On June 23, Istanbul residents cast a ballot to elect their mayor for the second time in the last three months. Even though the ruling elite’s de-facto control of state institutions secured a re-vote for their candidate, the main opposition party’s candidate once again won the elections by gaining even larger public support – 54 % to 45 %. What these results tell us is that the government’s push to overturn the elections had an inverse effect by undermining its political legitimacy.
Having won six parliamentary elections, four local elections, two presidential elections, and three constitutional referenda, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been dominating Turkey’s politics over the last seventeen years. Even though Erdogan’s regime has harnessed strong public support during these years, his tightening grip on power has undoubtedly played a role in maintaining these electoral victories.
By repressing dissent, taking over major media outlets, curbing associational rights, and abusing state-resources for partisan goals, the incumbent rule has steadily undermined political contestation in the country. When these authoritarian measures did not suffice to guarantee their victory, the ruling elite have also resorted to manipulating election results in various ways.
Yet the 31 March local elections marked a change in Turkey’s political trajectory, with more and more people going over to the opposition in order to punish the incumbent for political and economic predicaments instigated by his single–handed rule.
While Erdogan was quick to declare a victory by indicating that the AKP won the largest share of the votes with 44 %, post–election analyses revealed that the ruling party suffered one of its most significant political setbacks since its rise to power.
First, Erdogan’s party lost control of Turkey’s two most populated cities: Istanbul and Ankara. Both municipalities had been governed by the AKP and its predecessor parties in the last twenty–five years. The incumbent’s losses also extended to some other highly populated cities such as Izmir, Antalya, Adana, and Mersin. Second, the majority of the country’s wealthiest cities went over to the opposition. In fact, the AKP won the votes only in two of the fourteen cities with $10,000 and higher GDP per capita. Lastly, Erdogan’s rule suffered significant losses in the Kurdish southeast regions. In the aftermath of the 2016 putsch, the government replaced ten of the eleven elected mayors of the pro-Kurdish party, HDP, with trustees for their alleged ‘links to a terrorist organization’, the PKK. Despite the government’s systematic repression of HDP candidates, the party was able to win back six of the municipalities.
What ensued was Erdogan’s and the AKP’s growing efforts to reverse the election losses by using their control of state institutions. The initial instances of the regime manipulating the local election results occurred in the southeastern regions of Turkey. On April 10, the Supreme Election Council (YSK) announced that the elected Kurdish officials who were removed from their administrative positions by presidential decree in the past will not be allowed to assume office, although the Council itself had certified their candidacy in the first place. Where the HDP mayors were stripped of their mandates, the YSK, on some occasions, certified the AKP runners-up as mayors. In addition, tens of Kurdish winners at different levels had not been authorized even weeks after the elections.
Perhaps more strikingly, Erdogan’s party and its coalition partner, the National Movement Party (MHP), requested the annulment of the Istanbul municipal elections in which the Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, won the votes against the AKP candidate, Binali Yildirim, by a slim margin – 0.15 %.
On May 6, with pressure mounting from the ruling coalition, the YSK ruled on a re–vote of the Istanbul elections on the ground that non-public servants had been appointed as polling station officials and subsequently revoked Imamoglu’s mandate. Yet the Council did not invalidate the votes for district administrators, municipal councils, and local officials which had been submitted in the same polling stations as the mayoral elections.
As pointed out by Andreas Schedler, in his study of electoral authoritarian regimes, Turkey’s recent local race featured substantial violations to democratic norms of election. While Erdogan and his allies long engaged in practices that tilted the playing field in their favour, their use of state institutions to manipulate election results became more frequent over the last few years.
In particular, the ruling party exerts enormous control on the YSK - which consists of judges - through the Minister of Justice who leads the Council of Judges and Prosecutors that oversees the judiciary. Arguably as a result of this, the YSK refused the CHP’s request for a recount in the 2014 Ankara municipality elections in which the AKP candidate barely won the vote.
Moreover, in the 2017 constitutional referendum, the Council counted over a million votes without a required seal as valid. With a narrow victory in the referendum, the ruling party was subsequently able to remove the country’s parliamentary regime and build a strong presidential system with poor checks and balances. Lastly, the YSK’s decisions prevented a significant number of winners from taking office and exercising power in the recent local elections, while enabling the government to maintain its control of the municipalities without winning the races.
However, these authoritarian practices had the potential to turn the public against the rulers. Given that the re–vote in Istanbul mayoral elections resulted in another victory of the opposition candidate last Sunday, this might strengthen the public perception of Erdogan’s declining power. Such a perception, in turn, might encourage the opposition to escalate political challenges, weaken the regime’s bargaining power, and even induce splits within the ruling elite. Therefore, the obvious question arises: Why did the incumbent rule take such a risk in overturning the Istanbul elections?
There are at least three main reasons for the regime’s refusal to hand over the city to the CHP. First, Istanbul carries symbolic significance in Erdogan’s rise to power. His national political career took off after he was elected mayor of the city in 1994. Recognizing that the city, with its population of fifteen million, represents a significant source of political support, Erdogan often reiterates that ruling Istanbul is crucial to maintaining power across the country. In consequence, losing the city to an opposition candidate who was little known until recently, may convey to the public that Erdogan’s regime is running out of steam.
Second, Istanbul, which makes up 30 % of the national economy, features opportunities and resources that are critical to maintaining clientelist ties for the ruling party. In fact, Erdogan and his allies, for years, used construction projects, municipal services, and job opportunities to reward their loyalists. Even though the AKP, with its coalition partner, still controls the majority of the seats in the municipal council, sharing power with the CHP would undoubtedly make it more difficult for the ruling coalition to deliver resources at their discretion.
Finally, Erdogan and his allies are threatened by the possibility of corruption investigations into their rule in Istanbul. An audit report recently issued by the Court of Accounts revealed the excessive corruption that took place within the city’s municipal administrations in the course of 2017. Soon afterwards, the government removed a senior official who was in charge of audits from his post. However, the CHP winner, Imamoglu, in his seventeen-day tenure as mayor of Istanbul, was persistent to inform the voters about illicit spending and malpractices that left the city in significant debt and that benefitted the AKP related private companies and foundation.
Given all this, the stakes were unusually high for Erdogan and his AKP in these elections.
Ahead of the re-run of the Istanbul municipal elections on June 23, we saw that Erdogan opted to change the AKP’s campaign strategy. In the run-up to the 31 March elections, the president himself was involved in more than one hundred rallies where he insisted that the AKP’s victory was crucial for the survival of the nation. This time however, Erdogan took less of an active role and let Yıldırım lead a less aggressive campaign.
Yıldırım’s election campaign centered around the factors that precipitated the loss of the city in the first place. Particularly, the regime’s poor election performance was affected by the recent economic troubles as well as the corruption allegations. In his efforts to ease the voters’ concerns, Yildirim then focused on the AKP’s contributions to the city’s infrastructural development over the last two decades, while introducing social projects that will benefit the urban poor.
Another factor that cost the ruling party the votes was its Kurdish policy. In the March local elections, Erdogan’s divisive rhetoric and the regime’s policies in southeast Turkey resulted in the majority of the Kurdish citizens – who make up 15 % of the Istanbul electorate – voting in favor of the opposition candidate, Imamoglu. In addition, many conservative Kurds close to the AKP did not go to the polls.
In the June elections, the ruling party made efforts to mobilize the Kurdish electorate who had not turned out to vote. In that Yildirim paid a visit to Diyarbakir – the political capital of the Kurdish movement – where he greeted the crowds in Kurdish and squeezed Kurdistan into his speech. However, when opposition members earlier engaged in such actions, they became subjected to repression.
Moreover, the government allowed Abdullah Ocalan – imprisoned leader of the PKK – to meet with his lawyers nearly eight years later. What was more interesting was Ocalan’s letter addressed to the HDP, which allegedly called the Kurdish electorate not to participate in the Istanbul elections. Shortly after, however, the HDP officials stated that they maintained their policy to prevent the ruling coalition from gaining an election victory.
In contrast to the AKP’s election campaign, the CHP candidate ran on a much more unifying and peaceful platform from early on. Imamoglu, with his moderate attitude, was able to reach out to Turkish citizens from different ethnic identities and religious views. While his campaign attracted support from traditionally non-CHP voters, Imamoglu in reality proposed similarly populist projects as Yildirim did. However, his eagerness to fight with corruption in the city administration put him ahead of his counterpart.
In a last-ditch attempt to win the elections, Yildirim, and the AKP, unusually consented to hold a live debate with Imamoglu; however, a number of surveys conducted in the ensuing days repeatedly showed larger public support for the latter.
With the CHP’s victory in the re-run of the Istanbul municipal elections last Sunday, it is more likely that Erdogan and his AKP will face growing challenges to their rule. Imamoglu’s elections campaign showed that inclusive and peaceful political messages can attract major support for the opposition in its resistance to Erdogan’s authoritarian rule. At the same time, Imamoglu’s rule in Istanbul might help him raise his career as national politician and subsequently have an opportunity to run against Erdogan in the next presidential election as the CHP’s candidate
While Turkey’s opposition is likely to escalate political challenges, worsening economic conditions as well as foreign policy matters might make it more difficult for Erdogan’s regime to retain its legitimacy in the eyes of the people. In fact, all this can also induce splits within the ruling party and force the president to compromise in his policy decisions.
However, Erdogan, in his long career, proved himself to be a skillful politician many times. In order to prevent Imamoglu from gaining further popularity, convince his own allies to remain loyal to the ruling party, and retain the rents and spoils that Istanbul provides, the president might reduce Istanbul mayoralty’s scope of authority. More importantly, Erdogan and his allies might step up their efforts to undermine political contestation, with the purpose of avoiding another defeat. Consequently, Erdogan’s political ability to retain popular support in implementing these authoritarian measures will likely shape Turkey’s politics in the upcoming years.