Opinion

Erdogan Won't Let Turkey's Opposition Win Istanbul Again

The anti-Erdogan opposition needs to win big time to avoid another disqualification. But it's facing the full wrath and intimidation of the AKP's machine, and a president who's left democracy behind

Supporters listen to Ekrem Imamoglu after he was declared the new mayor of Istanbul and before his election victory was annulled. Istanbul, Turkey, April 21, 2019
Emrah Gurel,AP

In August 2013, following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey announced that, "Democracy's path passes through the ballot box and the ballot box itself is the people’s will.

Although he lambasted General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for removing Morsi and touted the conspiracy theory that that Israel was behind it all, Erdogan was really taking aim at his domestic critics.

>> Erdogan Has Just Made a Huge Mistake

Demonstrators who had gathered at Gezi Park to protest government plans to destroy one of Istanbul’s last central open green spaces had just been violently dispersed. Erdogan’s message was clear: the only way to beat him and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) was through the ballot box. 

That’s easy to say that when you are winning elections, but the real test is what you do when you lose. Nearly six years and seven elections later, Turkey’s opposition finally handed Erdogan a defeat.

On March 31, the AKP lost control of four out of the five largest cities in local elections. Instead of conceding defeat, Erdogan and his party put immense pressure on Turkey’s Supreme Election Board to announce a re-run of Istanbul’s mayor elections. 

Erdogan and his AKP simply shrugged off the EU’s concerns about cancelling the election, while the U.S. response was subdued, to say the least. The victor, opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, only managed to enjoy 17 days in office. 

If this was a surprise, it shouldn't have been. President Erdogan once infamously quipped that democracy is like a bus ride: when you come to your stop, you get off. He got to his stop after the July 2016 attempted coup which ushered in a two-year state of emergency. During this time adversaries were purged from state institutions, the armed forces and security services.

Erdogan, who called the coup a gift from heaven, also used the state of emergency to quickly pass constitutional amendments through an unfree and unfair referendum and bestowed on himself unprecedented power with only token checks to his rule.

An election banner with the pictures of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and AKP mayoral candidate Binali Yildirim flying over the Galata bridge in Istanbul, Turkey. May 7, 2019
\ Murad Sezer/ REUTERS

Meanwhile, parliamentary immunities were lifted to deliberately target the liberal and Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). To its eternal discredit, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the man secular opposition, supported the maneuver, knowing full well that the HDP would be targeted.

Sure enough, HDP lawmakers were arrested, tried and/or imprisoned under trumped-up terrorism charges. Mayors and locally elected officials in the Kurdish southeast were removed and replaced by AKP appointed officials.

Erdogan and the AKP didn’t care then that millions had voted for the HDP. 

What should the Turkish opposition do now when their electoral success is effectively vetoed by an authoritarian leader who has got off the democracy bus? 

Turkey’s opposition can’t boycott the election. That would simply hand Erdogan and the AKP an easy win and leave supporters feeling betrayed.

Taking to the streets is not an option. After the suppression of the Gezi Park protesters and the post-2016 restructuring of the security services, demonstrating outside of the staunchly secular neighborhoods of Besiktas or Kadikoy would be suicidal - and fruitless.  

The opposition has no choice but to participate fully in the new elections scheduled for June 23. 

But don’t think that the opposition’s chances have improved. Reports of President Erdogan’s political suicide are greatly exaggerated

Yes, the economy is in a bad way and sure, there is growing discontent with Erdogan from both inside and outside of his party. There are rumors that former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu may break away and start a new political party, the impact of this would be negligible. There are whispers that former President Abdullah Gul, together with former Finance Minister Ali Babacan might also break away, which would have a more significant impact.

However, stories about key AKP members jumping ship have been in the air for years, and the likelihood of this happening before the new elections are slim. 

If anything, the decision to re-run the mayoral race has decreased the possibility of an AKP split, as its leading cadres will calculate that it is better to wait and see. If the AKP candidate wins, they will stick with President Erdogan, especially considering that there will not be more elections until 2023. 

Erdogan still remains highly popular and has amassed unassailable political power. There is little tangible evidence to suggest that AKP voters are leaving in droves, and those who do leave tend to vote for the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) who are Erdogan’s coalition partners in the "People’s Alliance" anyway. 

This has little impact for the Istanbul rerun because the MHP and AKP share the same mayoral candidate. Those hoping that Erdogan critic Necdet Gokcinar of the Saadet ("Felicity") party, who won 1.2 per cent of the Istanbul mayoral vote, will drop out and his 100,000 votes will fall to Imamoglu are wishful thinking. The majority of Saadet supporters are pious conservatives and more likely to find affinity with the AKP than with Imamoglu.

Protesters march with a Turkish flag during a demonstration in Istanbul following a decision by the authorities under pressure from Erdogan to re-run the city's mayoral election. May 8, 2019
AFP

Complicating the opposition's calculations is the timing of the vote. It will be summer and some CHP voters have already booked their vacations and will find themselves ineligible to vote.

The opposition will also face the full wrath of the AKP machine that includes a monopoly of the means of communication and state resources. That AKP machine will exploit religious rhetoric during the holy month of Ramadan to delegitimize the opposition. 

While supporters of Imamoglu praise his positive campaign, this may not be enough this time around. As in other elections, the AKP will intimidate, smear, manipulate and try to divide Imamoglu’s disparate voter base of nationalists, secularists, liberals and Kurds. As we have just seen, it is no good winning by just a few thousand votes - that margin is too easily disqualified. The opposition needs to win big time.  

Turkey’s opposition could highlight the AKP’s desperation and political bankruptcy. But so what? For Erdogan, democracy is just a means to an end anyway. 

Still, the opposition owe it to their supporters to campaign as hard as possible. They need a clear and concise message that highlights their dedication to the improvement of services and the economy. While encouraging their voter base not to be disillusioned and to get out and vote, they also need to extend their campaign to AKP neighborhoods in order to at least try to pick up disillusioned voters.

The opposition has its work cut out. But it has nothing to lose. 

Dr Simon A. Waldman is a visiting research fellow at King's College London. He is the co-author of The New Turkey and Its Discontents (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @simonwaldman1