Analysis. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can either try to grab power in the largest cities by contesting the results of the vote, or he can accept the defeat in order to delegitimize accusations of authoritarianism.

Istanbul voters rejected Erdogan – now he has a choice

Sunday’s administrative elections brought the first real electoral defeat in 17 years for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose AKP party lost the capital, Ankara; the largest metropolis, Istanbul; and many other cities in the country in one fell swoop. It was a serious blow, because having control over local administrations has historically been the driving force behind the success of political Islam, with a recipe of grassroots activism, populist welfare measures and the preferential distribution of lucrative contracts.

For the parties in the opposition, this victory gives a strong political signal, while remaining a fragile one nonetheless. The margins were a few tens of thousands of votes, and the AKP has already announced it will contest some of the results.

There were moments of high tension Sunday night, when the votes were counted, after five people lost their lives and at least 67 were injured in acts of political violence during the day. The main highlight was the victory of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Mansur Yavas in Ankara, the military and political center of the country—a loss which, in any case, had been expected by Erdogan’s administration.

It was from Istanbul, however, that the real shock came. At first, the metropolis straddling the Bosphorus looked set to remain in the hands of the AKP, which had nominated former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in the mayoral race. However, as the hours passed, Yildirim’s lead started to shrink more and more. When he was just 4,000 votes ahead with 98% of the ballots counted, the official channels suddenly went dark, as Yildirim took it upon himself to declare victory while the votes were still being counted.

The Supreme Election Council (YSK), the state authority regulating elections, made its website suddenly unavailable. The state-run Anadolu news agency, whose impartiality has been hotly contested, stopped offering real-time data. For 10 long hours, everything was in limbo, as no one wanted to take responsibility for confirming the AKP candidate’s defeat. The system seemed to have panicked, as this scenario was not expected and no one dared to go off-script. Everyone waited for a signal from above—that is, everyone waited for Erdogan.

The opposition immediately came out with a very strong reaction, mindful of what happened in 2015, when the AKP eked out a dubious win in Ankara for its candidate Melih Gökçek, who was pronounced victorious after a night full of government interventions in the vote counting process.

The CHP candidate for mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, made an appeal to the state to fulfil its essential duties, saying that “I know we won in Istanbul, it is very clear,” as the data his party collected gave him a margin of about 25,000 votes. But making that announcement was not up to him, and he called on the institutions to fulfil their responsibilities toward the citizens. His insistence was a decisive factor in preventing an AKP declaration of victory that the press was all too willing to back.

When Erdogan finally appeared on a balcony in Ankara for his speech, he celebrated the victory of his coalition with 52% of the national vote, but remained silent about the largest cities, except for saying that “we accept that we have gained the hearts of the people in the places where we won, but were not successful enough in this regard in the places that we lost”—a cryptic formulation, somewhere between actual self-criticism (highly unusual for him) and a threat (all too usual).

On Monday morning, the YSK and Anadolu finally started to provide data again, and announced that the opposition had won in Istanbul, with a margin of 24,408 votes in favor of the CHP. Meanwhile, the AKP said it would contest the results. It is challenging 310,000 ballots in Istanbul and 80,000 in Ankara. Erdogan hinted that he expected the results in the cities he lost to be overturned. The YSK—which is firmly in the hands of the government after the last constitutional reform—will be called on to decide within the next three days.

The HDP has played a key role in the opposition’s victories. Its decision not to put forward candidates for the western regions, and the appeal put out by Selahattin Demirtas from prison, have led to the concentration of the anti-government vote to the candidates of the CHP. Hopefully, this political debt will be repaid in the new municipal councils and with a new period of cooperation.

In the country’s Kurdish-populated southeast, the HDP won in all the local districts that have been taken under direct authority by the central government, so that the threat of new removals from office by orders from Ankara promises to be higher than ever. The only victories for the AKP in the region were in the districts of Agri, Bitlis and Sirnak, where social engineering, changes to electoral district boundaries and the presence of the military allowed them to defeat the HDP.

The delegation from the Council of Europe sent to monitor the elections said it was “not fully convinced that Turkey currently has the free and fair electoral environment which is necessary for genuinely democratic elections.”

One cannot say that these successes in administrative elections are the beginning of a new era of democracy. Erdogan still has a firm grip on all state institutions and the army, and has been known to react very badly to setbacks at the polls.

However, it is a moment of respite, in which the people have made their discontent known regarding the authoritarian manner in which the government has been harassing the opposition, but most of all regarding the economic decline that the AKP doesn’t seem to be able to manage at the moment, something for which the voters have held Erdogan responsible. Now, he has a choice to make: either to try to grab power in the largest cities by contesting the results of the vote, or to accept the defeat in order to delegitimize the accusations of authoritarianism.

The new mayors will get a valuable opportunity to offer a new model to the voters, including many young people who have lived their whole lives under AKP rule. They will also inherit the hard task of managing the largest cities at a time of great economic crisis, while facing the hostility of a central government with a known history of starving administrations it considers “enemies” of resources.

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