Written by: Matthew Maurice
Mayoral elections are often unexciting affairs, coupled with low turnout. With the exception of maybe New York and a couple other major US cities, most Americans would likely struggle to name any other mayor (including their own). Even the historic election of Lori Lightfoot to be Chicago’s next mayor, becoming both the first African-American woman, and first openly LGBT mayor in the history of the Windy City, saw historically low voter turnout and little coverage on the national scale. This is in stark contrast to the Istanbul mayoral election, which took place a mere three days earlier. Fought between Binali Yildirim of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Pary (AKP), and Ekrem Imamoglu of the Republican People’s Pary (CHP), it saw almost ninety-percent turnout, and its controversial results threaten to undermine any pretenses that Turkey remains a democratic nation.
On March 31, local elections were held throughout Turkey. While Erdogan’s AKP and other allied parties received a slim majority of votes nationally, the center-left CHP managed to win or hold onto the mayoralties of five out of Turkey’s six largest population centers. This includes winning Istanbul, where Iamamoglu barely squeezed by to victory, with a 13,000-vote lead, out of over 8-million ballots cast. This was seen by many as a possible turning point in Turkish politics. A possible popular condemnation against president Erdogan, who himself started his political career as the mayor of Turkey’s largest city. However, as fate (or Erdogan himself) would have it, the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) annulled the election results on May 6, forcing a new vote later this summer in June.
Erdogan, whose conservative party has ruled Turkey since the 2002 election, (and whose current and previous parties have ruled Istanbul since the mid-1990s) has come under fire for increasingly authoritarian policies. These range from passing constitutional amendments increasing the power of the presidency, to jailing critics of his administration. Coupled with an economy in recession, the fact that his alliance could maintain a majority at all is incredible. However, as Erdogan himself likes to put it, “Whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey”, and as he saw it, the results could not stand. So, on May 8, under immense pressure from the administration, the YSK declared the results invalid, claiming that some voters voted illegally and that certain polling officials weren’t civil servants.
The timing of the announcement itself was suspicious, being a mere couple hours before the start of Iftar (the first night of Ramadan), a time when people would be at home with family, and less inclined to protest. Later, in an act that proved their decision was anything but political, the YSK refused to annul the results for any of the other offices won by Erdogan’s party in Istanbul, even though the same officials ran the process and the same people voted. While decrying this as a dictatorial move, Imamoglu vows to run again this June. However, the international community isn’t holding its breath, and in response to YSK’s announcement, the value of the Lira, has already tumbled significantly.
In an ironic twist, the AKP, which was partly started in response to the perceived corruption and illiberalism of the ruling CHP, has become the arbiter to the end of Turkish democracy. It is unlikely that Erdogan would have allowed this reelection to take place if he wasn’t sure of victory, yet this impressive showing from the opposition shows popular support for Erdogan and his AKP may be shrinking. Win or lose, this election has shown the world, and the Turkish people, once and for all that Erdogan is done presenting his nation as anything resembling a free democracy. What happens next, though, is for the people of Turkey to decide.