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The Istanbul Revote Is a Dangerous Crossroads for Turkey


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WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Turkish National Election Board's decision to cancel the results of the March 31 mayoral election in Istanbul—overturning the victory of Republican People's Party candidate Ekrem Imamoglu—and reschedule a vote for June 23 further undermines democracy in the country, according to Soner Cagaptay, the Beyer Family Fellow at The Washington Institute.

"This decision throws into doubt hard-earned consensus in Turkey built over decades that power and government change hands through democratic elections," Cagaptay told the New York Times.

In a series of media interviews, Cagaptay outlined the repercussions of the annulled election for Turkey and the political future of its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He pointed out that Erdogan's move to challenge the election reflected insecurity over the fact that his ruling Justice and Development Party lost mayoral contests not only in Istanbul—a political power base where Erdogan once served as mayor—but in five of the country's six biggest cities. "Put together, the provinces that he lost represent three-quarters of Turkey's economy and over half of Turkey's population," he told CNN.

In addition, the rise of Imamoglu could pose a threat to Erdogan down the road. As Cagaptay noted to the Wall Street Journal, "Allowing Mr. Imamoglu to take control of a city of 16 million people, with a $4 billion annual budget and a staff of 82,000, risked spawning a powerful rival for the next presidential election."

To be sure, this blow to Erdogan's prestige in Istanbul—the country's most populous and ideologically diverse city—could conceivably have a moderating influence on his drive to consolidate power and suppress his opposition, including the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). In an interview with the Financial Times, Cagaptay noted that "the Turkish government allowed lawyers to visit the PKK's imprisoned leader for the first time since 2011—a move that may herald a new outreach campaign to disaffected Kurdish voters."

Yet rather than signaling moderation, this gesture could just as readily be a temporary ploy to divide the opposition that united behind Imamoglu. As Cagaptay warned CNN, "Mr. Erdogan holds the ability to even further suppress democratic rights and liberties, and I think it is fair to say that unfortunately, the next race will be neither free nor fair."

ABOUT THE EXPERT

Soner Cagaptay is the Beyer Family Fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, and author of the 2017 book The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey. A historian by training, he was named the Ertegun Professor in Princeton University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies and has taught courses at Yale, Georgetown, and Smith College. In addition, he served as chair of the Turkey Advanced Area Studies Program at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute.