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The Istanbul election – The new depths of Erdogan’s autocracy (Economist)

11 May 2019


The Economist title: The Istanbul election – The new depths of Erdogan’s autocracy

The Economist subtitle: Turkey’s president can no longer bear to lose at the ballot box

Date of publishing: 9 May 2019

“Until this week, Turks who could not stomach the autocratic rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan had one thing to cling to. Their president had locked up journalists and thousands of bureaucrats, gutted state institutions and used a referendum to grab constitutional powers. He had forced the sale of independent newspapers to his cronies, installed his second-rate son-in-law as finance minister and debauched the currency, tipping the country into recession. He had wrecked his country’s relationship with both America and the EU. And yet, at the same time, he was still governed by one master—the ballot box. Elections in Turkey may not have been terribly fair, but at least they were free.

No longer. On May 6th, after weeks of pressure from the ruling AK party and the president himself, Turkey’s electoral board annulled the election, back in March, of the mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and its economic and cultural capital. In that ballot Istanbul’s voters turned their backs on Mr Erdogan’s man, a former prime minister, and by less than 14,000 votes in a total of 8m chose the barely known Ekrem Imamoglu. To Mr Erdogan, this was intolerable. He himself got his start in Istanbul, where he marshalled an impressive record as mayor in the 1990s before becoming first prime minister and then president, in which two roles he has ruled Turkey continuously since 2003. “If we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey,” he reportedly said in 2017. His response to Mr Imamoglu’s victory was to blame “organised crimes” at the ballot box.

The precise grounds for annulling a ballot the electoral board had previously endorsed are laughable. Supposedly, the reason is that a number of polling-station officials were not properly qualified. Yet if that were so, the elections on the same day and in the same polling stations of district mayors and members of the municipal assembly should have been annulled as well. They were not. One reason for this puzzling discrepancy may be that the AK did quite well in those.

Regrettably, this latest downward lurch in Turkey’s descent into Central Asian-style dictatorship will have few international consequences, if only because Mr Erdogan has already thoroughly alienated the West. The EU will huff and puff, but Turkey’s plans for EU membership were already in the deep freeze and any form of sanction would risk unravelling the deal under which Europeans pay Turks to keep Syrian refugees away from their shores. It is hard to see President Donald Trump caring much about the annulment, but anyway, relations with Turkey have already been banjaxed by Turkey’s decision to buy Russian anti-aircraft missiles, to the consternation of NATO.

The reaction in Turkey also seems to be muted. Large-scale public protests are out, as opposition supporters fear that they may be arrested or give the authorities an excuse for a crackdown. The courts, like the electoral board, have been suborned. The only hope remains the ballot box. And there, at least Mr Imamoglu is still in with more of a chance than some of Mr Erdogan’s other opponents, who have also fallen victim to his new tactic of overturning electoral results that he does not like. In parts of the Kurdish south-east of the country, the election board has barred officials elected in March at the same time as the Istanbul and other mayoral elections from taking office, awarding victory to the runners-up. In the Turkish capital, Ankara, the freshly elected opposition mayor is facing possible removal on trumped-up charges of fraud. In Istanbul, by contrast, the election is set to be re-run, on June 23rd.

Ideally, Mr Erdogan’s actions will cause outrage and thus increase support for the ousted Mr Imamoglu, leading to an even greater humiliation for the president on polling day. Mr Erdogan surely knows this, leading many to worry that he has something up his sleeve—a wave of arrests, perhaps, an invocation of his extensive new presidential powers, a dodgy deal with a third-party candidate or just old-fashioned vote-stealing. That is why anyone in Istanbul who cares about the survival of democracy in Turkey, including all but the most narrow-minded supporters of the ruling AK party, ought to turn out in their millions to vote for the rightful mayor.”



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