In March 2019, Turkey held mayoral elections in Istanbul. Istanbul has long been a source of power and prestige for President Erdoğan and his party and alliance. The stakes in the local Istanbul election are quite high, and they can have a pretty large waterfall effect across the nation. As such, these elections were of the utmost importance for President Erdoğan.
The two candidates were Ekrem İmamoğlu, of the Nation Alliance, and Binali Yıldırım of President Erdoğan’s People’s Alliance. Early results showed a slight lead for Binali Yıldrım, however that lead was soon narrowed and eventually İmamoğlu overtook Yıldrım. Both candidates claimed victory, and there were banners around Istanbul congratulating Yıldrım.
Yıldrım and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), again, President Erdoğan’s party, decided that they would contest the results of the election. They claim that there were some irregularities in the electoral procedures and that there must have been mistakes in recording results. The recount went ahead as planned. The results still gave İmamoğlu the win by about 14,000 votes, down from the previously announced 23,000 votes but a win nonetheless. Still, the AKP persisted, demanding the election be annulled and repeated. They claimed that there were fraudulent voters in some districts of Istanbul, and that there had been interference from a third party.
Finally, the AKP has its wish. Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Board recently annulled the election and decided that there must be a do-over. After this decision, a top aide for President Erdoğan said that voiding the results represent “a victory for Turkish democracy”, and that the new results will accurately represent the public’s view. The loser of the election, Yildirim, said he hoped the new elections would lead to “beneficial and beautiful results for Istanbul.” Finally, presidential communications director Fahrettin Altun said: “Having held free and fair elections for nearly seven decades, Turkey will complete this process in a transparent, lawful and orderly manner.” These three quotes demonstrate the official viewpoint of Turkey’s government and the majority party, the AKP.
In Bermeo’s paper, On Democratic Backsliding, she claims that “the blatant election-day vote fraud that characterized elections in many developing democracies in the past is being replaced by longer-term strategic harassment and manipulation”. Yet, this does not seem to represent the reality in Turkey. Although in the original election, there did not seem to be “blatant election-day vote fraud”, based on the quote from Yildirim, it seems that the results of the following election will be different (in his favor). Does this mean that, because their original plan did not work, the AKP now plans on “blatant election-day vote fraud” in the do-over elections?
Furthermore, there are two key tenants to democracy that I believe were infringed upon in Turkey. First, the more pessimistic view of democracy. In Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, he claims that democracy is simply “that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote” (p. 269). Yet, it appears that in Turkey, this is not happening. The people elected İmamoğlu, and after reviews and recounts, his lead still remained. Regardless, the elections were annulled and must now be re-done. Will the outcome be different? Perhaps it will, but the fact that the election must be re-done brings into question whether the democracy in Turkey still stands as the results of the competition for the vote of the people were not respected.
Next, a slightly more positive view of democracy. In Robert Dahl’s Polyarchy, he sets a variety of different qualities that a democracy must have. Two important ones are the right of political leaders to compete for the support and votes of the people and free and fair elections. Neither of these appear to be happening in Turkey, and the mayoral election in Istanbul seems to prove that.
Overall, it has been clear that democratic erosion has been happening under President Erdoğan’s rule in Turkey. This is simply the most recent step in it. When will the question of whether Turkey is still a democracy become the focus of discussion?
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