Istanbul rerun shows democracies like Turkey’s don’t die easy - analysis

Rather than being an example of how democracies die, Turkey’s rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election underscores the fact that they don’t die all that easily, said an analysis at Foreign Policy.

Istanbul will again go to the polls on Sunday to choose between main opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Binali Yıldırım of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). İmamoğlu won the initial vote on March 31, but that was later annulled by the country’s election council after AKP complaints of fraud and irregularities.

Many interpreted the cancellation of the previous result as part of the downward spiral of Turkish democracy and continuing authoritarian drift under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, according to Murat Somer, professor at Istanbul’s Koç University and a visiting scholar at Stanford, who takes a different view.

“The ascendance of authoritarianism triggers an equally strong pro-democratic reaction. And the case of the Istanbul rerun offers insights into how such impulses may be able to succeed against polarising and populist authoritarian politics,” Somer wrote for Foreign Policy on Wednesday.

Observers long underestimated the AKP’s authoritarian potential, preferring to view it as a model Islamic democratic party, says Somer. While today it’s commonplace for western media to decry Erdoğan’s autocracy, he thinks they underestimate the country’s democratic strengths.

“Turkish society has not given up on active and passive resistance, and so far it has refused to accept autocracy as normal. Meanwhile, the AKP and ErdErdoğanogan are weakened by declining popularity and legitimacy and by growing internal divisions,” said Somer.

After the March 31 vote, the opposition guarded the ballots for an Istanbul recount and later put in place their own digital system to count and announce results, according to Somer. This might not be enough to restore democracy, but it may be when combined with the new kinds of leadership emerging from the opposition.

Rather than protesting and denouncing the AKP’s policies, as it had done for years, for the March 31 vote the CHP reached out to voters and embraced unity, aligning with the nationalist Good Party and gaining support from Islamists and the leading pro-Kurdish party.

“İmamoğlu, for example, has run a campaign that appeals to voters’ emotions and to personal trust. He has focused on explaining what he wants to do rather than on criticising what the AKP is doing wrong,” said Somer.

Fears of vote rigging are widespread, but most polls suggest İmamoğlu will win on Sunday.

“Istanbulites will be able to jump-start a process that could eventually lead to a stronger and more inclusive democracy than the one that preceded the AKP and the one the AKP initially tried to build,” said Somer.