Electoral board mulling Istanbul election prepares for day of destiny for Turkish democracy

The controversy over the March 31 local elections in Istanbul continues, with the Supreme Election Council (YSK) expected this week to announce its decision on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s appeal to cancel the result.

While the AKP’s appeal is based on its claim that the main opposition candidate won through electoral fraud, the party’s deputy head in charge of electoral matters, Ali İhsan Yavuz, has announced that it will also renew attempts to remove people who were dismissed from their jobs by emergency decree from the electoral roll.

Around 14,000 people who voted in Istanbul had been dismissed by decree in the two-year state of emergency that followed the July 16 coup attempt in 2016. The government says they had links to outlawed organisations, but critics have said it used its emergency powers to remove dissidents from the civil service and universities.

One of the nine points the AKP listed in its appeal to cancel and re-run the election in Istanbul related to dismissed public workers, who Yavuz has said should not be allowed to vote.

The YSK is currently debating whether to accept that appeal as a whole, but had already rejected the request to disenfranchise voters. The AKP is now renewing that request with new arguments.

Few believe the YSK will accept those arguments this time around. But that is probably besides the point: the AKP has launched a constant stream of appeals and challenges since the local election results came in, and these appear to be more strategic than sincere, aiming to draw out debate both to reinforce the “controversy” over the results in the public eye, and to allow more pressure to be exerted on the YSK.

It would be a glaring double standard to apply this only to the Istanbul metropolitan municipality, which it lost, and not the other districts where dismissed workers voted where it won.

Since more than 130,000 workers were dismissed by decree across Turkey, the fact that the AKP only appears concerned about the votes of those in Istanbul makes the double standard in their appeals even more apparent.

Nor was there any concern about the votes cast by dismissed workers last year in the June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections, or in the constitutional referendum the year before.

After those elections, in which the ruling party got what it wanted, the AKP breathed not a word about the votes from dismissed officials. Yet following the logic of its latest appeals, not only should the election that won Recep Tayyip Erdoğan his position as Turkey’s first executive president be re-run, so too should the referendum that confirmed the new system.

That 2017 vote was not only won by the tightest of margins, it was also a source of massive controversy. On the day, the YSK decided as votes were being counted to accept ballots which were missing their security seals.

Another of the controversies around the election dredged up by the AKP was the party’s claim that 46,426 votes had been cast with the names of people who were dead, mentally incapacitated or otherwise ineligible to vote.

The real figure, examination of voting records showed, was 766, a relatively small number given the size of the Istanbul constituency and hardly enough to dent the 13,000-vote lead the main opposition Republican People’s Party’s Ekrem İmamoğlu won the election with.

The AKP has also referred to a law stating that polling station officials must be public servants, saying that since 6,000 were not, the election’s validity has been called into question.

However, the party had until March 2 to appeal against these officials before the election took place, and there has been a wealth of precedent in prior elections for non-public workers serving at polling stations.

In light of the present circumstances, laws and documentary evidence, it is clear the YSK must reject the AKP’s appelals and officially confirm İmamoğlu as mayor of Istanbul.

Yet both the AKP and its alliance partners, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, have continued to pile the pressure on the YSK, which is expected to announce its decision as soon as Monday.

MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli has throughout the appeal process made frequent calls for a re-run, most recently saying the cancellation of the election was a matter of ethical and legal necessity.

After weeks without any strong statement on the matter, President Erdoğan came out on Saturday to warn the YSK it would have to order a re-run of the election to remove any suspicions about its integrity. Political circles in Ankara have described the president’s intervention as a direct order to the YSK board members to cancel the election.

Meanwhile, the state-run Anadolu Agency too has played its part in creating grounds for a re-run by broadcasting news alleging that 43 presiding officers at ballot stations were linked to the outlawed Gülen religious movement, which the Turkish government blames for the 2016 coup attempt.

Anadolu is nominally the national broadcaster, but shortly after the election it was attached directly to the communications directorate of Erdoğan’s presidency.

Of course, it is not a matter for the YSK if those officials are linked to illegal groups, but for the interior and justice ministries to investigate and act accordingly.

But Anadolu’s news, coming alongside Erdoğan’s statement, is another sign of the extreme pressure under which the YSK has found itself.

The board’s final decision on the Istanbul election is thus of vital importance for the future Turkey’s eroding democracy. While the meeting to make the decision will begin on Monday, it is not known whether the decision will come on the same day, or whether talks will continue for days before it is announced.

With representatives from the CHP and other opposition parties at the YSK insisting that there is no evidence to suggest that any illegal practices influenced the outcome of the election, the board and its chairman, Sadi Güven are under pressure from more than one angle.

This lends credibility to rumours that Güven has had enough of the pressures and is ready to vote against the AKP’s appeal and in İmamoğlu’s favour before going directly into retirement.