YSK’s Istanbul decision another litmus test for Turkish democracy

YSK’s Istanbul decision another litmus test for Turkish democracy

The Supreme Election Council (YSK) is expected to announce its final verdict on the Istanbul municipal elections this week, most probably today or tomorrow. It’s understood that the election watchdog has been meticulously scrutinizing the appeals by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) for the renewal of elections in Istanbul.

One of the most important outcomes of the March 31 local elections was the AKP’s defeat in Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey’s two largest metropolises that they had governed since 1994. A race for Istanbul between the AKP’s Binali Yıldırım and the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) Ekrem İmamoğlu was very close. The difference to the advantage of the latter was just around 13,000 in a metropolis with more than 11 million voters.

Appealing the election results is a constitutional right and almost all political parties resort to this mechanism when they spot irregularities during the voting or counting processes. Given the minor difference between the two contenders, the AKP and the MHP applied for the recount of invalid votes in the entire Istanbul province and all votes in a number of districts before resorting to an extraordinary appeal for the annulment of the Istanbul elections.

The CHP, however, accused these two parties of abusing the use of this right and imposing pressures on the watchdog to extend the process. Citing the YSK’s replies to similar appeals in the past, the opposition party has made a complaint about the double standards of the election watchdog. An example they brought to minds is the YSK’s decision to count more than 2.5 million unsealed votes as valid in the 2017 referendum.

The ongoing appeal process has legal and political legs. The legal responsibility belongs to the YSK as the highest legal body to finalize election results. It has 11 judges and decides by majority votes. If it annuls the elections it should first disclose the reasoning and announce a new election calendar for the re-run. Many in Ankara believe June 30 will be election day should the YSK cancels the Istanbul polls.

The political leg is much more complicated. President and AKP chairman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and MHP chairman Devlet Bahçeli have openly called on the YSK to renew the elections in statements over the weekend. “Correcting the corruption in the elections would vindicate the YSK and relieve the hearts of the Turkish people,” Erdoğan said, while Bahçeli suggested that they won’t tolerate slur cast on Turkish democracy.

The CHP’s response to these statements was harsh. The main opposition has called on the YSK not to bow to pressures from the government and to finalize İmamoğlu’s victory. It claims that the appeal by the government is weak and lacks concrete evidence for the annulment of the polls. That’s why they have already urged the YSK that the annulment of the polls would be regarded as a political decision and not a legal one. The launch of a criminal probe over the polling stations’ officials and alleged links to FETÖ are additional arguments for the opposition to claim that it’s rather politically motivated rather than legal.

The decision by the YSK will not be important only because it would lead to fresh political tension between the rival parties. It will also tell a lot about the state of Turkish democracy.

The March 31 polls are the first elections conducted after Turkey shifted to an executive-presidential system in July 2018. Already under fierce criticism from national and international circles because the new system has undermined the principle of separation of powers and judicial impartiality, the cancellation of the key Istanbul polls would bring about more questions about the new governance model. Many will believe that the cancellation was a result of political pressure.

For the reasons cited above,
the decision to be announced by the YSK will constitute yet another litmus test for the ailing Turkish democracy.

Turkey elections 2019, Serkan Demirtaş,