Rethinking Europe

Why Erdogan Won’t Let Istanbul Slip Away

Erdogan can use any number of legal, political or foreign policy tools to ensure his candidate wins this time around, no matter the reputational costs.

Credit: Brookings Institution (www.flickr.com)

Takeaways


  • Erdogan can use any number of legal, political or foreign policy tools to ensure his candidate wins this time around, no matter the reputational costs.
  • If Imamoglu’s victory stands, the CHP leader could eventually pose a challenge to Erdogan in the 2023 presidential election.
  • Erdogan has decided that the financial and political cost of losing Istanbul far outweighs the loss of legitimacy he will suffer by forcing a revote.
  • Massive vote rigging would be difficult, but Erdogan’s desire to change the outcome is so fervent that he might suspend certain democratic liberties.
  • Erdogan may even cancel the June 23 race altogether.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan simply cannot afford to lose Istanbul. His long ascent from the city’s mayoral office to the presidency shows the degree to which Istanbul is Turkey’s political brand-making machine.

In other words, if Imamoglu’s victory stands, the CHP leader could eventually pose a challenge to Erdogan in the 2023 presidential election.

Moreover, Istanbul accounted for nearly a third of Turkey’s $2.3 trillion economy as of 2018. So it plays a major role in oiling the wheels of Erdogan’s political machine, creating loyal support networks in the business community.

Erdogan will therefore play a smarter game in the run-up to June 23. In light of the voided March election results, he has apparently decided that the financial and political cost of losing Istanbul far outweighs the loss of legitimacy he will suffer domestically and internationally by forcing a revote.

Erdogan is already hinting at an unconventional race even compared to Turkey’s recently falling democratic standards. According to a BBC account of his May 7 parliamentary speech, he slammed the “dark circles, economic saboteurs, and so-called elitists” who were collaborating to “rob the nation of its will.”

Such rhetoric indicates that will use his control of Turkey’s courts, media outlets, election monitoring bodies and other institutions to target opposition members, campaign staff and even Imamoglu himself as “criminal.”

To be sure, massive vote rigging would be difficult given the resilience of Turkey’s opposition and civil society.

But Erdogan’s desire to change the outcome is so fervent that he might suspend certain democratic liberties to stack the odds in favor of his Istanbul candidate, using national security issues as an excuse.

The foreign policy angle

Besides casting his political opponents as “enemies of the state,” Erdogan could use security crises abroad as a pretext to tip the revote in his favor.

Take for example Turkey’s brewing crisis with Cyprus over natural gas exploration in the East Mediterranean, where conflicting maritime border claims could be escalated into a showdown that further galvanizes Erdogan’s nationalist base.

A confrontation between Turkish and Assad regime forces in Syria could serve similar ends.

Erdogan might also choose to rile up his conservative political Islamist base. The latest escalation between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip gives him fodder to rally such supporters, especially since the run-up to the June 23 vote overlaps with the holy month of Ramadan, traditionally a time of heightened Muslim sensitivities.

The Kurdish angle

Another option for Erdogan is using Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), to split Kurdish nationalist HDP voters from Imamoglu’s camp.

Ocalan has been in jail since 1998 and in solitary confinement for a number of years now, but on April 6, Erdogan allowed him access to his lawyers for the first time in eight years.

Despite leading a designated terrorist group, Ocalan holds immense gravitas with the HDP’s base, whom he urged to cultivate better ties with Erdogan in a recent communique.

Syria is where Ocalan and Erdogan could cut a bigger deal. The PKK’s Syrian allies, the People’s Defense Units (YPG), are currently in talks with Ankara over establishing a U.S.-backed safe zone along the border.

While Ocalan’s communique did not explicitly ask HDP voters to withdraw support from Imamoglu, he may make such a request (or simply instruct them to stay home on election day) in return for Erdogan completing the YPG deal and easing his solitary confinement.

Alternatively, should the safe-zone talks fail, Erdogan could order a military invasion of YPG-held portions of north Syria, providing yet another national security crisis to leverage against Imamoglu.

Time warp to 1946?

If none of these measures is sufficient to guarantee a win for Erdogan’s candidate, he may even cancel the June 23 race altogether.

The voiding of an opposition win in Istanbul is already a seismic event in the context of Turkish history. When the country held its first multiparty elections in 1946, the widely rigged outcome made its democracy look like a sham.

Turkey made fast progress soon afterward, holding free and fair polls for decades beginning in 1950. Yet, the decision to rerun the election and its coming repercussions may warp the country’s institutions back to 1946.

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About Soner Cagaptay

Soner Cagaptay is director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute.

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