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Edward G. Stafford
May 16 2019

Erdoğan’s hypocrisy and Trump’s silence

Immediately before and after the municipal elections in Turkey on March 31, there remained a slim hope that the U.S. and Turkey could begin to rebuild their damaged relationship.

Such hopes were seemingly dashed with the YSK (Supreme Electoral Board) decision to annul the election of Ekrem Imamoglu as mayor of Istanbul and call for an election rerun. Few political observers doubt that this decision resulted from Erdoğan pressing the YSK to overturn İmamoğlu’s narrow victory – their lack of independence is apparent to all but the most partisan supporters of the AK party and its chief.

In response to this decision, the U.S. State Department took note of “this extraordinary decision” and reiterated its support for transparent electoral processes. Taking note of something is a diplomatic method for avoiding taking a position on a contentious or potentially embarrassing issue, though the term “extraordinary” indicates dissatisfaction with the decision. The State Department could not denounce the obvious political pressure applied by President Erdoğan lest it be seen as insulting him by highlighting the hypocrisy involved in alleging electoral fraud by the man in charge of the state institutions responsible for overseeing the elections.

While it is not unimaginable in a work of fiction that the opposition parties outside of government could have so abused the electoral process to ensure victory for their preferred candidate, history teaches us that the party in power uses its control of the process to secure advantage, greater or lesser depending on the integrity of election workers. İmamoğlu’s victory was testimony to the dedication to run free and fair elections by polling station workers and other personnel involved – at the working level, respect for the will of the people remains intact.

The decision of the YSK under pressure from the president reveals the hypocrisy in proclaiming a commitment to democracy and accepting the will of the people while working to overturn that will expressed legitimately through the electoral process. Like his friend in Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, Erdoğan adheres to democratic processes as long as he or his hand-picked candidates win.

The State Department could say little for two other reasons: it does not know what President Trump thinks about the overturning of the Istanbul vote, and it does know how little impact what it says has on decision making in Ankara’s White Palace.

Trump has made clear that, with a few notable exceptions (against the Islamic State in Syria, against Iran, in support of Venezuela's Guaido) he does not support U.S. interference in the internal affairs of other states. Only if he perceives a threat to U.S. interests or U.S. citizens does he take strong measures that in effect interfere in the domestic affairs of another nation, such as the sanctions against Turkey to secure the release of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson. Thus, Turks dismayed by the YSK decision can expect no support in from the U.S.

Likewise, even if the U.S. leadership wished to do something in response to the YSK decision, there is little it could do. Announcing sanctions or trade restrictions over the re-running of a mayoralty race, even one as important as that of Istanbul, would be truly exceptional, and counterproductive. Local voters do not look kindly on foreigners saying or doing anything about their local elections.

Ironically, Trump has spent much of the last two years fighting Democratic party efforts to re-do the 2016 elections that many Democratic still refuse to believe was lost by Clinton due to her campaign failures and personality and not due to outside manipulation by Russians. One might suppose Trump would be sympathetic to İmamoğlu who won fairly but now must run again, and perhaps he does entertain such sympathies privately. That said he certainly will not comment on the YSK decision to avoid offending Erdoğan by hinting that what Erdoğan has done is like what Trump accused Pelosi of trying to do. Expect no tweets on Istanbul’s election.

Senators and members of the House are a different matter. The perceived anti-democratic intervention of Erdoğan into the electoral process removes for most the last vestiges of a democracy in Turkey, making it akin to Russia and, worse, to Venezuela in the minds of U.S. members of Congress. Yes, surely among the 100 Senator and the 435 Representatives there are a handful of defenders of Erdoğan, but they are not vocal, and they are too few to make much difference. For most, the YSK decision confirms their suspicions that Erdoğan has removed Turkey from the community of democratic nations, abandoned the shared values of the NATO alliance, and is only a few steps away from joining the ranks of pariah states like Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba.

For now, the U.S. will publicly adopt a wait and see posture as it is doing with the S-400 purchase/delivery. One can only hope that behind the scenes, Pompeo’s subordinates and White House colleagues are pursuing efforts to ensure that, in the re-run election for mayor of Istanbul, justice and honesty will prevail and Erdoğan will not send his country into a downward economic, political, and social spiral that he knows not how to arrest by refusing to accept İmamoğlu’s election if it comes to pass.

Finally, though Trump and his State Department have not spoken out on the YSK decision, Secretary Pompeo made clear recently that the U.S. allies itself with nations with whom we share principles, to include countries whose leaders “better honor the will of their own people.” The conduct of the June mayoral election in Istanbul will reveal whether Turkey truly respects the democratic principles it holds in common with the U.S. and whether its leaders truly honor the will of their people.