Istanbul residents vote in mayoral re-run, in key test for Turkish democracy and President Erdogan

A second loss in Istanbul would be embarrassing for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and could weaken what until recently seemed to be his iron grip on power.
A second loss in Istanbul would be embarrassing for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and could weaken what until recently seemed to be his iron grip on power.PHOTO: REUTERS

ISTANBUL (REUTERS) - More than 10 million Istanbul residents will vote on Sunday (June 23) in a re-run of a mayoral election that has become a referendum on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's policies and a test of Turkey's ailing democracy.

In the initial March 31 vote, the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) secured a narrow victory over Mr Erdogan's AK Party (AKP) in Turkey's largest city, a rare electoral defeat for the President amid mounting economic woes.

But after weeks of AKP appeals, Turkey's High Election Board in May annulled the vote, citing irregularities. The opposition called the decision a coup against democracy, which has raised the stakes for round two.

President Erdogan has repeated his line that "whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey". A second loss in the city, where he served as mayor in the 1990s, would be embarrassing for Mr Erdogan and could weaken what until recently seemed to be his iron grip on power.

Turkey's economy is in recession and the United States, its Nato ally, has threatened sanctions if Mr Erdogan goes ahead with plans to install Russian missile defences.

A second AKP loss could also shed further light into what CHP mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu said was the misspending of billions of lira at the Istanbul municipality, which has a budget of around US$4 billion (S$5.4 billion).

"If Imamoglu wins again, there's going to be a chain of serious changes in Turkish politics," journalist and writer Murat Yetkin said.

 
 
 

"It will be interpreted as the beginning of a decline for AKP and for Erdogan as well," he said, noting that the President himself has called the vote "a matter of survival".

Another Imamoglu win could eventually trigger a national election earlier than the scheduled 2023, a Cabinet reshuffle, and even a potential adjustment in foreign policy, Mr Yetkin added.

To narrow the roughly 13,000-vote gap in March, the AKP re-calibrated its message recently to court Kurdish voters, who make up about 15 per cent of Istanbul's 10.5 million voters.

The campaign received a twist when jailed Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan urged the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) to stay neutral in the vote. The HDP, which backs Mr Imamoglu, accused Mr Erdogan of trying to divide Kurds.

Voting in Istanbul begins on Sunday at 8am local time (1pm Singapore time) and ends at 5pm. Results will be available later in the evening.

Having campaigned hard ahead of the March vote, a strategy that many within AKP believe has backfired, Mr Erdogan initially kept a low-profile this month. But last week, he returned to his combative campaigning and targeted Mr Imamoglu directly, including threatening him with legal action, raising questions over whether the AKP would accept a second defeat.

Polls have shown Mr Imamoglu, a former district mayor, retaining a lead over his AKP rival, former prime minister Binali Yildirim. Some polls put him up to nine percentage points ahead, with his more inclusive message resonating with some voters.

Mr Yusuf Mert, who works at a textile shop in the working class Esenyurt district, complained about a lack of business and rising unemployment. He said he was unconvinced by what he saw as Mr Yildirim's new focus on policies.

"We have seen it all and we've heard it all in the past 20 years. What else is there to do? Imamoglu won and they denied him his mandate," Mr Mert said.

The decision to re-run the vote drew international criticism and accusations from Turkey's opposition of an erosion in the rule of law. Residents in several districts took to the streets banging pots and pans in protest.

Some voters told Reuters that an AKP victory on Sunday could lead to bigger protests.

The uncertainty over the fate of Istanbul, Turkey's business hub, and potential delays in broader economic reforms, have kept financial markets on edge. Turkey's lira currency tumbled after the decision to annul the March vote and is down nearly 10 per cent this year in part on election jitters.

Mr Howard Eissenstat, non-resident senior fellow at think tank POMED, said the AKP's legitimacy had rested on its purported respect for elections expressing the will of the people.

"But these claims have been more myth than reality," he said. "The undoing of the result in Istanbul highlights just how empty these claims are today."