Istanbul elections: Vote of confidence to the ballot box
Despite several shortcomings of Turkish democracy throughout the history of the Republic, Turks were convinced that at least one of its tenet remained deeply rooted: fair and free elections. No matter what happened in Turkey - coups, coup attempts, political bickering, polarization or partisanship, Turks used to say, “At least we have democratic elections.”
The irregularities that happened were minimal and did not affect the outcome.
Yet in the course of the past decade, allegations of fraud casted doubt over the elections. Local elections in 2014, especially the one in Ankara, where the capital’s current mayor lost to the ruling party’s candidate, were marred with fraud.
The decision of the Supreme Election Council (YSK), taken while votes were being counted during the 2017 referendum, to validate incorrect seals on ballot envelopes sent shock waves among the opposition’s supporters.
Then came the amendments made ahead of the presidential elections in 2018, which changed decades-old established rules concerning the workings of the YSK, including procedures about the selection of ballot box officials. The opposition’s supporters were wary of these changes and particularly alarmed since those changes were taken hastily, thanks to the ruling coalition’s majority in the parliament and despite objections from the opposition parties.
The opposition supporters had legitimate concerns, but the interventions of the ruling elites in the decades-old electoral system had triggered the windmills of rumor that the ruling coalition will do all sorts of tricks to win the elections. The loss of confidence in elections led to illogical speculations and conspiracy theories.
As a result, some voters started to think that those who had come with elections will never go with elections.
The opposition candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu’s victory with a slight margin in Istanbul, started to rebuild the confidence. But then came the YSK’s decision to redo elections with arguments that were far from convincing. The opposition’s supporters felt vindicated that the ruling coalition will do everything in its hands not to leave power. In fact, many believed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would have never given his consent for a redo unless he was convinced of a victory.
Credit goes to the Turkish electorate
But İmamoğlu won the redo election by a big margin, which means that Turkey can earn back the credit of holding free and fair elections. And the credit goes to the Turkish electorate.
The supporters of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) were highly motivated. More of CHP voters are believed to have gone to the ballot boxes. Together with İyi (Good) Party voters, they wanted to show their frustration about the injustice that their candidate had been subjected to.
Pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party voters were also consolidated behind the opposition coalition. Attempts to have the illegal People’s Workers Party’s (PKK) imprisoned leader interfere in favor of the ruling coalition backfired.
Abdullah Öcalan’s letter took its toll among the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) voters. According to İmamoğlu’s advisors, some reacted by switching their votes to İmamoğlu, while others decided not to go to the ballot box.
Ironically, the ruling elites were counting on the CHP to make mistakes. This time the ruling coalition’s strategic mistakes have cost them the elections.
Had they not made these mistakes, however, probably the outcome could have been the same: Imamoğlu would have won with perhaps a smaller margin.
There is good reason to believe that some Justice and Development Party (AKP) voters voted for Imamoğlu. Their message is crucial for Turkish democracy. AKP voters showed their frustration about mismanagement and especially economic difficulties by not going to the ballot box on March 31.
On June 23, some AKP voters went to the ballot box to give a different message: “I have one vote, but you disrespected choice. Don’t dare to steal my right, to interfere to my will again.”
The big margin is also a message about threats that court cases might prevent Imamoğlu from working as mayor. “Let him do his job,” the big margin tells ruling elites. And it reminds us that as in all democracies, in Turkey, too, those who come with ballot box will go with ballot box.