In Depth

Why everyone’s talking about Turkey

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced re-run of Istanbul mayoral election following surprise defeat for his party

The international community has condemned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after he announced that local elections in Istanbul will be re-held following an opposition victory in the city. 

Erdogan - who has ruled Turkey since 2003 - suffered several dramatic defeats during the nationwide votes on 31 March, including the loss of capital Ankara. But arguably the most significant was that in his hometown of Istanbul, which his Justice and Development party (AKP) had controlled for 25 years and was viewed as a pro-Erdogan stronghold.

The result shocked commentators, both at home and abroad. The Guardian asked if it was “the beginning of the end for Erdogan”, while The New York Times said Turkey had been hit by a “political quake”.

The AKP has contested the Istanbul defeat, making unproven claims of voter fraud and irregular counting practices.

Now, the Turkish political establishment - which has consistently cracked down on civil liberties in recent years - has escalated the crisis.

The country’s Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) announced this week that the Istanbul mayoral election results will be annulled, with a re-run taking place on 23 June.

Listen to The Week’s digital team discuss the issue on The Week Unwrapped podcast here:

So what does the controversial decision mean for the future of Turkey?

What happened?

Erdogan launched his political career as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s. He co-founded the AKP in 2001, which won power the following year and has claimed victory in every general election since, with Erdogan serving first as prime minister and then, from 2014, as president. The March mayoral election was expected to be another easy victory for the strongman.

Indeed, the AKP was so sure of an Istanbul win that hours before the final results were announced, the party put up victory posters featuring Erdogan and candidate Binali Yildirim that thanked the city, the BBC reports.

But a nationwide drop-off in support, fuelled by a financial crisis, saw the AKP lose control of five of Turkey’s six largest population centres including Istanbul, the biggest of all. 

The election of Ekrem Imamoglu, from the centre-left Republican People’ Party (CHP), as Istanbul mayor was immediately contested by the AKP. Nevertheless, following a partial recount, Imamoglu was sworn in last month.

The AKP continued to allege voting irregularities, with Erdogan telling members of his party the Istanbul recounts had revealed that “15,000 AKP voters’ electoral will had been usurped”, The Irish Times reports. Imamoglu claimed victory with a narrow margin of 13,000 votes.

“I sincerely believe there was organised corruption and full illegalities and irregularities in the Istanbul municipality election,” said Erdogan.

Following more than a month of pressure from the president, the election commission this week annulled the Istanbul’s mayoral vote and ordered a re-run. 

What was the reaction?

The opposition says the unprecedented move shows that Turkey is now under a “plain dictatorship”. In televised statements, Imamoglu said: “We have won this election with the sweat of millions of people. You are the biggest witness to that sweat, you are our biggest comrades.

“You may be upset now, but don’t lose your hope. We are here. Do not give up.”

CHP members have claimed “the AKP pressured and threatened YSK judges with prison if they voted against a re-run” in Istanbul, reports Reuters. Erdogan denies the allegations. 

The New York Times reports that following the vote, Erdogan made a “last-ditch appeal” to the commission using “far from overwhelming” proof that banned officials and voters had taken part in the election. The appeal was thrown out by the 11 judges of the YSK.

However, this week the council, “whose independence has been questioned”, voted by seven to four in favour of the re-run, a decision that appears to have been based on similarly flimsy evidence, the newspaper says.

The YSK also took aim at the CHP in the wake of the announcement, criticising the party for making claims about council members that included “insults, threats, and smears”, and vowing to perform its duties without being affected by “libels”.

Meanwhile, Erdogan hailed the verdict as a victory for democracy. “We see this decision as the best step that will strengthen our will to solve problems within the framework of democracy and law,” the president told the Turkish parliament.  

But the international community has accused Erdogan of allowing his country to become increasingly authoritarian. Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in the EU, said it was an “outrageous decision” that “highlights how Erdogan’s Turkey is drifting towards a dictatorship”.

Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Mass, called the re-run “incomprehensible”, while the French government urged the Turkish authorities to show “respect for democratic principles, pluralism, fairness [and] transparency”, the BBC reports.

In the Daily Sabah, a pro-Erdogan English-language newspaper based in Istanbul, Ozan Ceyhun retorts that the “European social democrat executives and politicians” criticising the Turkish leader are “becoming laughing stocks”.

“Turkey is a democracy, and governments come and go with elections... since it is going to be a fair election, everyone’s conscience is going to be clear,” Ceyhun writes. “Where is the problem? Leave Turkey alone.”

Haaretz reports that over in the US, the Donald Trump administration has “appeared to treat the decision to cancel the Istanbul election results as a legitimate move”. A statement issued by the US State Department said: “Turkey has a long, proud democratic tradition. We urge Turkish authorities to carry out this election in keeping with its laws.”

What next?

The CHP has already ruled out the possibility of boycotting the election.

“We will never compromise on our principles,” Imamoglu told a crowd in Istanbul. “This country is filled with 82 million patriots who will fight... until the last moment for democracy.”

In the meantime, Erodgan is trying to stave off further economic disaster in his already debt-stricken country.

The Turkish lira plummeted to a seven-month low on Tuesday following the vote re-run decision, says Bloomberg, which adds that on top of a huge pile of debt restructurings, lenders “now face the threat of higher interest rates and weaker capital levels”.

The lira’s slump “also makes it pricier for companies to repay their foreign-currency borrowings and could derail efforts to lift the economy out of recession, which is key for those repayments”, the financial news site says.

As Axios notes, Turkey has “completely reversed an incredible economic expansion” that had seen “significant growth and plummeting unemployment” since 2009. And “things will get worse before they get better”, the news site warns.

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