Ankara: Following weeks of speculation, Turkey’s top election body has ordered a re-run of Istanbul’s mayoral election, after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan alleged widespread fraud in the conduct of the vote.
The main opposition party’s candidate, the softly spoken yet passionate Ekrem Imamoglu, had defeated Erdogan loyalist Binali Yildirim by a narrow margin in the original March 31 vote.
But Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) refused to accept the result and a new vote will now be held on June 23.
Analysts say Erdogan’s move is risky, with the opposition galvanised and voters still hurting from a prolonged economic downturn.
Why did Erdogan want a re-run?
Erdogan once said winning Istanbul — Turkey’s economic powerhouse with 15 million residents — was like winning the entire country.
For Erdogan and his allies, say analysts, the city’s wealth makes it worth risking Turkey’s reputation overseas to hold on to the city, which they and their predecessors have ruled for 25 years.
“The municipality controls very large financial resources, which are channelled to AKP supporters,” Emre Erdogan, professor of political science at Istanbul Bilgi University, told AFP. The loss of Istanbul could weaken the party machine, he added.
The president claims there was widespread corruption at the ballot box, and Istanbul prosecutors have launched multiple probes into how the vote was handled.
Some election officials were accused of links to the group blamed for an attempted coup in 2016.
“We saw that 15,000 AKP voters had their will taken away,” Erdogan said on Tuesday. The election board’s decision was the “best step” for the country, he added.
Will the AKP win this time?
Imamoglu defeated Yildirim, a former prime minister and close Erdogan ally, by only around 13,000 votes.
He has the support of opposition and Kurdish parties, but the AKP has a formidable machine for bringing out the vote, particularly in more conservative and religious neighbourhoods.
Nonetheless, the AKP still lost the March 31 election, despite relentless televised speeches by Erdogan, including 14 rallies in 48 hours across Istanbul in the final days before the vote.
Professor Erdogan (no relation to the president) said the two sides were currently neck-and-neck, but that the replay could damage the ruling party’s legitimacy.
“Half the citizens of Istanbul believe that Imamoglu is the elected mayor and there was no electoral fraud,” he said.
The AKP’s decision to force a re-run was an act of desperation, added Berk Esen, assistant professor of international relations at Ankara’s Bilkent University.
Even if Yildirim wins, it will be “a pyrrhic victory, since Imamoglu has already become a household name and emerged as the opposition’s unifying candidate,” he said.
Some of the president’s allies have recognised the danger.
“With our own hands, we have given Ekrem Imamoglu the popularity that he did not even obtain by his own efforts,” said former parliament speaker Bulent Arinc this week.
Meanwhile, the economy remains just as troubled as it was in March.
High unemployment, inflation at nearly 20 percent, and the first recession in a decade have eroded the perception of Erdogan and his party’s capacity for strong economic management.
How will this decision affect Turkey?
This is the first time since the AKP came to power in 2002 that it has called for a vote to be re-run.
But it is not dissimilar to the situation in the June 2015 general election, when the party lost its overall majority in parliament and was unable to form a coalition.
On that occasion, Erdogan ordered fresh elections for just a few months later — a gamble that paid off, with the party regaining its majority.
But this time, Esen said, by annulling a result that many considered legitimate, Erdogan has “removed the last vestiges of legitimacy of the Turkish electoral system”.
Considerable damage had already been done when dozens of elected mayors in the southeast of the country were removed in 2016 and 2017, following renewed hostilities with Kurdish militants, he said.
Monday’s Istanbul decision “simply reinforces what we have already seen in Turkey’s southeastern provinces,” Esen added.
“Elections are becoming meaningless in that the incumbents can cancel them as they wish when they face a clear defeat.”