Opinion

Erdogan Has Just Made a Huge Mistake

By cancelling the Istanbul elections, Erdogan has annulled a core tenet of democracy in Turkey. But it’s not an act of power: it’s an act of weakness, over-reach and exposes his increasing vulnerability

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a meeting of the NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue, in Ankara, Turkey. May 6, 2019.
,AP

The banging on pots, pans and saucepan lids, the whistling and the hooting from cars started almost immediately in neighborhood after neighborhood of Istanbul last night.

News was spreading of Turkey’s Supreme Election Council’s decision to annull Istanbul’s municipal mayoral election – disqualifying the anti-Erdogan opposition’s most resonant win from the local elections held on March 31. 

Ekrem Imamoglu, who had swiped the huge metropolis away from Erdogan’s AKP, was stripped of his mayoral office just weeks after he had been certified as the winner.

Imamoglu, a relative unknown before the mayoral campaign who has captured mainstream support not least among those who assumed Erdogan and his party had become invincible, took ownership of the moment. Addressing a hastily-organized rally in central Istanbul, he gave one of his best speeches to date.

He struck a defiant but upbeat note: "No one can block this nation’s democracy…we will never give in, because I know that when I walk, I will never walk alone," but is joined by the 16 million residents of Istanbul, working for all the people and not for the special interest groups with whom the AKP is inextricably linked.

He described the electoral commission’s ruling as a "treacherous decision" - his own CHP party's deputy chair called it "plain dictatorship" - and called for a unified effort to fight on: "They are trying to take back the election we won. You may be upset, but never lose your hope."

Ekrem Imamoglu, the opposition CHP candidate who won the Istanbul elections that have now been annulled, addressing a rally in Istanbul. May 6, 2019.
Lefteris Pitarakis,AP

And he offered an optimistic but determined phrase as his campaigning slogan: "Everything is going to be just fine." That slogan, #herseyçokgüzelolacak, is already trending as a hashtag in Turkey. 

The response online to Erdogan’s power move was quick and scathing, with Turkish Twitter erupting with videos of the protests, satirical cartoons and calls for celebrities to use the Imamoglu hashtag. The international reaction has also been swift and severe. 

Kati Piri, the European parliament’s Turkey rapporteur, tweeted: "Erdogan does not accept defeat and goes against the will of the people…This ends the credibility of democratic transition of power through elections in Turkey." U.S. Senator Marco Rubio joined in: "Authoritarianism is challenging democracy in every region. In #Turkey Erdogan undermining rule of law & democratic order."

The EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned that Turkey was in breach of its commitments as member of the Council of Europe: cancelling the elections "go against the core aim of a democratic electoral process to ensure that the will of the people prevails."

The Turkish Lira is also feeling the weight of the decision: it dropped sharply, standing now at 6.13 to the U.S. dollar. 

Imamoglu has already experienced what concerted political pressure orchestrated by Erdogan and his AKP looks like. On election night, the AKP candidate Binali Yilidirim, an Erdogan loyalist and former prime minister, declared victory even before the counting was over, despite clear data points showing Imamoglu holding the lead.

But Imamoglu pulled through and his slim victory of about 18,000 votes remained firm, even when it was reduced by numerous recounts demanded by the AKP.

It was a historic win – not only a humiliation for Erdogan, whose political career has always been tied to Istanbul, but a victory against stacked-up odds: serial underhand attacks by the AKP who turned state TV into their own private campaigning medium.

The Election Council’s decision to cancel the election was based on a strange technicality: that some polling officials were not civil servants – indicating that they had indeed capitulated to government pressure. It’s worth noting that opposition parties have failed numerous times in their attempts to challenge election resultsin the past, both in national and local elections. 

Even before the March 31 elections, many correctly predicted that the nation’s capital, Ankara, was well in the reach of the opposition, not least because of Turkey’s economic woes - rising inflation and a crashing lira.

Istanbul, however, was a different story. A win for the opposition CHP seemed purely aspirational. This is Erdogan’s home turf, where he started his political career as mayor in 1994. For decades, the AKP performed well as the city’s rulers, cleaning it up and installing a state-of-the-art metro system. By 2010, Istanbul had become an international hotspot, attracting artists, tourists and businessmen alike. 

Following Erdogan’s violent crackdown on the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the AKP ran offtrack, handing over enormous infrastructure and building contracts to pro-government conglomerates. Since the economic crisis hit, over-ambitious half-built housing projects litter the city.

The city’s much-vaunted new international airport, a stunning feat in size and capacity, has become a black hole for investors, and a literal grave for unseemly numbers of workers who died on the project. At least the economic downturn has meant Erdogan shelving his grandiose Kanal Istanbul project, a 30 mile seaway connecting the Black and Marmara seas. Experts had warned it risked extensive  ecological damage. 

The first sign that the AKP’s hold over Istanbul was waning was in the 2017 referendum, when the residents rejected Erdogan’s bid for centralized power which he won nationally by 51%. In the 2018 national elections the AKP made a transient comeback.

But with the economy in disarray, high unemployment, and a clear and wide CHP coalition-building strategy up to and including the largely Kurdish HDP party, Imamoglu’s victory in the mayoral elections built on recent years’ opposition momentum and closely mirrored the 2017 referendum results.

Before these elections, plenty of observers declared that Erdogan and his AKP could not afford to lose Istanbul, and that they would do everything in their power to win - even if that meant stealing the elections. The electoral commission’s decision clearly validates their prediction, and Erdogan’s attempt to nullify a core tenet of democracy.

Supporters of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu shout anti-government slogans at a protest against the re-run of Istanbul mayoral election in Istanbul. May 6, 2019
AFP

But that’s not the most significant lesson from what’s happened in the last 24 hours in Turkey.

The cancelation of the Istanbul elections is actually a worst-case scenario for Erdogan and the AKP. The over-confidence its hardcore supporters had in the party’s ability to win - or, some might argue, in their ability to pull off widespread fraud - has turned into nothing less than a political fiasco on a scale the ruling party has ever encountered. 

We are witnessing a newly-vulnerable party apparatus - insecure, weak, and divided. A party that has hit political bankruptcy. All this, playing out in the public sphere, not behind closed doors. This is nothing short of an embarrassment for the AKP.

Such a blatant flouting of laws and norms should never have happened, but it has. And now, even in the eyes of some of once-enthusiastic supporters, the AKP has illegitimately taken away the mandate of the people. People are angry, and they certainly have a right to be.   

Yesterday’s Election Board ruling indeed marks a sad day for Turkish democracy, but it certainly does not mean that the game is over. It is clearer than ever that the AKP, even after 17 increasingly authoritarian years in power, has not and will not gain a total political monopoly over Turkey – and that the stamina and perseverance of the opposition cannot be understated. 

That diverse and potentially fractious opposition needs to stay on track, united, and absorb the wise and responsible lead of Imamoglu himself, who from the beginning has sought to keep his campaign positive and not be trapped by deliberate provocations. 

The opposition must go into the Istanbul campaign 2.0 knowing that it has won this election once before. The political momentum, vigor and natural justice is on its side. It is Erdogan and the AKP who have invited this fateful, uphill battle on to themselves.

Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who has lived in Turkey and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Twitter: @Istanbultelaviv