Op-ed: For Erdogan, contested vote in Istanbul is work of organized crime

*Ilyas Korhan

One week after the contested election in Istanbul, the entire country appears to be divided over the result. According to initial results, Ekrem Imamoglu, the joint candidate of the opposition, won an upset victory, however narrow though it was. But, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party still disputes the outcome, with the president refusing to cede the ground for an opposition victory in Turkey’s largest city.

On Monday, President Erdogan went a step further and portrayed secular main opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) victory as something of an organized crime, crying afoul of widespread and rampant vote irregularities, a claim disputed by observers and the opposition party.

“The citizens are telling us to protect their rights, they are complaining of organized crime. And we, as political parties, have determined such organized crimes,” Reuters quoted Erdogan as saying. The president, who unusually remained silent for four days before delving into the controversy in Istanbul’s contested mayoral race, once again raised the subject before departing to Moscow for diplomatic talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Monday.

Citing the narrow nature of the victory, Erdogan refused to concede a defeat in Istanbul. He
said it was impossible for CHP’s mayor-elect Imamoglu to claim victory by a margin of 13,000-14,000 votes in a city with 10 million voters.

“We will demonstrate how they [opposition] gerrymandered during the vote by revealing documents, information, and even TV and security footages,” Erdogan said, vowing to pursue the matter as zealously as possible amid signs of a protracted standoff ahead.

Erdogan’s unwillingness to accept the result in Istanbul despite vote recount in the majority of the districts elicited strong resentment among the opposition. “I understand that it is not easy to lose [Istanbul] after ruling it for 25 years, but this is what democracy about,” Imamoglu said, according to Associated Press. “It’s not the end of the world.”

For the president, someone who has ruled the country for 16 years, more than any other figure, including Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in the republican history, the neck-to-neck race felt like a crushing defeat. Istanbul stood as the major prize for local elections characterized by nagging bread and butter issues, fear-mongering by the government and meltdown of mutual respect among rival politicians.

Controversy Remains Over Fate of Istanbul

One week after the March 31 elections, the fate of Istanbul has yet to be clear. Erdogan, before leaving Turkey, hinted a new battle on the judicial front. “Election process is over, the next step is a judicial process,” he said.

The president’s remarks sparked a renewed political controversy. The opposition strongly reacted to his description of elections as “organized crime.”

“There is no legal basis for the recount of entire votes. Even if you recount 10,000 times more, the result will not change,” CHP Istanbul branch head Canan Kaftancioglu said on Monday. “They will learn to lose at the ballot box,” she added in a display of fulmination. Erdogan, Kaftancioglu noted, became obstinate with people.

CHP spokesperson Faik Oztrak joined the fray, offering sharp criticism of the president and
his party. He accused the AKP of involving in political shenanigans. But at the center of his
criticism was the Supreme Election Council (YSK) for bowing to political pressure. What allowed the AKP to indulge in reckless behaviors, Oztrak suggested, was the YSK’s contradictory acts congenial to the ruling party’s interests.

“A government, which cheat [and complain] in elections, would create serious doubts about
democracy and rule of law state,” he said. “You say: there is an organized corruption in this election. But who did administer this election?” the CHP official asked, expressing dismay over the perceived “hypocrisy” of the government. “It was your Justice Minister, your Interior Minister, the YSK members, whose tenure you had just extended, were administering the [election process].”

“Who does say “Imamoglu can’t rule Istanbul with 13-14,000 vote difference?” Oztrak asked. The target of his criticism was President Erdogan who, he said, “became a mayor with 15 percent of the votes and became a prime minister with 34 percent.” He went on to say in disbelief: “Istanbul could not be ruled with 48 percent [of the vote]!”

Amid the ongoing debate, the mayor-elect of Istanbul noted that 90 percent of the process of a recount of invalid votes in Istanbul was completed. He said the difference remains around 15,500. As to Erdogan’s remarks earlier in the day, Imamoglu rejected the president’s argument and reasoning. He suggested that even with one vote difference, someone could win an election.

He dismissed the government’s efforts to delegitimize the vote. While criticizing Erdogan,
he pointed to contradictions rooted in the AKP’s initial remarks during the election day.

“Let me tell you something, you did not refrain from announcing that you won [Istanbul]
with 3,000 vote difference. And it was a lie. Now you downplay the 15,000 vote difference.”

On election day, Binali Yildirim, the joint candidate of Erdogan-led People’s Alliance,
proclaimed a victory with 3,000 more votes than his rival before the YSK announced official
results. His earlier proclamation before the vote count ended spurred a harsh reaction from
the CHP and Imamoglu. Later, Yildirim retracted his premature declaration of victory.

Recalling Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Chairman Devlet Bahceli’s famous phrase,
Imamoglu said even with one vote difference, an election could be won. “Those who
downplay 15,000 votes, they indeed belittle the will of 16 million people,” he concluded.

Imamoglu: Rise of a New Star

Imamoglu’s unexpected victory owed its success more to the shortcomings and
self-defeating mistakes of Erdogan’s party than to his little-known political career. The
vote, according to experts from diverse corners of the political spectrum, was a referendum
on President Erdogan’s personal rule since a transition to the executive presidential system
last year. It came more as a rebuke to President’s excessive and divisive policies than as a
heartfelt endorsement of the CHP’s own policies or promises during the campaign period.

But one thing appears clear. Despite provocations by the senior AK figures and bigwigs, Imamoglu did not allow himself to wallow in endless political bickering. Unlike previous year’s CHP presidential nominee Muharrem Ince, the mayor-elect of Istanbul cuts a mild-mannered and moderate figure, someone who is more congenial to compromise with his opponents, even if it means a set of concessions. His meticulous avoidance from engaging in tit-for-tat recriminations with Erdogan and his acolytes, his calm but astute handling of some quarrels with pro-Erdogan journalists during rare televised interviews and his displayed respect for the president earned him respect even among AKP supporters. His matter-of-fact dealing with political subjects, his focus on economic issues rather than controversial themes in ideological and cultural terrain, and his ability to reach ordinary folks in Istanbul disturbed the AKP elites, who always capitalized on the CHP’s perceived elitist aloofness and their stumbling performance in public relations with religious segments of society. Even in AKP’s strongholds, Imamoglu achieved to remove barriers between his secular CHP and Istanbul residents who mostly supported conservative parties in past elections.

That said, it would be prudent to keep the fact in mind that jailed Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas’ call from prison to Kurdish voters to support the strongest candidates competing against Erdogan’s nominees in major cities appeared to be one of the key factors that swayed the result in Ankara and Istanbul. While Kurds suffered considerable setbacks in their strongholds, their backing of opposition candidates in major cities was a crucial element in the electoral debacle of the ruling party.

Imamoglu, who kept his calm for the most part of pre-election and post-vote period, finally
blasted mainstream media for their concerted efforts to discredit his victory in Istanbul. In a media environment where opposition candidates received very little space and coverage, and in a mostly negative fashion, the portrayal of the election, through the lenses and remarks of President Erdogan, as an illegitimate vote came as a final straw for the mayor-elect of Istanbul whose patience apparently wore thin. His criticism landed him in the crosshairs of pro-Erdogan mainstream media, with Demiroren-led media outlets lamenting about an assault against their outlets.

While the ongoing drama devolved into a full-blown political tussle over the fate of Turkey’s largest city, Erdogan’s signal of a possible re-run of the election added a new layer of uncertainty. Erdogan’s Monday remarks stirred up a legal controversy, prompting Istanbul Bar Association to wade into the matter. In a press statement, the Association on Monday dismissed the prospect of election renewal, citing that the YSK, for the current circumstances and the nature of the debate around vote irregularities in Istanbul, lacks the legal mandate to issue in favor of the AKP’s demand.

Drawing on a long history of YSK rulings regarding elections in the past, the Association pointed to a widespread accord among election law experts against the call for election renewal. In a plea, the Association urged that the political authorities should not be allowed to shred central tenets of election law. If the election is renewed, many observers came to believe, Turkey’s hard-won experience of free, if not totally fair, elections since 1950 would be undone by an interference of the political authorities.

In 1983, the Turkish military, which toppled the civilian government in a coup three years ago (1980), urged the Turkish people to support their candidate in parliamentary elections. But to the dismay of the military junta, Turgut Ozal’s Motherland Party won a spectacular victory and forged a government. Disappointed and heartbroken though they were, the military, under the leadership of President Kenan Evren, the former general who led the coup, did not choose to cancel elections. They simply acceded to people’s will. Whether President Erdogan will follow the suit, the example of coup-plotting generals, it remains to be seen. If current signs indicate anything, Erdogan still refuses to digest the election outcome. He may act differently from the generals of the early 1980s.

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