While nearly three weeks have passed since local elections were held in Turkey on 31st March 2019, the Turkish Supreme Electoral Council has not issued any statement on the election results in two major cities of the country – Istanbul, and the Turkish capital, Ankara. According to Article 79 of the Constitution of the Republic of Turkey (1982), election results need to be confirmed by the Council, but it has not confirmed the validity of votes cast in these cities upon the request of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
In the wake of losing control of Ankara and Istanbul as per unofficial results, the AKP objected to the election results in 25 voting districts in Ankara and 39 voting districts in Istanbul. President Erdogan, chairperson of the AKP, justified the objections by saying that “organized crime” had been carried out during the election for the Istanbul mayor, inasmuch as there was “theft at the ballot box”. According to official results released after three weeks of the election, however, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem Imamoğlu received the Istanbul mayoral mandate.
Apparently, 300,000 invalid votes cast in these districts were recounted upon the Supreme Electoral Council’s order, but this did not change the preliminary outcome of the Istanbul vote. Although the judicial process of reviewing objections to the invalid votes are being currently considered by the Council, President Erdogan’s demands for a fresh vote in Istanbul before the Supreme Electoral Council has made its final decision indicates that he is not going to concede defeat after a 17-year rule in Istanbul.
While the 31st March local elections in Turkey gave the impression of a democratic exercise, the AKP’s efforts to rerun polls for the post of mayor of Istanbul and pushing the Supreme Electoral Council to refuse to grant mandate to winners, are neither compatible with Turkey’s constitutional rules nor result in a contribution to democracy. From a legal perspective, the only judicial institution that is authorized by the Constitution (Article 79) to ensure the fair and orderly conduct of the elections, carry out investigations, and take final decisions on all irregularities, complaints, and objections concerning the elections, during and after the polling, is the Supreme Electoral Council, which is meant to be independent from the Turkish government.
These developments must be seen against the backdrop of Turkey’s shift to a presidential system, that obviously restricted Turkish institutions which have been since thoroughly dominated by President Erdogan. It seems to be part of President Erdogan’s strategy of strengthening the presidential system and concentrating power in the hands of the president. The ongoing process after the local elections, especially AKP’s strategy of questioning the results, is an indicator of the heavy penetration of President Erdogan’s authoritarian mind-set into Turkey’s democracy and political system. Given the President’s expanded executive power under the new presidential constitution, Erdogan has ensured his own immoderation by amassing supreme powers and destroying confidence in the parliament and other Turkish institutions and academia, extinguishing whatever hopes remained that the country’s president might serve as a force for moderation. In the wake of switching to a presidential system, anyone who opposed or acted outside the instructions of the authority was excluded from the system. As I pointed out three years ago in an interview with the Sorbonne University Constitutional Department, the Turkish judiciary was actively involved in the judicial harassment of academics, journalists, members of parliament and ordinary citizens from the time of the failed coup in July 2016, based on the same mindset. As reported by the European Commission, over 150,000 people were taken into custody, 78,000 were arrested and more than 110,000 civil servants were dismissed. The same rationale compels the ruling AKP to question the validity of votes polled against the government in Istanbul and Ankara.
In a sense, losing an election simply means that people voted against the government’s policies in line with the free democratic order established by the Turkish Constitution. However, the characterisation of the opposition’s win as a marred victory is a dangerous step in the direction of restricting democracy. This cynical reaction from the AKP to the election results can be considered as an act of violence aimed at threatening or abolishing democracy in the country, which requires strong opposition. However, taking effective counter-measures seems out of the question on this occasion, given that legally (Article 5 of the Constitution), it’s the government that must take such measures to ensure welfare, peace and democracy.