Ruling AKP piles pressure on electoral board for Istanbul re-run

Updated with quote from Güldem Atabay

Local news reports on Thursday indicated that Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has piled "extreme pressure" on the Supreme Election Council (YSK) to rule in its favour and rerun Istanbul's March 31 mayoral election.

The YSK is likely to rule by six votes to five in favour of the AKP's appeal and order a rerun, columnist Orhan Uğurluoğlu said in nationalist Yeniçağ newspaper on Thursday, citing sources in Ankara

The AKP says there were widespread electoral irregularities in Istanbul polls on March 31, in which the opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu was declared victor by a small margin.

The defeat was a huge blow to the prestige of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who launched his political career by becoming mayor of Turkey’s biggest city and financial centre in 1994 and has ruled the country since 2003.

Prosecutors in Ankara launched 32 different investigations on Thursday into possible electoral fraud and irregularities during the vote for Istanbul mayor, inviting more than 100 ballot box supervisors to testify as suspects.

The investigations focus on claims that a significant number of ballot box officials had been illegally appointed since they were not public servants. 

Opposition parties countered by saying that election councils were responsible for the appointments and that in places where the number of public servants was not sufficient to cover all ballot boxes, the councils appointed suitable people for the job.

Ten people who have testified were asked whether they had worked on elections before, how balloting committee heads were elected, and whether the signatures on voting reports belonged to them, Turkish left-wing news site Gazete Duvar reported. 

İmamoğlu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) has said the investigations had been staged to support the YSK’s decision, which is expected at the end of this week or early next week. An annulment of the election would mean İmamoğlu has to step down as mayor until new elections are held. 

CHP parliamentary party deputy chairman Engin Altay said the electoral board had started the adjudicating process on the election rerun solely at the request of the ruling party, which he said had not provided evidence of wrongdoing when it made its appeal.

This, Altay said, was a sign that the YSK was under serious pressure from Erdoğan’s AKP.

Unnamed sources cited in Uğurluoğlu’s column backed up this claim, saying YSK chairman Sadi Güven had complained that the board had been placed under extreme political pressure.

Uğurluoğlu said there were rumours in Ankara that two members of the YSK had been invited to the presidential palace, while two others had met with the legal advisers of the president, who on Thursday said he was hopeful the YSK would vote to annul the election.

The writer reported talk among political circles in Ankara of a tie between the YSK’s 10 members, with five supporting the annulment of the election, and five against. Güven’s vote would therefore be decisive, and Uğurluoğlu’s sources have said the YSK chairman was leaning towards annulling the March 31 results.

In the event of a rerun, Erdoğan has said he is “100 percent sure” the AKP’s candidate would win the second time round, pro-government newspaper Türkiye reported on Thursday.

But running the elections a second time may not be a simple matter for the ruling party. Binali Yıldırım, a former prime minister who was the AKP’s candidate on March 31, has said he has no interest in standing again.

Yıldırım’s stance is thought to reflect growing discontent within the AKP ranks at the direction the party has taken since it formed an alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a criticism that was voiced last month by another former AKP prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu.

Besides the rising disillusionment within his own party, Erdoğan's pursuit of victory in Istanbul is likely to have broader repercussions for the Turkish economy, economist and Ahval contributor Güldem Atabay wrote on Thursday.

"A salient common worry expressed in recent reports on the Turkish economy is that despite there being on paper four-and-a-half years without elections due, damage will be done to the economy by continued political uncertainty,” Atabay said.

Turkey's economy entered a recession in the final quarter of 2018, and continued damage done by high inflation and a weak lira could be exacerbated by the perception that the ruling party has repeated elections to get the result it desires, she said.

Reports this week suggested the ruling party was seeking further options to limit the damage in case Istanbul, the country’s largest city and financial powerhouse, ultimately ends up in opposition hands

Emine Kaplan, a journalist at secularist daily Cumhuriyet, reported on Thursday that Erdoğan was planning legal reforms that would limit the powers afforded to municipalities.

The proposed changes include limiting the periods mayors are allowed to take out debt to five years, transferring mayors’ powers over certain issues including zoning to ministries, and introducing municipal council chairpersons elected by members of municipal councils. 

Though the CHP won the overall majority in Istanbul, the AKP controls a council majority. Columnist Çiğdem Toker wrote shortly after the elections that the government was considering transferring the power to grant tenders over a certain value to the presidency.