Erdogan’s Push for Another Istanbul Vote Fuels Democracy Concerns

  • Ruling party is pushing election board to repeat vote in city
  • Opponents accuse him of interfering in democratic process

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan intensified his push for a rerun of last month’s election in Turkey’s biggest city, fueling concerns that an authoritarian streak in government is deepening and rattling investors in the Middle East’s leading economy.

He’s embarked on a U-turn since appearing last week to accept the ballot-box defeats handed to his ruling party in Ankara, the capital, and commercial hub Istanbul on March 31. On Monday, the president, who since last year has ruled Turkey with sweeping executive powers, alleged “widespread irregularities” and “organized” fraud in Istanbul, and all but told the High Election Board to hold a new poll to pick a mayor for the city.

In the U.S., they redo “elections when there is a one percentage point of difference in problematic votes,” the president said to back up his case. Mehmet Ucum, one of his top advisers, signaled the governing AK Party would push for another vote.

If the election board assesses “that the voters’ will hasn’t been clearly established, or observes grave irregularities, that would necessitate a repeat vote,” he said, saying there was precedent for such a decision.

The party’s candidate in Istanbul, former prime minister Binali Yildirim, trails his opponent from the secular CHP by a slim margin of about 15,000 votes in a city of 16 million people.

Lira Slides

Erdogan has already muzzled critics in the media and launched a fierce crackdown on political opponents he accuses of links to an attempted 2016 coup. His intervention in the democratic process is likely to further undermine confidence in the rule of law. The political showdown hit financial markets, with the lira declining as much as 1.5 percent against the dollar.

“Erdogan is clearly unwilling to relinquish control over Istanbul,” Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of Teneo Intelligence in London, said in an emailed report. “The rhetoric of the government and the opposition has put both in positions from which it is hard to back down.”

‘Just an Illusion’

The election board’s decision, which is expected before mid-April, will be closely watched by market players as they gauge the health of democracy and the investment environment in Turkey, which is in its first economic recession in a decade.

Erdogan accused his opponents of “stealing” votes in the symbolically most important race of the municipal election. The claims were rejected by CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and his election ally Meral Aksener of Iyi Party, who accused the president of interfering with democracy at a joint press conference in Ankara.

“This is not about parties but democracy,” Kilicdaroglu said. “Either they will stand by democracy or democracy will be massacred by judges,” he said, referring to the composition of the election board.

“Renewing the election until the AK Party wins” is the type of thing one sees in dictatorships, said Aksener.

The currency’s drop was exacerbated by the central bank’s decision to unwind emergency measures it adopted two weeks ago to bolster the lira, according to Guillaume Tresca, an analyst at Credit Agricole SA. “The recent stabilization of the lira was only apparently just an illusion,” he said. “You just need one slight negative factor and the pressure is back.”

Erdogan campaigned furiously ahead of the elections, holding multiple rallies in a single day and declaring the vote “a matter of survival.”

The president is aware that his Islamist-rooted political empire was built on his successes as mayor of Istanbul, where from 1994 to 1998 he delivered improved roads, cleaner water and a support system for the poor. Better than anyone, he understands that power, and money, in Turkish politics flows from the grassroots, and any erosion in his party’s core support inevitably threatens both.

The governing party has already sought the cancellation of voting in Istanbul’s Buyukcekmece district and applied to the election board for a recount of all votes in the remaining 38 districts across the city.

“A strategic mind has united certain forces and triggered this organized irregularity,” AK Party deputy chairman Ali Ihsan Yavuz said about the Istanbul vote, suggesting possible meddling by followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accuses of masterminding the failed coup.

Source: Bloomberg

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