Turmoil certain in Turkey regardless of June 23 result – analysis

Turkey can expect a difficult political period in the short to medium-term regardless of the Istanbul mayoral election’s outcome this Sunday, Middle East history scholar Howard Eissenstat said in a discussion of the upcoming poll for the Washington-based Project for Middle East Democracy.

On June 23 the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP)’s Ekrem İmamoğlu will face his rival from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Binali Yıldırım, for the second time in the race for the mayor’s seat in Istanbul.

The result of the first vote, which İmamoğlu won by a slim margin, was overturned in May after the AKP lodged an appeal, citing serious irregularities.

This was an “unprecedented” decision by Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council that highlighted the body’s loss of independence under the AKP and the broader erosion of safeguards for the country’s democratic system, Eissenstat said.

“Turkish citizens still believe strongly in electoral democracy and engage actively in the process; at the same time, the core institutions meant to ensure free and fair elections have been progressively undermined”, said the scholar.

Erosion of those institutions has been evident “since at least 2015”, Eissenstat said, though controversial election results include the Ankara mayoral election in 2014, as well as later votes dogged by irregularities including the 2017 constitutional referendum.

The opposition will have to contend with the vast power the ruling party can put into play to sway the result of the June 23 rerun its way, even though a fair election would almost certainly result in an opposition victory, the scholar said.

İmamoğlu’s victory on March 31, however, appears to have galvanised the opposition and will make securing a victory costly for the AKP.

“The election for Istanbul’s mayor has become a national referendum and a national test” for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, according to Eissenstat.

“More blatant manipulation in the election would have much higher costs, eroding Erdoğan’s basic electoral legitimacy and creating a major political crisis that the country can ill afford”, he said.

Whether the AKP or CHP wins on Sunday, the process has emboldened the opposition and made a leader of İmamoğlu, presenting a serious challenge to the Turkish president.

“Whatever else we know about Erdoğan’s political identity, it is that all political conflict is, for him, existential. Thus, whatever happens on June 23, Turkey’s path for the short and medium term remains rocky indeed”, Eissenstat said.