BACKGROUND: On May 6, Turkey’s Supreme Election Board cancelled the result of the March 31 municipal election in Istanbul that had been carried by the opposition alliance headed by the officially social democrat Republican People’s Party (CHP) and ruled to rerun the polls on June 24. This is the first time that a major election has been cancelled in Turkey since the country held its first democratic elections in 1950. The election was cancelled on the flimsiest of legal grounds, because of alleged irregularities in the appointments in a few cases of the officials who oversaw the election.
It is tempting to take the ruling of the majority of the election board (seven of the presiding judges voted in favor of cancelling the election result, four against) as proof that President Erdoğan refuses to accept defeat at the polls. Yet explaining the Istanbul rerun with Erdoğan’s supposed “power hunger” or authoritarianism overestimates the personal factor, while taking for granted that the judges on the election board must have deferred to the president when they made their ruling. Crucially, the Erdoğan explanation ignores the deeper dynamics behind the cancellation of the Istanbul result. That the Turkish legal system has – once again – been mobilized against democracy is clear; but the question that calls for closer scrutiny is who the judges on the election board really deferred to.
In Turkey, appearances tend to be deceiving: it is useful to recall that what most observers once took to be a process of democratization during the early years of Erdoğan’s rule – the imprisonments and sentencing of hundreds of military officers and other, supposed coup plotters – was subsequently revealed to have been a power grab by the Gülenist sect, which Erdoğan was to sorely regret having acquiesced to. Erdoğan was never the democratic reformer he was credited with being when the judiciary, overtaken by the Gülenists, purged the military-led establishment’s influence. He was complicit in the violations the Gülenists perpetrated, but he was not the driving force.
Crucially, Erdoğan is in a similar situation today, with the difference that the democratic transgressions of the judiciary now add to his disrepute abroad and among half of the population of Turkey that intensely dislikes, if not hates him. This is in contrast to the judiciary’s violations a decade ago, which were not seen as such and in fact bolstered his undeserved reputation as a democratic reformer both among liberals at home and international observers.
In contrast, Erdoğan has earned his authoritarian laurels. Yet appearances notwithstanding, he is no more in full control of the state apparatus now than he was when his erstwhile Gülenist allies usurped state power. After the Gülenists turned against him and tried to oust him, Erdoğan has come to rely on the right-wing nationalist cadres that by tradition have run the Turkish state. The Istanbul rerun ultimately speaks of their power.
The opposition victory in the city where Erdoğan began his political ascent a quarter of a century ago when he was elected mayor and where his party has held on to power ever since was no doubt a personal blow to Erdoğan. Istanbul is not only Turkey’s second biggest political prize after the presidency; it is also the economic powerhouse of the country. Losing Istanbul would deprive the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of a major source of economic power. But none of this – nostalgia, political symbolism, money -- can account for taking the unparalleled and politically hazardous step of cancelling the election in the biggest metropolis of the country.
For one thing, Erdoğan did not behave like a sore loser eager to pick a fight with the opposition after the municipal elections on March 31. Binali Yıldırım, the losing candidate in Istanbul and a close confidant of Erdoğan, conceded defeat, humbly saying that winning “was not meant to be.” Erdoğan reached out the opposition, stating that it was time to “cool tensions,” and that Turkey’s problems called for cooperation, not confrontation. Erdoğan suggested that a broad, “Turkey alliance,” a coalition of sorts, should be formed. Meanwhile, voices within the AKP were raised in favor of breaking out of the grip of the far right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) with which the AKP forms the “People alliance.” The AKP depends on the MHP for its majority in parliament, and Erdoğan was reelected president 2018 only because MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli instructed the party base to rally to Erdoğan. Nonetheless, the alliance with the militantly Turkish nationalist MHP has alienated Kurdish voters, and the municipal elections showed that the balance between the right-wing parties in alliance is shifting in favor of the MHP which is on the rise while the AKP is losing ground.
IMPLICATIONS: While Erdoğan struck a conciliatory note toward the opposition, Devlet Bahçeli did the opposite, questioning the legitimacy of the CHP-led alliance and its Istanbul victory. When Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the CHP leader, was assaulted by a lynch mob at the April 21 funeral of a soldier killed in a clash with Kurdish militants, Bahçeli ominously said that Kılıçdaroğlu ought to be careful with where he went. Then, on May 1, Bahçeli issued a written statement that was nothing less than a memorandum to the president and the Supreme Election Board, enumerating why the opposition victory in Istanbul could not be allowed to stand.
Bahçeli vowed to respect the ruling of the Supreme Election Board, provided it was the right one. Crucially, the memorandum also called Erdoğan to order, denouncing the idea of a “Turkey Alliance,” and thus the opening to liberals and Kurds that Erdoğan’s words potentially implied, saying that there could be no alternative to the AKP-MHP “People Alliance.” And Bahçeli claimed that the “Nation Alliance” between the CHP and the conservative Good Party was “shady:” its victory in Istanbul was the result of the “instructions” that had allegedly been given by the “terrorist organization,” a reference to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and this had turned the Istanbul election into an “existential problem”.
The opposition alliance did indeed enjoy the tacit support of the Kurdish political movement. The Istanbul win, narrow as it was, was secured with the Kurdish vote. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) chose not to field any candidates outside the Kurdish region in the southeast, and instead encouraged its supporters in the rest of the country to cast their ballots in favor of the “Nation Alliance.” Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-chair of the HDP, who is serving a prison sentence, announced his support for Ekrem İmamoğlu, the CHP candidate, during the campaign. Mayor-elect İmamoğlu reciprocated, saying that he appreciated Demirtaş’s political profile.
On May 4, three days after Bahçeli’s memorandum and two days before the Supreme Election Board announced its ruling, Erdoğan for the first time joined Bahçeli in calling for a rerun. Echoing Bahçeli, he justified the rerun as an “existential question,” and assured that he was going to continue “hand in hand” with Bahçeli. Having toyed with the idea of broadening his base, Erdoğan appears to have concluded that it would have been unwise to challenge the interests for which Bahçeli speaks.
Bahçeli has reason to be alarmed that the election strategy of the Kurdish political movement paid off and decided the outcome. The opposition win in Istanbul has exposed the vulnerabilities of the recent constitutional rearrangements; it has showed that these do not ensure that the influence of the Kurdish political movement is neutralized. Yet this was what the presidential system was supposed to have achieved.
Concentrating power in the presidency at the expense of the parliament was intended to circumscribe the political impact that pro-Kurdish parties that enter parliament – as is the case with HDP since 2015 – may have over government policies. It is no coincidence that Devlet Bahçeli, on whose initiative the presidential system was introduced, has remarked that it is the single most important constitutional reform that has been undertaken since the founding of the Turkish republic 1923.
But Selahattin Demirtaş, although confined to a cell in the Edirne prison, has now demonstrated that he can still be a kingmaker in Turkish politics. Analyzing the Istanbul result, the CHP concluded that it was the alliance of “social democrats, nationalist democrats, conservative democrats and Kurdish democrats” that enabled victory. This centrist alliance would be in a position to carry also the next presidential election. It would be endorsed by conservatives like former president Abdullah Gül, who slammed the decision to cancel the Istanbul result, and former AKP leader Ahmet Davutoğlu, who calls for the re-introduction of the parliamentary system, drawing a sharp rebuke from Bahçeli.
CONCLUSIONS: Historically, state security concerns and business interests have coincided in Turkey. This was the case during the Cold War era, when the left was the enemy. When the left rose in the 1970s, the state, the paramilitary gangs of the MHP and the business community joined forces to crush it. Today, dominant interests in society collide with the interests that are defended by the state security establishment. The aspirations of the Kurds pose an “existential” threat only to the guardians of state security, not to business. TÜSİAD, Turkey’s main business association, criticized the decision to rerun the election, and Ömer Koç, the chairman of Koç Holding, Turkey’s leading industrial group, made a point of paying a visit to mayor-elect İmamoğlu the day before the Supreme Election Board deposed him.
Yet with the state deeming his victory an “existential” threat, it seems unlikely that Ekrem İmamoğlu will return to office.
Halil Karaveli is a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center and Editor of the Turkey Analyst. He is the author of Why Turkey is Authoritarian: From Atatürk to Erdogan (Pluto Press)
Picture credit: Public Domain via Flickr accessed on May 16, 2019