Will Erdoğan respect the Istanbul rerun result?

With just days to go before Istanbul’s rerun mayoral election on June 23, this is a good time to consider the vote’s likely impact on Turkey’s foreign relations.

Four outcomes are most likely: 1) Ekrem İmamoğlu, candidate of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), wins indisputably; 2) Binali Yıldırım, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate and former prime minister, wins indisputably; 3) İmamoğlu wins, but Erdoğan and the AKP challenge the results; 4) Yıldırım gains a disputed victory and faces allegations of vote rigging.

In theory, the opposition could rig the election for its benefit, but electoral experience and the details of the administration of the election in Istanbul make an electoral victory via opposition rigging highly unlikely, if not impossible.

If İmamoğlu repeats or betters his earlier victory, leaders of foreign democracies will either immediately and effusively praise the integrity of the electoral process, or put out carefully calibrated congratulatory statements to avoid calling attention to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s embarrassing loss.  

In both cases, these countries will send a subtle message to the AKP to respect the results while non-democratic and authoritarian states will likely say little or spin the opposition victory as proof of the democratic credentials of their good friend, President Erdoğan.

If Yıldırım wins and does so in a process judged to be free and fair, foreign reactions will be muted, though Russia and a few others among Turkey’s semi-democratic or authoritarian friends can be counted on to laud the success of Erdoğan and the AKP while congratulating Yıldırım.  Democratic governments will likely restrict themselves to anodyne statements about respecting the will of the people freely expressed, though some can be counted on to make oblique references to a biased electoral process - watch for the phrase “a non-level playing field”.

The third possibility, a victory for İmamoğlu by a narrow margin that the AKP subsequently challenges and forces another election would lead to foreign governments decrying the actions of the AKP and the YSK (Supreme Election Council). Holding a third election would be seen by all democratic governments as nothing more than blatant manipulation of the process by the ruling party.

The continuing instability would drive foreign investors away, except those from Russia seeing an opportunity to increase Turkish dependence on Russian petro-rubles, and the ratings agencies would ratchet down Turkish debt deep into junk territory. Fractures in the AKP would grow, with those still believing in the sanctity of freely cast and honestly counted ballots distancing themselves from Erdoğan and his cronies.

I do not see such an outcome as likely, for it would gain little to nothing for Erdoğan and the AKP, only delaying the political reckoning while costing as much as the full-blown theft of the election by vote-rigging. Erdoğan remains a pragmatist and must realise that the costs of this scenario far outweigh the benefit to be derived from another delay in accepting the will of the electorate.  

More likely, the voting will be manipulated, with obvious supporters of İmamoğlu being denied access to the polls, ballot papers going missing, and the vote count manipulated. The trick will be doing it in such a way as to plausibly deny it occurred, thus providing cover for the YSK to declare Yıldırım the victor. And though İmamoğlu and his supporters will seek to monitor voting to prevent a covert manipulation of the vote and its count, this outcome, an undeserved victory for Yıldırım would present the greatest challenge for foreign leaders, especially those in nations with strong democratic traditions. Meanwhile, Russia, China, and other authoritarian states will endorse Yıldırım’s election and applaud the YSK for having mandated a rerun of the election. 

Western pundits and politicians will wring their hands as they debate whether to denounce the anti-democratic outcome or look away and remain silent. To justify any possible delay in denouncing a rigged election, they will likely cite the need to maintain stability in a NATO member state with the alliance’s second largest army; a strategically located nation that keeps jihadist extremists and waves of migrants from reaching Europe; a major trading partner already suffering considerable economic stress; and a highly polarised society divided over Erdoğan and his vision for Turkey. There will be no consensus on how the West, or at least the European Union, Canada, and the United States, should respond to a likely but not demonstrable theft of the rights of millions of Istanbul voters.  

Western nations should have put together a unified response to a rigged election and communicated it confidentially to the Turkish government in advance of the vote, to preclude rigging. It is possible they have done just that.

More likely, the United States, Canada, and the EU have communicated individually their desires or expectations that Turkey allow a free and fair election, without coordinating their messaging.  Like a choir reading from the same sheet music, but appearing in the concert hall at different times, the audience likely finds multiple individual presentations less impressive than a carefully arranged ensemble performance.  

The EU will say much, but the moribund accession process, which no one sees reanimating soon, gives it little leverage. Vocal denunciations by European NGOs are likely, while most EU governments, with an eye on trade, migrant flows, and anti-terrorism cooperation, will take little substantive action.  

Washington remains focused on Turkey’s relations with Russia and Iran, while the Trump administration has shown no inclination to intervene or even comment on other countries’ domestic affairs absent direct, demonstrable impact on U.S. interests. Notice how little action the United States has taken in Venezuela. The recent U.S. decision on the F-35 programme and promised further actions if Turkey acquires Russia’s S-400 missile defence system leaves little room for further actions to express its displeasure with Ankara.  (At this point, a mutually satisfactory resolution to Turkey’s S-400 purchase matter appears unlikely.)

Even absent a unified response from the West, Turkey would be most unwise not to respect the decision of the voters, whether by scheduling another rerun of the election or by giving Yıldırım the mayoralty he had not won. The economic consequences of the loss of investor confidence, financial rating downgrades, and IMF alienation would cause enduring pain for the people of Turkey. Likewise, the corrosion of democratic norms in Turkey would accelerate if popular choice of the mayor of Istanbul were subverted again or, worse, Yıldırım were installed as mayor of its largest city while over half the voters believed he had achieved that result unfairly. Turkish confidence in the electoral process under AKP rule would be damaged, perhaps irrevocably.  

In sum, whether or not Erdoğan respects the Istanbul election rerun result will shape Turkey’s foreign relations greatly, in particular whether it will be able to remain within the community of imperfect, even deeply flawed, electoral democracies that continue to respect the will of the electorate. Or, Turkey’s leader could turn his back on respect for the will of the voters and join the gang of authoritarian states whose leaders put their personal desire for power ahead of the will of the citizens.   

For the sake of the citizens of Turkey, respecting the ballot box on June 23 is both critical and consequential.  


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