Rerun of Istanbul Vote a Blow to Turkey’s Democracy

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The most feared thing in Turkey finally has happened: the vote in Istanbul has been annulled by the election authority. After a month of political wrangling and pressure, Turkey’s Supreme Election Council (YSK) finally ruled on Monday for a rerun of the election on June 23, undoing the opposition’s upset victory in Turkey’s largest city in March 31 elections.

More than a month after the vote, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have not conceded the defeat in Istanbul yet. Even weeks after Ekrem Imamoglu, the new mayor of Istanbul, began to preside over a transition period and live-streamed his council meetings on social media every day, the president never relented in his push for the annulment of the vote.

He long telegraphed that the vote would be canceled. His messages were regarded as an intensifying pressure on the election authority, which relentlessly plumbed to unearth the slightest hint of misconduct and wrongdoing during the voting process.

On Monday, 7 members of the YSK decided in favor of the rerun against the opposition of 4 members. The official reason presented after the ruling was that “some of the election officials [who worked at ballot boxes during the vote] were not public workers.” The rationale reflects not-so-subtle political machinations of the ruling party, which for weeks lamented that dismissed public workers were deployed at some polling stations.

A day before the YSK meeting, the state-run Anadolu reported that some of the officials deposited money at Bank Asya — a Gulen-affiliated bank — in the past. Any form of tie to the bank, even in the past, is seen enough for authorities to label someone as a terrorist and land him in jail. The argument sparked bitter controversy on social media and was dismissed by the opposition as nonsense.

The ruling means a devastating blow to people’s confidence in elections, which defined, if not always perfectly, a major contour of Turkey’s democratic politics since the multi-party era in the late 1940s.

President Erdogan who always grounded his political legitimacy on winning elections in the face of international criticism against his authoritarian rule in recent years. He cited elections, however imperfect and unfair, as the biggest proof for the existence of democracy in Turkey. The latest ruling exposes the shallow nature of his argument and deprives him of the excuse of pointing to the popular will as the arbiter of all things within the realm of democratic politics.

The decision stirred up a controversy at home and abroad. EU Rapporteur for Turkey Kati Piri expressed her dismay on Twitter, concluding that the ruling “ends the credibility of democratic transition of power through elections in Turkey.”

Turkey is no longer a democracy

In his initial remarks on the decision, Imamoglu, who cut a moderate and calm figure during the campaign period and after ascending to the mayoral seat of Istanbul, deplored the YSK in a challenging tone. He accused the YSK of disregarding the will of 16 million Istanbulites, and bowing to the political pressure.

“Everything will be fine,” he said in what appears to be a new slogan that soon went viral on Twitter. He called on his loyal supporters to fight on until the justice is served.

After his remarks, celebrities and journalists poured support on Twitter, vowing to back him to the end.

When Imamoglu, following two weeks of political drama and controversy, obtained his much-sought mandate on April 17 to govern Istanbul, many came to the conclusion that Turkey was not a dictatorship, at least not yet.

The president himself always demanded respect for popular will after controversial elections over the past few years. Erdogan cited people’s choice as the strongest form of legitimacy when his style of governance challenged by his discontents.

This, it seems, was true when he won elections. But when his party lost, the president did not waste time to question the legitimacy of Imamoglu’s victory. He did not mask his disdain of the narrow win, arguing that someone with a slight edge over his rival should not be able to govern Turkey’s largest city.

That argument runs counter to the fact that Binali Yildirim, the joint candidate of Erdogan-endorsed People’s Alliance, prematurely declared his triumph on the election night. “We won with 3,000 more votes,” he announced.

While the small difference appeared to be enough for victory for Erdogan’s party, Imamoglu’s lead with 15,000 more votes has been challenged since the election day. The ruling party fought hard to reduce the gap through partial vote recounts in many districts of the city, only to no avail. The opposition nominee won the vote.

The cancellation in Turkey’s largest city and major economic hub is certainly a blow to the essence of democracy itself. It is a great disrespect of people’s will. Needless to say, it will have great repercussions for Erdogan in the outside world as well, chipping away his already eroding credibility as the legitimate ruler of the country.

It is a lose-lose situation for Erdogan. If his candidate wins this time in June, it will not restore back the lost legitimacy. If the ruling party loses the vote for a second time, its implications will be profound. It would not be an overstretch of reasoning to suggest that a second defeat could ignite the endgame for Erdogan’s political career, however protracted it may be.

After Monday’s decision, the Turkish economy’s resilience in the face of an emerging crisis will be seriously tested. It will be far more challenging for the president to restore the confidence of investors and international markets after his intervention in the election result.

The Turkish lira tumbled against the U.S. dollar after the outbreak of the re-run news. One U.S. dollar is traded for 6,1108 lira. There is enough reason to think that the Turkish lira may suffer another free-fall, plunging Erdogan’s administration into an economic abyss with dire ramifications for democracy and the country’s social cohesion.

Written by

Virginia-based journalist and writer. Politics, culture, art, and technology. American political affairs, Turkey, the MidEast, and beyond. Twitter: @abyasun

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