether it is a fair decision or not, it seems like Istanbul voters will go to ballot box again on June 23, 2019 for determining the new mayor of Istanbul.
The decision made by YSK took negative reactions from other countries. For instance, the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn both reminded that “Ensuring a free, fair and transparent election process is at the heart of the European Union’s relations with Turkey”. Moreover, European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur Kati Piri, a Dutch socialist and Guy Verhofstadt, a Belgian politician who chairs the liberal ALDE group, both warned Ankara that “This ends the credibility of democratic transition of power through elections in Turkey”. US Department of State on the other hand declared that they noted down this decision and accepting free and fair elections’ results are non-negotiable in a democracy. Although the declaration did not exceed diplomatic norms, it clearly showed American disappointment with the cancellation decision. The decision immediately had a negative effect over the Turkish lira which was at 6.1075 against the dollar on Monday evening. Analyzing Turkey’s financial risks, Timothy Ash from Blue Bay Asset Management said “This is damaging for Turkey’s perception as a democracy and will leave Turkey’s economy vulnerable, given risks to macro financial stability in the period to July”.
Although the decision took harsh reaction from CHP members on the first day and some party officials resembled Turkey’s political system to “plain dictatorship”, CHP’s Istanbul candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu achieved to stay calm and cool. İmamoğlu commented the decision as a great injustice, but he said he will continue to use democratic methods and will win the election once again on June 23. AK Parti’s electoral coalition partner Turkish nationalist MHP’s (Nationalist Action Party) leader Devlet Bahçeli on the other hand welcomed the decision and said that everyone should respect this decision. Another right-wing party, İYİ Parti’s (Good Party) leader Meral Akşener on the contrary, resembled YSK’s decision to a “civilian coup” against the popular will. Pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) also declared that the decision does not have democratic legitimacy. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the other hand said that “the decision is an important step to strengthen our democracy”. Former AK Parti officials including previous President Abdullah Gül and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu however criticized YSK after this decision. These declarations prove that no one is discussing the legality of the decision and all sides continue to perceive it from political perspectives. This shows that Turkish democracy has seriously eroded in recent years and building trust between political parties from different camps is almost impossible now.
So, on June 23, AK Parti and MHP’s joint candidate Binali Yıldırım and CHP and İYİ Parti’s joint candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu will contest again. İmamoğlu this time seems to be the favorite since ordinary Turkish people without strong political attachments generally prefer to support the mistreated side as the quick political rise of President Erdoğan who was imprisoned for reciting an Islamist-nationalist poem once, proves. In addition, Kurdish voters are crucial for Istanbul and I think HDP will not change its decision to support Ekrem İmamoğlu. However, I should add here that President Erdoğan is a political mastermind and he might try to make some political moves before the election in order to win the election. Despite of this fact, I think İmamoğlu will win this time more comfortably because of average Turkish people’s emotional characteristic. But since the difference between İmamoğlu and Yıldırım was less than 14.000 votes in the previous election, in case thousands of CHP voters will go on holiday on the election day and İmamoğlu’s victimized image will not provide him extra support in this strong polarization atmosphere, Mr. Yıldırım might still have a chance to become Istanbul’s new mayor. Whether it will be İmamoğlu or Yıldırım, one thing is for sure; Istanbul is Turkey’s capital and it has a lot of problems to be solved starting from traffic jam to expensive prices. Moreover, losing democratic credibility will also weaken Turkey’s hand in its foreign policy initiatives starting from Syria to Eastern Mediterranean. That is why, Turkey has to solve quickly the ‘Istanbul dilemma’ and focus on its economy and foreign policy troubles.
Dr. Ozan ÖRMECİ