Following the results of the March 31 local elections in Turkey which saw Turkey’s main opposition, Republican People’s Party (CHP), win 4 out of 5 largest cities in Turkey, some commentators were quick to call the defeat of President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) a victory for democracy.
But what do these commentators mean when they say victory for democracy? More of often than not they mean that the party they support did well. However, the real test of whether an election is a victory for democracy is not if the party you voted for wins, but the extent to which the elections were held under conditions considered free and fair, the incumbent’s willingness to concede defeat and the applicability of contestation to all parties who have a legitimate grievance.
Sadly, in all of the above counts Turkey failed. Firstly, just as previous elections over the past few years, they were neither free nor fair. Media coverage was overwhelmingly pro-government, there were incidents of intimidation and harassment, and the governing AKP had the benefit of using state resources for their campaign.
Secondly, although the ballots have been officially counted, the ruling AKP has refused to accept defeat in Ankara and Istanbul. Although they were very close races it is quite clear that barring some irregularities, the CHP won in both cities. Still, the AKP has insisted on recounts (there were even rumours that AKP had sought to nullify the vote in the entire city of Istanbul). One may object and say that the AKP has a right to do so. Fair enough, but at the same time the AKP has put up posters across Istanbul thanking voters for their victory. The recounts are taking a long time and there is extreme pressure being put on the Supreme Election Board.
Thirdly, when the ruling AKP demands recounts it usually (not always) gets its way, but when the liberal and Kurdish oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) demands the same by district and provisional boards in localities where it lost by the narrowest of margins, its appeals are rejected. In other words, there are clearly double standards.
Despite the victory of the CHP in several cities, this was not a win for democracy. If it turns out that the AKP concedes defeat to the CHP in Ankara and Istanbul, I have the following words which were published in a piece for Haaretzand have pasted below and can also be found here:
Erdogan wobbled. But can he really be toppled?
The polls should have been a sleepy affair. They were local elections for mayoral and municipal offices. And last weekend was the seventh time in five years that Turkey had held elections.
However, far from being dreary, the elections proved to be a rather lively affair as Turkey’s firebrand president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been at the helm of Turkish politics for 17 years, did not get his way. And that’s just putting it mildly.
Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost four of the country’s five largest cities to the opposition, including the capital Ankara and the commercial hub and largest city, Istanbul, albeit by the narrowest of margins.
What to make of these results? Do they mark the beginning of the end for Erdogan’s apparent invincibility? How significant a victory is this for the country’s beleaguered opposition, led by the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP)?
The CHP deserves some credit. Together with the Iyi Parti (Good Party) with whom it formed an alliance, the CHP campaigned hard and under very difficult circumstances, managing to not only win major cities and municipalities but also garner 30 per cent of the popular vote, a significant improvement on recent years.
The CHP’s successes in Istanbul and Ankara were also due to the strategic decision by the liberal and Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) not to field candidates in these cities. Reportedly, HDP leaders urged its supporters to vote for the CHP instead. Thus, the HDP got in some retribution against Erdogan, whose government has mercilessly suppressed the party, even arresting and detaining its leadership under trumped up terrorism charges and removing elected mayors in the Southeast.
Unlike the AKP, which also benefitted from the use of government and state resources, the CHP had to fend off underhanded attacks by Erdogan and his followers who accused it of perfidy and siding with terrorists.
Mansur Yavas, the CHP Ankara mayoral candidate, was accused of forging a signature over a decade ago in a spurious attempt to delegitimize him. Erdogan even broadcast footage from the gruesome Christchurch massacre to boost his party’s chances.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s subdued media offered the government obsequious coverage. For example, Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT gave 135 hours of positive coverage to Erdogan and his allies but just 20 hours, most of it negative, to the opposition. It was therefore quite a feat that the CHP managed to attract additional votes.
Still, one should not write off Erdogan so easily. Far from being the beginning of the end, Erdogan and the AKP remain popular.
Despite voter fatigue, international isolation and an economic downturn that has seen inflation spiral and the lira tumble, prompting the government to sell its own subsidized fruit and vegetables, the AKP still managed to win over 44 per cent of the popular vote. This is about two percent more than last year’s parliamentary elections and a gain of 1.5 per cent compared to the last local elections of 2014.
In other words, the CHP has only managed to make a small dent in the AKP’s support base.
Meanwhile, Erdogan still enjoys the backing of his political allies, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Together they won over 51 per cent of the vote. Erdogan also controls all the state’s levers of power from the security forces to the judiciary and is not afraid to use them. This is especially ominous, as there are no more elections scheduled for the next four and a half years. A period of unaccountability looms.
If the opposition wishes to make further gains it needs to maintain the tacit CHP-HDP understanding which thwarted Erdogan’s plans in this election. This means the CHP will have to swallow its Turkish national pride and convince its followers that it is prudent to come to a tacit understanding with the Kurdish-oriented HDP.
And that’s just the easy bit. Despite all the talk of the economy and international affairs during the campaign, this was a local election.
If the opposition is serious about making this a turning point, it needs to knuckle down and dedicate itself to improving municipal services in order to prove to the electorate that it can be trusted with the country’s economy and positively steer Turkey’s political future. That is, of course, assuming that the AKP's attempt to stifle the loss of Istanbul by demanding recounts proves fruitless.
Either way, the opposition will no doubt face a relentless campaign of delegitimization and intimidation by Erdogan and the AKP, who don’t kindly to strong opposition. Pro-government media are already pushing the narrative that the results in Istanbul are an attempted "coup." Still, it’s an opportunity. The opposition best make the most of it.
This article first appeared in Haaretz on 3 April 2019
It has been a month since the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, and the story does not appear to be going away. Such lengthy news coverage is a rare thing in the 21stcentury. How quickly other overseas political assassinations were dropped from the news cycle. How many people remember the murder in the Netherlands of Ahmad Mola Nissi, a leader of a violent Arab Iranian separatist movement in November 2017? Back in February 2017, the murder in Malaysia of Kim Jong-Man, the half-brother of North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un, who was killed by a chemical weapon no less, did not receive this much attention. Yet somehow the murder of Khashoggi remains in the news. This begs the question, why? Who stands to benefit and who stands to lose with the story remaining on the agenda?
Let’s face it, this kind of story doesn’t come around very often. Not only is this a political assassination, but it took place within a consulate and incorporates all the items of a TV drama – the forensic investigation, the secrecy and the tantalising prospect of a real-life conspiracy involving the most senior levels of a government. Also, the facts keep changing each day as more information comes to light. And what emerges is grizzly to say the least, which also appeals to some. Questions still remain unanswered - was Khashoggi, a former Saudi royal family insider and governmental advisor turned dissident journalist, tortured and then murdered or just murdered straight away? Or was he strangled and then dismembered? Was he injected with poison, and then mutilated? Or was his body dissolved in acid? Or perhaps it was some gruesome combination of the above. Add these questions together and you have yourself a news story that grips viewers and readers as would a TV boxset and a bowl of Doritos.
It is in the interest of Khashoggi’s home newspaper, the Washington Post, to keep the story alive. Khashoggi was the Post’s columnist and so the Post is absolutely right to demand answers from Saudi Arabia and push the US administration to do all in its power to ascertain the facts and take action. Credit to the Washington Postfor not relenting. Newspapers owe it to their staff to do everything in their power to support journalists and the freedom of expression. And I’m glad other news outlets have kept on following the story.
But there are some, of course, who want the Khashoggi story to go away. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) obviously wants it to disappear. Also, the Trump administration. The White House was in a sluggish mood when the story broke, and President Trump’s comment that there will be consequencesfor those responsible sounded reluctant. If the story dissipates, Trump won’t have to follow through on this statement. Indeed, the US is loathed to take forceful action, save a few sanctions against a couple of individuals. Let us not forget that according to Trump, Saudi and the US have apparently agreed to $100 billionin arms deals (the reality is that this figure is not just a gross over calculation, but a manipulation as to how arms deals are normally calculated). The US also needs Saudi support to maintain the oil price at a reasonable rate especially while additional sanctions against Iran are going into effect.
Ditto Europe. There has been some (welcomed) criticism and condemnation of the Saudis and even pull-outs from MBS’ Saudi desert expo last month. However, most of Europe, Britain and France especially, would prefer the story go away. Very rarely do European governments condemn Saudi Arabia or dwell on its appalling human rights record. Arms contracts are highly lucrative and ensure employment. The steady flow of oil at an affordable rate maintains Europe’s economy and allows energy diversification from Russia.
Iran has been relatively silent on the whole affair. Tehran made a belatedcondemnation, an example of blatant hypocrisy considering the coming to light of a failed assassination attemptin September of a dissident Iranian political figure in Denmark. Perhaps Tehran figures that there is no need to meddle because Saudi Arabia seems to be digging itself in a mess by changing its story every couple of days. The belligerent MBS is seemingly losing his international respect and Saudi is on the back foot, giving Iran some reprieve, not wanting to draw attention to its own misdeeds in Denmark. Meanwhile, Russia is watching by as a US ally is embattled - good for Moscow’s ambitions to dominate the region.
Then we have Turkey. Vying for power in the Muslim world, Turkey is on the opposite end of Saudi Arabia in the post-Arab Spring regional divide. In Egypt, Turkey aligned itself with the Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia lent its support to General Sisi. Turkey and Saudi Arabia backed different factions in Syria, and Turkey sided with Qatar during the GCC crisis. However, instead of giving Saudi the legendary Ottoman slap for the Khashoggi murder, Ankara has decided to let information drip out in a means to discredit the Saudi regime in the eyes of the international community. President Erdogan also managed to pen an article in the Washington Postpointing the fingerat Saudi officials who he claims premeditated the murder.
This is an interesting strategy. However, it is meaningless because in the eyes of the international community Saudi Arabia never really had any creditability anyway. Sure, MBS’s reform agenda had some plaudits, but they were limited to wishful thinkers, dupes and a certain New York Timescolumnist. It never really fooled strategically minded thinkers or informed policy makers. And the majority of those who did praise Saudi Arabia for reforms such as giving women the right to drive, did so while making it clear that they remained sceptical.
Put another way, the soap opera that is the Khashoggi murder is simply a big reminder that reform in Saudi Arabia is not about MBS, but rather a whole load of BS. But we knew that already. After this affair blows over, we will return to the pre-2015 status quo ante – an unchanged and unreformed Saudi Arabia, which continues to violate human rights and the international community being unable or unwilling to do anything about it.
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