Can Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan find a way to cancel the Istanbul municipal election re-run set to take place on June 23, if he thinks Ekrem İmamoğlu of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) could win again?
The answer of the American think tank The Washington Institute’s Turkey program chief Soner Çağaptay is a “yes”. Çağaptay thinks Istanbul, producing almost a third of Turkey’s GDP (more than 27 per cent in 2018) has been the main source used to “oil the machinery” during the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rule; something Erdoğan “cannot afford” to lose.
My answer to the same question is, he can definitely try but this time he might fail.
A rapidly changing domestic political atmosphere, along with foreign reactions that can further impair the already suffering Turkish economy, may not let him achieve that goal. Erdoğan’s constant accusations against “foreign powers” who try to get Turkey (also implying himself) down on its knees using economic and political pressure are not in vain. His Finance and Treasury Minister Berat Albayrak, who is also his son-in-law, failed to stop the depreciation of the Turkish lira against the U.S. dollar and the Euro. Albayrak has also been inefficient in dealing with rising unemployment and inflation or interest rates. Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump threatens to “devastate” the Turkish economy with sanctions.
Erdoğan could have a wide range of strategies to choose from if he cancels the re-run. He could play the faith card to new extremes in Muslims’ holy month of Ramadan, taking advantage of that fact that it coincides with the re-run campaign. Alternatively, he could play into the rally-around-the-flag factor by highlighting existing foreign policy and security problems, like the one with the U.S. in Syria, the one over the Russian missiles from Syria/PKK and the Russian S-400 missile rifts with the U.S. He could also use the oil exploration rights around the island of Cyprus, or Israel again due to Binyamin Netanyahu’s aggressive policies over Palestinians.
Yet, the arguments of Erdoğan and his election companion Nationalist Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli to get the Istanbul elections repeated have not even convinced all of their own parties’ members or supporters. It is not only the centre-left CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, or his election partner, the centre-right Good Party (GP) leader Meral Akşener or the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier who fail to give a meaning to the re-run ruling of Turkey’s Supreme Election Board (YSK). As a Turkish citizen who cast his vote in Istanbul I also cannot understand how the YSK found that my votes for the district municipality, the city assembly and the neighbourhood headman were all valid but my vote for the greater municipality (metropolitan mayor) was not, despite the fact that all of them were cast in the same ballot box and inside the same envelope. I cannot think of an explanation within the limits of law, reason and conscience and cannot find any explanation other than the persistent and escalated calls of both Erdoğan and Bahçeli on the YSK members to cancel Istanbul.
It was interesting to see that former President (and a co-founder of AKP with Erdoğan) Abdullah Gül was also thinking the same way. In a tweet on May 7, Gül said that his frustration with the YSK ruling was the same as the curbing of his election by the Parliament back in 2007 by another judicial ruling, then by the Constitutional Court. Gül was later on elected by the people after a constitutional amendment. “Pity”, Gül wrote; “That we are going nowhere, and fast”. Ahmet Davutoğlu, Erdoğan’s successor as the AKP chairman and Prime Minister in 2014, who is now out of the clique, also released a message on May 7 protesting the YSK decision. There are speculations that Gül, teaming up with Erdoğan’s former economy minister Ali Babacan, and separately Davutoğlu, are all in preparations for a new political formation from within the AKP.
But the real winds of change have been observed in the opposition ranks following the YSK ruling. The Turkish opposition, especially in the way it’s seen from abroad, had been giving the impression of a fragmented and incompetent one. They have however quickly recovered from the shock of the YSK ruling on May 6, almost within the first hour, and started a process of coordination and cooperation. It was helped by an almost immediate address by İmamoğlu to a large Istanbul crowd, where he said in a dynamic optimism that he was not giving up. His final words went viral, and are likely to become his campaign slogan: “Everything will be fine.”
In the following hours, two other developments took place in Turkish politics which indicated that Erdoğan’s plans to disintegrate the opposition did not hold and even backfired.
Both Erdoğan and Bahçeli have been trying to put a wedge between Kılıçdaroğlu and Akşener by agitating the nationalist wing of the GP, with allegations of a secret alliance between the CHP and the Kurdish problem-focused People’s Democratic Party (HDP). It did not hold. Addressing the GP members of Parliament on May 7, Akşener gave her full backing to İmamoğlu, denouncing the YSK ruling as a “shame” and a manipulation by the government.
On May 6, hours before the Election Board ruling, it was revealed that the government had permitted lawyers’ access to imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s cell in the Imrali jail four days ago on May 2. Lawyers brought two messages from Öcalan; one on easing the hunger strikes in jails to end his “isolation” and the other about the need for “dialogue” concerning Syria. The move was immediately speculated as an “election bribe” aimed at diverting HDP from the opposition against the Erdoğan-Bahçeli front. But HDP stating that they will remain firm in their March 31 stance may potentially discourage conservative Kurdish voters from going to the ballot box to support AKP-MHP candidate Binali Yıldırım.
One of the Erdoğan-Bahçeli alliance’s aims in pressing for the cancellation of the March 31 elections was to ruin the psychological composure of the opposition parties and voters. But with the YSK ruling, İmamoğlu, as well as others who found the ruling unfair and unjust, got the moral high ground. After 16 years of AKP rule and a concentration of all powers in the hands of President Erdoğan, half of the voters in Turkey are choosing to stick with democratic institutions in a peaceful manner, also as an answer to some hasty statements by certain politicians in the West who claimed that Turkish democracy was totally over.
The resilience of at least half of Turkish voters does still give a reason to think that, even if Erdoğan and his partner Bahçeli were to cancel the re-run on June 23 if they think they could lose again, that might be easier said than done.
And if the June 23 election is held and İmamoğlu wins again, that might indeed be the bounce-back moment for not only Turkey but for the political balances of the entire neighborhood.