The leading party in Turkey faced major setbacks during the Mar. 31 election, losing both the capital of Ankara and the populous Istanbul to opposition candidates. The election, which the president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan triumphed as a “democracy lesson” for the rest of the country on voter turnout, had multiple controversies including the “unlawful” election of several officials for alleged terrorist affiliation or corrupt practices.
The first surprise of the election came in the form of the leading electoral party in Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), losing two major cities in the nation. First, the capital of Ankara went to the opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CPH) Mansur Yavas, who won by a relatively wide margin and struck a strong blow to the long-dominant AKP party. However, it is Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey and the seat through which President Erdogan first came to power, where the leading party faced the most unexpected and devastating loss. The city went to CPH’s Ekrem İmamoğlu in a close vote, ending nearly a quarter century of AKP mayorship.
A recount of this exceedingly close vote was quickly demanded by Erdoğan who cited the illegal registration of voters as the primary reason for İmamoğlu’s lead. Several of these district-wide recounts took place throughout the city, with the AKP party attempting to expand the size of the recount from 6 districts to 15 and eventually to a city-wide recount. Their efforts sparked scorn from the CPH party, who insisted their win was fair and legal. In the midst of the recount issue, CPH Deputy Chairman Ozgur Ozel tweeted “The AKP doesn’t know how to lose. Democracy means knowing how to lose.” The demand for a city-wide recount was ultimately denied by the High Elections Board, the committee with the final and decisive word in Turkish elections.
Following this denial, The president escalated demands on April 10 when he suggested that the Istanbul election should be annulled and a new vote should ensue. To justify his actions, he focused on multiple non-civil service people holding positions at the ballot boxes in Istanbul, which breaks the country’s election requirements. However, despite the opposition’s protests, İmamoğlu remains the mayor of Istanbul and continues to lead by over 14,000 votes after the majority of the recount has been completed. He has expressed his own exasperation at the continuous recounts, saying “Let me tell those who don’t know: we won. It’s done, enough. You’ve been counting for 10 days, bottom to top, top to bottom, right to left, left to right.” The ultimate decision to go through with the annulment and to redo the election in Istanbul rests solely with the High Elections Board, who have yet to respond.
This sudden power switch within the major cities was not the only controversy in the Turkish elections, which was scorned for somewhat biased coverage of only President Erdoğan while neglecting coverage of other campaigners. In the weeks following the election, multiple individuals elected into positions have been stripped of power or are being investigated for various charges of corruption.
Among these is the newly elected mayor of Diyarbakir, Adnan Selçuk Mızraklı, who is now the subject of a terror propaganda investigation. Diyarbakir is significant as a majority Kurdish area of Turkey. The primary focus of the accusation is on a ceremony allegedly attended by Mizraki and two officials of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic party, which incorporated both song and a moment of silence for the outlawed Kurdish military party. Mizraki’s investigation is ongoing and his position remains unclear. However, this replacing of newly elected public officials due to a terrorist link is a practice which has become popular, with 95 mayors being replaced in their municipalities since 2016.
These election complications and the humiliation for the nation’s leading political party occurred amidst tense relations between Turkey, the United States and Russia. As Turkey finalizes the missile-defense purchase made from Russia early April and the resulting standoff over the US condemnation of the purchase continues, Erdoğan’s party is recovering from the humiliation of losing both Ankara and Istanbul.