Turkey held municipal elections on Sunday, March 31. Late in the evening polling stations finished counting the votes. In Istanbul, like in other major cities, the result was a victory for the opposition candidate, Mr Imamoglu. However, the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) asked over and over for recounts and eventually a rerun. The emerging controversy diverted attention from our heavily loaded national agenda which ranges from the current economic downturn to troubled relations with allies not to mention our Syria predicament.
The elected mayor received his official mandate on April 17 but this too could be annulled by the Supreme Election Board if it were judge JDP’s objections valid. Thus, for more than a month our polarized country remained on edge trying to guess the title of the final episode of this unnerving election. Would it be “a sigh of relief” or “a dark day for Turkey”? The former was the expectation of a few optimists. For realists, the latter was a foregone conclusion and today Turkey’s Supreme Election Council proved them right. Its decision came at the heels of a horrific lynching attempt on the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party. It was revealing that the decision of the Council was made public by the representatives of the JDP and its junior partner Nationalist Action Party in the Council before the Council itself formally announced it. So much for respect for a “constitutional institution”.
In recent years, confident of the support of the party faithful, the JDP has prioritized the ballot box over other fundamentals of democracy such as the rule of law and separation of powers. In the April 2017 constitutional referendum, the Turkish electorate replaced our decades-long parliamentary system with a “presidential” one by a narrow majority, 51,41 % of the voters saying “yes” and % 48,59 % saying “no”. Even if the difference had been just one vote, the new system would have been adopted. One vote would have made all the difference in the world and what was at stake was the constitution. But that was then, this is now and a difference of 13,000 votes is not enough to make the winner Istanbul’s new mayor.
Why then did the JDP insist on numerous recounts before pushing for a rerun? Because, losing the vote in Istanbul was a shock to them. Istanbul is Turkey’s most populous city of sixteen million, its financial center and a hub of dubious vested interests. They needed time.
Firstly, the shock had to be absorbed.
Secondly, the JDP leadership was fully aware that a rerun would have far-reaching internal and external consequences. These had to be weighed.
Thirdly, the opposition had to get attuned to the prospect of a rerun, indignation had to give way to resignation.
The annulment of the Istanbul election will be seen worldwide as conclusive evidence of Turkey’s democratic decline. It will take Turkey’s relations with the West to new lows. Turkey’s autocratic regional adversaries will be delighted now that we are no different. Egypt’s President-for-life Abdel Fatah al-Sisi will rejoice.
On April 19, The Atlantic published an interview with the retiring French ambassador in Washington. He was asked if there will be irreparable damage from [the Trump]presidency, or even a break in the transatlantic alliance. Ambassador Gérard Araud said:
“You are offering us a test case of what happens when a populist is elected in a liberal democracy. So thank you very much for the test case. What is important in this crisis is the strength of your institutions.
“I don’t think that anything irreparable is happening in the U.S. I don’t know what would have happened in France if Marine Le Pen had been elected, because our institutions are much weaker…” (*)
His response makes one wonder about the strength of Turkey’s “institutions”. Never mind the Supreme Election Council taking its time, the 600-member Turkish parliament remained in recess for two months because of the elections.
Sadly, all of this is happening at a time when there is renewed talk about the Arab spring as the ouster of autocrats in Algeria and Sudan revive the hopes of millions for a better and democratic future.
Nonetheless, there is hope. Turkey’s municipal elections were a yellow card for the JDP government. It appears that after nearly two decades of JDP rule, people are seeing that the road ahead is not all roses and questioning why and how we got here.
During the election campaign, the people of Turkey must have understood more clearly what our new “presidential system” actually means. Probably even some of those who most enthusiastically supported it in the 2017 referendum now regret their choice.
On the whole, the controversy over the Istanbul vote has been a lose-lose situation for the JDP. It may also prove to be the beginning of its unravelling.
Ali Tuygan, Ambassador (Ret’d) and former Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The article is also published on his blog.