Istanbul votes in mayoral re-run seen as a key test for Erdogan

ISTANBUL • Polls closed and votes were counted yesterday in the re-run of Istanbul's mayoral election, which has become a referendum on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's policies and a test of Turkey's ailing democracy.

Initial ballot results were expected to be reported over the next few hours in Turkey's largest city.

In the first vote in March - the results of which were later scrapped - the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) candidate secured a narrow victory over Mr Erdogan's AK Party (AKP).

But after weeks of appeals by the AKP, Turkey's High Election Board last month annulled the vote, citing irregularities.

The opposition called the decision a "coup" against democracy, which raised the stakes for round two yesterday.

"It is really ridiculous that the election is being re-run. It was an election won fair and square," said Mr Asim Solak, 50, who said he was voting for the opposition candidate in the CHP stronghold of Tesvikiye. "It is clear who cancelled the election. We hope this election re-run will be a big lesson for them."

Polling stations across Istanbul had opened at 8am local time, with 10.56 million people registered to vote in a city which makes up nearly a fifth of Turkey's population of 82 million.

 

A real estate agent who gave his name as Bayram said he voted for the AKP's candidate, former prime minister Binali Yildirim, as he believed foreign powers such as the United States, Europe and Israel supported the opposition.

"All of these will want a piece from Istanbul and then there will be chaos. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. All these foreign powers don't like Erdogan, so he is my friend," the 60-year-old said after voting in Kagithane district, an AKP stronghold.

Mr 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 US, 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 more light on what CHP mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu said was the misspending of billions of lira at the Istanbul municipality, which has a budget of about 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 had called the local polls "a matter of survival".

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

To narrow the 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 the electorate in the city.

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.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2019, with the headline 'Istanbul votes in mayoral re-run seen as a key test for Erdogan'. Print Edition | Subscribe