Turkish pro-govt media falsely accuses opposition of electoral fraud

Another week, another coup in Turkey. The Supreme Election Council (YSK) ruled on Monday to cancel and rerun the mayoral election in Istanbul; the opposition called it a coup against Turkish democracy and the voters’ will, while supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have said the decision reversed an “attempted coup” against Istanbul and the nation.

Talk of coups has become run-of-the-mill in a country where everything up to fruit prices is described as a conspiratorial attack. Likening the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to coup plotters is, likewise, one of the ruling party’s most well-worn tactics, and appears to be the narrative it will fall back on in the run-up to the election rerun on June 23.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has shown himself to be something of a history buff when circumstances require, and he had a couple of historical precedents on hand this week to persuade voters of the CHP’s history of dirty dealings at the ballot box.

The president did have to stretch all the way to the middle of the last century to come up with examples, but regardless, the narrative painting the CHP as an anti-democratic party has until now been a powerful weapon of the AKP’s.

So, it was little surprise to see the ruling party change tack after months of painting the CHP as a “terrorist” party for its cooperation with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to instead focus on what interior minister Süleyman Soylu called “the shadiest election” he’d seen.

Many have pointed out that the YSK’s decision came on the same day as news that the ruling party had allowed lawyers to visit Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), for the first time in eight years – a period so long it apparently even surprised Erdoğan.

The ruling party, having endured major defeats the first time round, has decided it may not be the best strategy this time to paint the HDP, which won nearly 200,000 votes in Istanbul alone in last year’s parliamentary election, as terrorists. Observers have speculated that Erdoğan may make a shock u-turn to seek Kurdish votes in the Istanbul do-over, though how he could make this work given his enduring alliance with far-right Turkish nationalists is anyone’s guess.

After the blanket coverage given to accusations of a CHP alliance with “terrorists” failed to achieve the desired result on March 31, AKP officials and mouthpieces are working instead to drive home the point that the CHP cheated to win in Istanbul.

The least surprising purveyor of this line was İbrahim Sarıgül, the Yeni Şafak chief editor whose 45-word headlines sum up the conspiratorial mania that defines large parts of Turkey’s media.

“The İmamoğlu project has collapsed. This wasn’t about the elections; it was a project targeting Istanbul. The next phase would target the whole of Turkey! Probes into spying, terror and national security should be launched. Let’s see who will flee to the US this time!” read his Tuesday headline.

Days later, under another mammoth headline that asked: “So what, are you going to launch a Crusade in Istanbul?” Karagül spoke of “organised electoral fraud” and “theft” in a “finely processed” foreign-backed plot in the Istanbul election.

Karagül, whose employers at Yeni Şafak have been among the top beneficiaries of public tenders in Istanbul under the AKP, has been pushing the same line since April 2, long before any information on the election came from the Supreme Election Council (YSK).

Sabah columnist Hilal Kaplan has been another of the loudest voices calling fraud on the election since the beginning. Hours after Sabah published Kaplan’s column on April 1 declaring AKP candidate Binali Yıldırım’s “unsurprising” victory, Kaplan posted and hastily retracted a claim that the YSK was going to recount the entire Istanbul vote.

Since then the columnist, along with social media accounts said to be associated with her clique, have aggressively pushed claims that serious fraud took place.

The YSK’s decision last Monday is seen by many as a victory over the more moderate voices in the AKP for the so-called “Pelican group”, which is said to include Kaplan and Karagül.

Even Binali Yıldırım, the AKP’s candidate for Istanbul who before the YSK’s decision had betrayed no hint of enthusiasm to campaign for an election he said he’d lost, deferred to the fraud narrative after the ruling on Monday. Yıldırım, now faced with another month’s campaigning, promised to call to account those he said had stolen Istanbulites’ votes on March 31.

All the talk of fraud is completely at odds with the actual ruling from the YSK, which was only able to justify its decision in the most contentious manner by a technicality.

There was no reference to the many allegations of “stolen votes”, AKP voters being wiped from electoral rolls and so on that were promulgated before the May 6 ruling and continue to be repeated today.

The oft-repeated claim by AKP sources that the YSK had identified 42,000 suspicious votes in fact referred to the total number of votes cast in polling stations where no public servant was on duty as a polling official.

In fact, analysis by Columbia University political science scholar Abdullah Aydoğan suggests that any irregularities in the Istanbul vote favoured the AKP.

Sadly, there’s a good chance these facts will likely be drowned out by the barrage of mudslinging that we can expect from Karagül, Kaplan and their ilk, though there is hope for the opposition that some voices will reach AKP voters despites the government’s dominance over the media.

Conservative figures including Abdurrahman Dilipak, who writes for the fundamentalist daily Yeni Akit, have been among those to express their disapproval at the YSK’s decision.

Kemal Öztürk, another veteran conservative writer, announced he would take a break from writing for Karagül’s Yeni Şafak due to differences with the newspaper’s editorial policy on Wednesday, a day after he declared his intention to write an article critical of the YSK’s decision.

It’s too early to tell whether this represents a split in the AKP’s conservative base substantial enough to threaten the party’s dominance, particularly given the control Erdoğan can evidently exert over institutions like the YSK.

But if AKP veterans like Ahmet Davutoğlu, Ali Babacan and Abdullah Gül do take advantage of the bubbling discontent to form the rumoured new parties, it would go a long way towards proving analysts’ predictions correct that March 31 was the beginning of the end for Erdoğan.

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