Is Istanbul’s mayoral election a breaking point for Turkey’s ruling party?

The rerun of the Istanbul mayoral elections on June 23 resulted in a major shakeup for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). When the Supreme Election Council (YSK) ordered the vote to elect a mayor of Istanbul to be held again, many observers predicted the result could turn into a bigger defeat for the AKP.

There were two main contenders for the post of mayor of Istanbul. The candidate of the ruling AKP was the former prime minister and former speaker of the parliament Binali Yıldırım, and that of the main opposition party was Ekrem İmamoğlu, the mayor of the little-known Beylikdüzü district of Istanbul

When İmamoğlu won the elections held on March 31 with a small margin (0.017 percent), the ruling party objected to the result and asked for recount of the ballots. The margin in favour of İmamoğlu went from 27,000 down to 13,729. Encouraged by this apparent shift towards Yıldırım, the AKP asked for the cancellation of the mayoral elections for Istanbul. 

The basis of the AKP’s demand was that the committees overseeing the ballot boxes had to be composed of public servants, but in some localities some committee members were not. But what is ironic is that the composition of these committees was initially screened and approved by the same YSK. What makes the annulment even more ironic is that the YSK, in a previous decision, said the presence of non-public servants on ballot box committees should not be considered a reason for the cancellation of the elections, as it would not affect the election result. 

As if this were not enough, the YSK decided to cancel only the election of the metropolitan mayor, not the other votes that were carried out simultaneously. This reasoning was inconsistent, because if the composition of the ballot box committees affected the results of the election for the mayor, it would also affect the elections of district mayors and members of the municipal councils as well. The YSK decided that, out of the four ballot papers that voters put in a single envelope and dropped in the ballot box, three (the ones for the district mayor, for members of the municipal councils and for neighbourhood heads) were not affected by the unlawful composition of the ballot box committees, but the one for the metropolitan mayor was. This distorted logic prevailed and the election for the metropolitan mayor was cancelled. 

The AKP also asked for a recount of all votes, including those for the municipal councils, district mayor and neighbourhood heads. Fortunately for the AKP, this demand was overruled by the YSK. If the demand had been accepted, the AKP could have lost its majority on the municipal councils of many districts as well. In the June 23 rerun of the mayoral election, İmamoğlu’s margin of victory increased by 58 times from 13,000 to 800,000.

Turkish media said YSK members decided to order the rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election under strong pressure from the AKP. The 11 members of the YSK were split-; seven of them voted in favour of the cancellation, while four – including council chairman Sadi Güven - voted against.  

The YSK’s decision will probably be taught in the law schools as a wrong example of an election cancellation. 

After the March 31 elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seemed to concede the defeat of his candidate. In a speech from the balcony of the AKP building at midnight of March 31, before the cancellation decision was announced, he used a resigned narrative and said that “even if İmamoğlu is leading in the race, the provincial council of many metropolitan cities, including Istanbul, is dominated by the AKP majority”. 

Probably over zealous members of Erdoğan’s inner circle persuaded him that they should find a way to cancel the Istanbul elections. But they brought the party to breaking point. Whether this course could be reversed remains to be seen.

© Ahval English

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.