What passes for democracy
Erdoğan is desperate to prevent the opposition from taking control in Istanbul, writes Esen Uslu
In the March 31 local elections the ruling coalition of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the National Movement Party (MHP) suffered defeat in the principal cities of Turkey at the hands of the opposition. And the waters are yet to be calmed.
On the election night it became apparent that the AKP and its leader, president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, were shocked. Erdoğan and the candidates he fielded confidently declared they had won during their well-in-advance planned ‘balcony speeches’ in the evening. But, as the night proceeded, the bad news started to accumulate.
At first there was disbelief. As opposition tallies started to mount, the state-run Anadolu news agency - the only authorised source able to report results from far-flung corners of the country - stopped supplying information for no less than 11 hours.
This immediately raised serious concerns about possible cheating. The election observers appointed by the parties at each balloting centre, as well as elections officials, camped down alongside the counted ballot bundles under police protection. At some counting centres that lasted for days, with both officials and observers actually sleeping on the ballot sacks to prevent tampering.
Obviously the ruling coalition was not happy about losing the post of mayor in several cities and adopted an aggressive stance, though the opposition’s winning margin, especially in Istanbul, was quite small. For a long while the county and provincial election authorities seemed to be counting, recounting and dealing with the objections raised on various technical grounds. However, after a protracted process they announced the tallies and issued certificates to the elected politicians.
Then the seemingly never-ending objections and appeals against the results, and decisions made by the lower election authorities, reached the final arbiter, the supreme electoral council, whose decisions are final and binding. Parties with seats in parliament appoint a representative to the SEC, but they cannot vote. However, when the constitution was amended in 2017, such bodies were dominated by Erdoğan’s people, so it was apparent from the start that the cards were stacked against the opposition.
Of course, the word ‘justice’ has long lost its meaning in Turkey, and brash statements started to flow out of the SEC. The first grossly unfair decision was like one of the bolts of Zeus. It was directed against the leftwing People’s Democratic Party (HDP), whose councillors, elected against all the odds, were replaced by state-appointed administrators. In all its infinite wisdom, the SEC decided that if a person had been subjected to a governmental ‘Decree with the Power of Law’ (KHK) and expelled from the civil service without due legal process, they could not hold any elected office.
The vetting process started long before the elections: that is, the checking of every candidate’s details in compliance with electoral law, conducted by the SEC - a candidate can only appear on the ballot paper after such a rigorous vetting. Yet many leading local HDP candidates, who have naturally been among the prime targets for KHKs, were allowed to stand and actually won by a large margin. The AKP cronies - either appointed as administrators or fielded as candidates - again lost, and lost big. But the SEC was out there to help them reverse things.
After a while the previously tried and tested method of squeezing the HDP from control of various cities was put into practice again. Elected councillors were dismissed by quasi-judicial, and politically motivated, administrative decisions. Through these means, the regime tried in particular to keep Kurdistan in check.
Erdoğan, and his disunited AKP outfit, were, as I say, shocked by the loss of principal cities. However, his allies - the representatives of the true owners of the state in the guise of the MHP - pointed to the way out: now is not the time to wobble. Instead, shout and shoot your way out of the impasse.
The ruling coalition lost mayors to the opposition, but there were no direct elections for councils governing the cities - metropolitan councils were made up of appointed members from borough or county councils. As the ruling coalition still maintained its hold over a majority of them, metropolitan councils had been able to act as a brake on the opposition.
Erdoğan’s gut reaction was to emphasise this dominant position in his vindictive post-election speech - a kind of grudging acknowledgment of defeat. He said: “They think they won, but they cannot run without us.” And for a brief period he thought about shedding his spiky MHP ally and replacing it with a national coalition, for which he was sharply rebuked.
And then the SEC came forth once more to declare the Istanbul mayoral election invalid. According to the SEC, there had been “irregularities” in the formation of local electoral councils. But who appointed and formed them? The SEC, of course! The law says the chair of such councils should be a member of the civil service or a public employee and the SEC interpreted that as it saw fit. Cynics have said that such appointments were like built-in time bombs, to be used if needed. Others have said there was no need for such ‘forward planning’: it was the normal blundering way of the Turkish bureaucracy.
After the decision the certificate of Istanbul’s elected mayor was withdrawn and the city’s vice-governor was appointed as interim administrator until the repeat elections, to be held on June 23. However, there was still a minor issue: the SEC may have announced its decision, but to date it has been unable to provide any written explanation. As readers may appreciate, to justify the cancellation of just one ballot paper - out of four placed in the same envelope - is quite a feat. But this is Turkish democracy, and anything goes.
In Ottoman popular satire there is a saying, “If you intended to steal a minaret, you prepare your cloak first”. State-owned properties, such as land and buildings, have been subject to the greed of our rulers through privatisation since the early days of the empire. Previously waqfs (pious foundations) were used to cloak the privatisation of common property through the intricate interpretation of the Shariat law and the Fıqh jurisprudence.
We are quite familiar with the notion that even the tallest structure in the town, standing next to a mosque, could be stolen if it is wrapped in the baggy cloak of an administrator. And, while we wait to see how the cloak used to dismiss the Istanbul local election results will be presented to us by the SEC, the opposition is trying to emerge from the muddle.
The opposition will need leftwing support as well as Kurdish votes to win the Istanbul local elections for a second time. However, the main forces of the opposition were the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Good Party (İP), and their aversion to Kurdish self-determination is well-known. They are as blatantly nationalistic and anti-Kurdish as the AKP.
But the ruling coalition is also very aware of this weak link and is using it to its advantage. The increasing tension in Idlib province of Syria, where a semblance of a truce, with the participation of Iran and Russia, is very fragile indeed. Then there are all the other flashpoints in the region, where Kurds and Alevis are blamed. Such factors will be put to good use when it comes to the repeat local elections.
Similarly, token anti-Americanism, stoked on the flames of the F-35/S-400 aircraft and missile disputes with the Trump administration, is presented as an ‘anti-imperialist’ sop to attract leftwing voters. The dispute that flared up between Greece, Israel and Egypt, as well as the EU, over undersea oil and gas exploration off the southern Cyprus coast has also been used to stir up nationalistic fervour.
Will all those wedges placed in the fractures of the opposition, combined with overt and covert electoral cheating, be enough to win the Istanbul mayoral elections for the ruling coalition? We will wait and see. As the saying goes, “The tree worm comes with the fruit.” The badly shaken AKP is prone to splits that may eventually lead to its collapse - especially if it loses Istanbul for a second time.