What Happens in Istanbul Will Not Stay in Istanbul
On March 31, Turkey went through yet another historic election. On the surface, the election itself is not that important: Unlike the parliamentary and presidential elections of the last year, Turkey’s local elections do not play any meaningful role in the distribution of executive or legislative power. Such elections merely decide who will run the basic public services at the municipal level. The results of the March 31 elections, despite all the fanfare it’s getting in domestic and foreign media, also did not produce a game-changing outcome. The Justice and Democracy Party (AKP) lost some of the largest urban areas, but, along with its ultranationalist ally, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), was able to secure more than 51 percent of the votes nationwide. This nation-level outcome is in fact in alignment with how Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan portrayed the local elections during his campaign: a nationwide referendum on himself as well as the so-called Cumhur Ittifaki (People’s Coalition). In the end, Erdogan achieved what he sought at the national level, and the People’s Coalition, despite the looming economic troubles, performed as well as it did in last year’s much more important elections. The next big elections are scheduled for 2023, and Erdogan has cleared the final electoral turning point that could delegitimize his rule until then.
So, what makes Turkey’s local elections historic? It is neither the elections themselves, nor the results. What makes the March 31 elections historic is how the AKP has been reacting to the election results and the potential implications of this reaction for the future of Turkish democracy. In an ironic turn, the AKP – a party that has long been accused of rigging elections by the opposition parties as well as a number of foreign spectators – immediately claimed that the elections might have been rigged (either by the opposition or some unknown dark forces), if only in districts where the AKP lost. In the eye of the storm lies the city of Istanbul, Turkey’s economic powerhouse, that the AKP (or its predecessors) has ruled since 1994.
Istanbul’s importance cannot be overstated: It is not only the largest city in Turkey, but also in Europe, and is home to almost 20 percent of the Turkish population. Istanbul’s economy is huge: The city’s GDP constitutes more than 30 percent of the Turkish economy, and is bigger than some of Turkey’s neighboring countries (for example, almost as big as Greece’s national GDP, and four times the size of Bulgaria’s). The city also creates enormous opportunities to feed the “party machine.” The gigantic budget of the mayor’s office allows the AKP to allocate resources, hundreds of millions of dollars a year, to organizations and foundations that openly favor Erdogan. Furthermore, Istanbul is not only where Erdogan was born and raised, but it is also the “political birthplace” of the Turkish president: Erdogan shot to fame as the young and ambitious mayor of Istanbul, a title he held between 1994 and 1998.
In Istanbul, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) put forward a relatively unknown candidate: Ekrem Imamoglu. Fronting a soft-spoken and conciliatory persona (which is an extremely rare commodity in the Turkish political universe), Imamoglu was seen by many as the quintessence of a “dark horse.” In a rare twist that most failed to foresee, Imamoglu ended up with more votes in Istanbul than the AKP candidate did. But the race for Istanbul was a very close call: The initial count for the difference was in the twenty thousands, in a city of more than ten million voters, with current estimates bringing the gap down to fifteen thousand votes or so. Of course, it is the AKP’s constitutional right to contest the election results, but how the AKP is contesting the elections suggests that the ruling party might be in a state of panic over Istanbul. Overall, the AKP’s reaction was swift, if poorly coordinated and clumsy, spearheaded with a multifaceted effort to dispute the results that spanned from “rumor bombardment” from pro-AKP media to paranoia-inducing statements from the AKP officials.
The AKP’s active measures to challenge the election results in Istanbul suggest that the ruling party is reluctant to let go of the city. Most notably, Turkey’s state news agency, Anadolu Agency, stopped updating the election results during the night of the elections, presumably right after it became apparent that the CHP votes would likely surpass those of the AKP in Istanbul. Furthermore, once the initial election results were declared by the Supreme Election Committee, Erdogan went on record and said that the CHP winning with only “thirteen to fourteen thousand votes” would not sit well with the people’s will. This statement not only flies in the face of the electoral logic itself, but also directly contradicts the statements coming from his party. During the night of the elections, well before the preliminary results were made public, AKP officials declared victory by claiming that Binali Yildirim, the AKP’s candidate in Istanbul, won by a margin of 3,870 votes. In addition, either due to the complexity of the voting mechanisms or pressure from the AKP, the Supreme Election Committee has been exceptionally slow in reaching a verdict over Istanbul. The patterns of electoral disputes also point toward an interesting dynamic. According to initial estimates, the AKP contested 67 of the 118 districts under scrutiny, with the Supreme Election Committee agreeing to investigate 58 of these cases (87 percent). By comparison, the opposition parties contested a total of 40 districts, with the Supreme Election Committee investigating only 5 so far (12.5 percent). Simply put, either the AKP makes a much stronger case for districts where it seeks investigation, or election officials are responding to the ruling party’s requests more favorably than it does those of the opposition parties.
In addition, the AKP has also pursued some unconventional methods to challenge the election results in Istanbul. One of the contested districts, Buyukcekmece, is an interesting example. The AKP claims that the contested district was home to organized voter fraud, during which numerous voters who did not actually live in Buyukcekmece were registered as residents and voted illegally on behalf of the opposition. Again, the AKP has not produced conclusive evidence showing that a voter fraud scheme existed and aimed to undermine the ruling party. However, initial reports suggest that more than a thousand police officers were mobilized to inquiry voters in the district, knocking on doors to figure out if the people who voted in Buyukcekmece were in fact living in the area. Another significant example comes from the standing mayor of Istanbul, Mevlut Uysal. Invoking the possibility of a fraudulent voter registration scheme, Uysal claimed that the AKP somehow identified that 3,092 of the ruling party’s voters were intentionally de-registered. What is striking is the method through which the AKP reached this conclusion: Uysal claims that the 3,092 de-registered voters had “last names” that easily showed that they are AKP supporters, a claim that flies not only in the face of logic, but also the ways in which Turkish last names can reveal clues into one’s partisan affiliation (they just don’t).
Overall, the AKP’s new turn to dispute elections in districts where they seem to have lost points toward the rise of a new dynamic in Turkish politics: “Ending up with more votes” no longer necessarily means “winning the elections.” Conversely, the AKP is making clear that the ruling party can be defeated at the ballot box only if they agree to the defeat.
As things stand, the fate of Istanbul is unclear, and what happens next is anyone’s guess. The AKP may eventually concede, or it may get what it appears to be seeking: either a partial or city-wide recount of the votes in Istanbul, or perhaps even repeat elections, hoping that these measures will bring Istanbul back to the fold. The AKP and pro-AKP media have so far failed to produce concrete evidence to support their allegations, but they most certainly seem to be pushing for the latter option. That being said, considering the potential secondary and tertiary side effects of such an outcome – which would include a backlash from foreign investors – not only for Turkey but also the AKP, there are also good reasons to think that Erdogan and his party will not torpedo the one theme that they have been relying on to legitimize their rule in the last seventeen years: the primacy and “sanctity” of the ballot box. Regardless, the members of the opposition, after having scored major local successes not only in Istanbul but also in Ankara, are faced with a puzzle: Is the AKP trying to steal the elections in Istanbul, or just merely stall the outcome to gain time before conceding?
In the midst of uncertainty as well as the informational fog and friction that skyrocketed right after the elections, answering the “steal or stall” question is not an easy feat. The fate of Istanbul, again, is unclear. Still, one thing is certain: how the battle for Istanbul plays itself out will set the tone for Turkish politics for many years to come. If the AKP concedes, two important consequences will follow. First, the opposition will be partially relieved and gain much needed self-confidence and morale to keep challenging the AKP in the future elections. Second, the loss of Istanbul will deal a considerable – but not decisive – blow to the AKP in terms of not only morale, but also much-needed finances that the “party machine” needs to keep its base satisfied. Under such circumstances, the AKP will likely push to undermine the CHP rule in Istanbul, either through limiting the administrative and financial autonomy of the mayoral office with new legislation, or by portraying the CHP’s Imamoglu as an incompetent and “shady” leader with dubious intentions.
“Stalling,” in this context, would come with two benefits for the AKP. First, assuming the party leadership, just like many spectators, did not expect such an outcome in Istanbul, it would give the AKP time to handle the transition in a way that would favor the governing party in the long run, or would at least limit the scope of accusations over exploitation of the city’s finances for partisan gains, an angle already invoked by Imamoglu. The second benefit of the “conceding after contesting hard” strategy, in turn, would involve a potential message the AKP may send to its base: We did not really lose Istanbul, but were overwhelmed by the trickery of the opposition. Such a narrative would make it possible for Erdogan to simultaneously minimize the loss of morale within his base that may follow from “losing Istanbul,” and keep delegitimizing the CHP rule and beyond. There would also be a side effect to this narrative: Intra-communal paranoia and enmity between AKP’s sympathizers and the opposition will further intensify. Such intensification helps Erdogan to solidify his base in the short run, but also comes with the risk of sparking domestic strife or instability in the long run.
In turn, if the AKP ends up with what it seems to want, that is, either a recount or repeat elections, all bets are off. The opposition will most certainly lose whatever belief it has left in the electoral system. Under such circumstances, at least for the opposition voters, elections will lose their meaning, since the idea that “we cannot win, even when we end up with more votes” will be ossified. This dynamic will then trigger what can be called “political nihilism,” with two potential consequences. For many members of the opposition, the first form of political nihilism would take the shape of disengagement from the electoral process, and accepting ultimate defeat. The opposition voters, and even political parties, may simply stop participating in elections as rigorously as they had done in the past. This outcome would be the final straw that would break the Turkish democracy’s back, and the AKP’s slide into outright authoritarianism will accelerate.
The second form of political nihilism, in turn, would have far more inflammatory consequences: some members of the opposition may turn to large scale protests in the streets, and in the extreme – and admittedly unlikely – case, the opposition parties may also decide to vacate their seats in the Parliament. The result would be a nationwide legitimacy crisis, and the AKP almost certainly would respond to such protests very harshly, criminalizing them as attempts at treason or a coup, and protestors as either traitors to the nation or willing, or unwilling, pawns of dark forces that aim to undermine Turkey’s sovereignty. To make matters even more unstable, not only the police but also the AKP’s sympathizers may also take to the streets to confront the protestors. In this doomsday scenario, Turkey would be faced with a combination of one, or more, of three outcomes: i) an outright dictatorship that would make George Orwell’s “1984” look like a children’s book; ii) internal strife and instability; iii) a military coup. The doomsday scenario, hopefully, is not the most likely one, but it is also one that needs to be taken into consideration.
In sum, neither the elections of March 31, nor the results are game-changers in Turkish politics all by themselves. Instead, the elections have become historic due to the AKP’s haphazard reaction to the results in Istanbul. The electoral “battle for Istanbul” still rages on, and how it will be resolved will largely influence the evolution, or deterioration, of Turkish democracy. Under such circumstances, any meaningful analysis of the election results – regarding “winners” and “losers” both at the local and national level – will have to wait for the outcome of the battle for Istanbul. Turkey’s largest city, also my hometown, has always been an important city, but its importance for the fate of Turkish democracy has never been this salient. Regardless of how the debacle over the local elections plays itself out, what happens in Istanbul will not stay in Istanbul, and will leave an important legacy for Turkish politics.
Burak Kadercan is an associate professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.