A meme that’s gone viral in Turkish chat groups since the March 31 municipal elections reads, “Four things that people can’t choose: 1. place of birth 2. family 3. race, ethnicity 4. mayor of Istanbul.” It takes aim at Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is seen as spearheading efforts to secure a rerun of the election in the country’s largest city Istanbul after losing it by a whisker to the main opposition. Erdogan’s reluctance to acknowledge defeat in the city of 16 million, where much of Turkey's wealth is generated, twinned with blatant discrimination against victorious Kurdish mayors have put the country on a knife’s edge with unpredictable consequences for its future.
His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has demanded a recount of ballots in all of Istanbul, claiming fraud with little evidence. Erdogan has gone as far as to accuse the opposition of “organized crime.” The Supreme Electoral Council (YSK), the committee of judges that notionally has the final say, rejected the demand, allowing a recount in just eight districts. But it acquiesced to the AKP’s other demand — to recount spoiled ballots — which failed to reverse the outcome. The lead of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) narrowed to around 14,000 votes at the last count. The YSK is set to deliver provisional results of the elections on April 13.
But before then, it faces a critical decision: whether to agree to the AKP’s demand for a rerun in the municipality of Buyukcekmece on the European side of the city. The body was expected to deliver its verdict today but then postponed at the last minute.
In an ominous sign, police have been raiding dozens of homes in the district, part of a hunt for more than 20,000 voters the AKP claims the main opposition CHP falsely registered or unlawfully removed from the lists so as to tip the outcome in favor of its own candidate, Hasan Akgun. It was his sixth straight win in Buyukcekmece since he was first elected in 1994.
Should the YSK uphold the AKP’s figures, it would likely trigger a rerun for all of Istanbul, as the number of fake or deregistered voters would then exceed the 14,000 votes with which Ekrem Imamoglu, the CHP’s mayoral candidate for Istanbul, secured his victory.
The CHP has brushed aside the AKP’s claims, saying it had challenged the voter rolls in Buyukcekmece prior to the elections and that 741 names had been removed as a result. “On Jan. 31, registered voter lists were finalized. If the AKP had objections, why did it not raise them then?” asked CHP spokesman Faik Oztrak.
Buyukcekmece’s incumbent mayor has meanwhile accused police of attempting fraud on the AKP’s behalf. Akgun told a news conference that police had set about manufacturing a list of fake voters to prove its case against the CHP and had included the name of a 10-year-old boy. The child in question grinned sheepishly as he faced the cameras at Akgun’s side.
Should the YSK order a fresh ballot in Istanbul, “the AKP’s last shred of legitimacy, which rests on marginally free if utterly unfair elections, will crumble,” CHP lawmaker Sezgin Tanrikulu told Al-Monitor. He declined to comment on the CHP's next move.
CHP members are under strict orders not to comment on the possibility, even among themselves, according to a party insider who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition that he not be identified. The same source speculated that if the YSK does order a rerun in Istanbul, the CHP may consider boycotting the elections because “they would clearly be rigged in the AKP’s favor.”
The People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the largest pro-Kurdish bloc in the parliament that has faced systematic repression with 95 HDP affiliated mayors booted out since 2016 and dozens of them jailed on thinly supported terror charges, would have good cause to follow suit. The party’s demands for a recount in several towns and districts, including Malazgirt in the east, where the HDP candidate lost by three votes, have been spurned. And on April 10, the YSK announced that any victorious candidates who had been sacked under the emergency law imposed in the wake of the failed 2016 coup would not be permitted to take up their posts. HDP lawmaker Meral Danis Bestas confirmed that six HDP candidates had been affected by the decision thus far. In Baglar, a district of Diyarbakir, the Kurds’ unofficial capital in the Kurdish-dominated southeast, the HDP swept over 70% of the vote but will be unable to serve. The first runner-up, an AKP man who trailed with 25%, will do so instead.
“This is a total breach of law and justice,” Bestas told Al-Monitor.
Wolfgang Piccoli, co-director of Teneo Intelligence, a London-based consultancy that closely monitors Turkey, predicted in a research note today that a re-run in Istanbul is “a distinct possibility.” Piccoli pointed to the YSK’s decision to order a rerun at the CHP’s request in the Black Sea town of Yusufeli, where the AKP won by just a handful of votes. “The YSK’s decision in Yusufeli could be aimed at forestalling accusations that it is bowing to pressure from the AKP if it also now agrees to to a rerun in Istanbul.”
Behlul Ozkan, an associate professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Marmara University, takes the opposite view. “If Erdogan had his heart set on a re-run he would be using far harsher rhetoric. We know what he sounds like when he's made up his mind to go for something. And retaining the legitimacy of the ballot box is critical to his claim that he always emerges victorious from them, which he has so far,” Ozkan told Al-Monitor. Although the AKP lost most of the big cities this time around, it won the overall vote in alliance with the far-right nationalists with 52%. More likely, Ozkan observed, "Erdogan is allowing time for the party’s propaganda machine to discredit the outcome through claims of fraud so as to make the loss of Istanbul more digestible to his base.”
The most critical question is, of course, how would the AKP expect to prevail in a rerun with even its own base displaying unease over its refusal to accept the March 31 results?
Cynics would say by tampering with votes. But Erdogan could also reach out to the HDP. By not fielding candidates in most of the cities outside the its southeastern stronghold and by ordering its supporters to vote for the CHP, the HDP helped swing the outcome decisively against the AKP, especially in Istanbul, where ethnic Kurds are thought to account for 11% of the vote. The HDP has been exhorting Erdogan to resume peace talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan that collapsed in 2015 amid mutual recriminations. The government has since escalated the military campaign against the PKK, and the militants holed up in the mountains wedged between Iraq, Iran and Turkey are feeling the heat.
The treatment being meted out to the HDP candidates in the southeast suggests, however, that Erdogan has no intention of rekindling negotiations with the PKK and that his pact with far-right nationalist leader Devlet Bahceli remains intact.