A crisis looms, no matter who wins Istanbul rerun - analysis

The dynamics of the Istanbul rerun on June 23 have exposed the nature of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s unstable authoritarianism, indicating that Turkey will find itself in a deeper crisis no matter who declares victory on Sunday, said Nate Schenkkan, Director for Special Research at Freedom House, an international freedom watchdog on Friday.

Particularly since a failed coup attempt in 2016, Erdoğan’s rule has been described as “competitive authoritarianism”, a regime that is democratic in appearance but authoritarian in nature with ineffective institutions, unfair elections, and severe pressure on rights and freedoms.  

Under competitive authoritarianism, the ruling party must still win elections to claim that it represents the people’s will and stay in power . For Erdoğan, this claim was largely weakened after his party lost the mayoral election in Istanbul on March 31, albeit with a narrow margin. His party challenged the results afterwards, a move which according to some analysts has damaged Erdoğan’s legitimacy. 

Voters in Turkey’s financial powerhouse will head to the polls again on Sunday for the rerun of the mayoral race between the opposition’s candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu, and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate, Binali Yıldırım. 

“The dynamics of this unfair, unfree election illuminate the nature of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s unstable authoritarianism and its precarious future,” Schenkkan said in Foreign Affairs. “The result is a deeply unstable authoritarian regime that seems destined to drive the country further into crisis, no matter the results in Sunday’s rerun.”

İmamoğlu won the March vote with less than 14,000 votes in a city of 16 million people. But, according to Turkey’s leading pollster Konda, he is now 9 percentage points ahead of Yıldırım.

Schenkkan said that the Turkish president and the AKP might use some tactics on Sunday to ensure a win in Istanbul rerun, which according to some analysts have become a referendum over Erdoğan’s rule

But even if the AKP may secure a win by using the advantages of being in office or by resorting to outright voter manipulation, the result will drive the country further into crisis, according to Schenkkan. "For all of these advantages, you cannot truly win an election you’ve already lost: such is the paradox the AKP has created for itself,” he said.

The analyst said an election win in Istanbul might cost the AKP its legitimacy and might prompt street protests. 

“On the other hand, if the AKP loses, it will have shown that it is no longer powerful enough to dictate the country’s future,” Schenkkan said. The party is vulnerable to the possible challenge of a wave of scandals that may emerge if İmamoğlu launches investigations into reported corruption schemes tied to the AKP and the president, according to the analyst. Such vulnerability may lead to deeper crises if the ruling party seeks other means to remove İmamoğlu from office.

The AKP has already raised serious questions about its respect for election results, after it replaced more than 90 elected mayors in predominantly Kurdish provinces and districts in southeast Turkey with government-appointed ones using the powers of a two-year emergency rule declared in the aftermath of the failed putsch in 2016.

Turkey’s ruling party and the pro-government outlets have been accusing İmamoğlu for the past two weeks of insulting the governor of the Black Sea coastal province of Ordu when he was not allowed to use the VIP lounge at airport. 

On Thursday, during a television interview broadcast by several channels and streamed on social media, Erdoğan said the incident might cost İmamoğlu the mayoral office. If the governor files a complaint and if the court hands a “sufficiently long sentence”, İmamoğlu might be removed from office, he said. 

According to Schenkkan, the AKP and Erdoğan may also be preparing for the possibility of pressing charges against İmamoğlu over flimsy allegations of affiliation with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) or Gülen movement, which Turkish government blames for the failed coup in 2016. 

“But persecuting İmamoğlu in this way will only elevate his victim status,” Schenkkan said.