Judicial Probes into Opposition Victories Add Pressure for Istanbul Revote

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2019-05-03

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ISTANBUL —Turkish prosecutors are carrying out 32 investigations into the narrow opposition victory last month in Istanbul's mayoral election. The investigations come as the ruling AKP intensifies calls for another vote, amid fears of political and economic chaos.

Prosecutors are looking into 100 voting stations in three Istanbul districts, which the opposition CHP won.

CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu narrowly won the Istanbul vote, ending nearly 25 years of rule by the AKP and its Islamist predecessors. The result has been subject to numerous partial recounts, which reduced his margin of victory to around 14,000 votes.

The judicial probes have been seized upon by AKP, which is petitioning Turkey's Supreme Election Board, or YSK, to repeat the election.

"Our appeal to the YSK is founded on the belief that there was an organized plot in the elections," deputy AKP head Ali İhsan Yavuz told a news conference Thursday. "[Prosecutor] investigations have confirmed what we have claimed."

The YSK is composed of mostly appointees by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Turkish president on one occasion called for the result to be accepted and for the country to come together to face security and economic challenges.

MHP 'outburst'

Erdogan's junior coalition political partner in parliament, the MHP, is taking a more robust approach. MHP leader Devlet Bahceli, in a statement this week, demanded the vote be repeated, claiming the country's security was at stake.

"The outburst by MHP leader and Erdogan's stalwart ally, Mr. Bahceli, is the new variable," said analysts Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners. Yesilada says the variable "needs to be added to the witches' brew of factors which will motivate Erdogan's decision on how much pressure to apply on the YSK to rule against CHP Mayor-elect Mr. Imamoglu."

With the AKP having lost control of most of Turkey's most important cities in April's local elections, Bahceli is increasingly challenging Erdogan.

"Bahceli openly demanded a repeat of Istanbul elections, adding that his party shall only recognize the YSK's final verdict if it satisfies the conscience of the nation," said Yesilada. "This sentence, too, implies that in case of HEC [High Election Council] ruling in favor of Imamoglu, MHP will end the coalition."

Stung by Bahceli's attack, Erdogan took a more robust stance Thursday, confidently predicting a win in any Istanbul revote.

Renewed CHP success

Erdogan's widely perceived lack of enthusiasm for a new election, however, could be explained by an awareness that victory is far from assured.

"The AKP of the past, I don't think it is anymore," said international relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Kadir Has University.

"I really don't see anymore the mobilization and enthusiasm that distinguished AKP itself from other parties," he added. "To the contrary, the CHP, which a lot of us left for dead or at least in a deep coma, found in itself sparks of life, if you will."

Ozel says a vital part of the CHP's success is Imamoglu, who successfully bridged the deep political polarization of Turkish politics by reaching out to AKP voters. Coupled with an economy in recession, near-record high unemployment, and food inflation at more than 30 percent, the AKP is seen as facing considerable electoral challenges.

In a possible sign of the magnitude of the challenge posed by any revote, the AKP's defeated candidate, Binali Yildirim, appeared to rule himself out of the running in a new election.

Analysts point out that Erdogan is aware of the political damage of the Istanbul defeat. Probably the Turkish president's most celebrated political asset is a reputation of electoral invincibility, carved out over 15 years of unbridled success. The loss of Turkey's largest city has changed that perception.

Pressure on Erdogan

The political damage to Erdogan, should there be a second defeat in an Istanbul vote, would be considerable.

"There is a fair possibility he will lose the elections," said political scientist Cengiz Akar. "But knowing him since 1994, he will do his utmost to win those elections. This is why we will have an extremely tense period between any [YSK] board decision to hold the elections and the date of the polls," Akar added.

Analysts say international investors share those concerns with the Turkish lira under pressure. The currency has fallen more than 10 percent since the start of the year and could face further declines if investors run to the exits over a new Istanbul vote, amid fears of high political tension.

Turkey's YSK could rule on a new ballot as early as next week. It would be a decision widely seen as one of the most important and far-reaching in recent times.