Be careful what you wish for

Back in April I reported on the woes of Turkey’s autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose party did badly in local elections, losing in, among others, the major cities of Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir.

The Istanbul result, however was very close – as initially reported, about 25,000 votes out of about eight and a half million. Both sides claimed victory; Erdoğan’s party, the AKP, demanded a recount, and when completed it showed Ekrem İmamoğlu, of the opposition CHP, winning by just 13,700 votes, or 48.8% to 48.6%.

Erdoğan could have just left things there, as his Istanbul candidate, Binali Yıldırım, apparently intended. It would have been embarrassing, but hardly a major threat to his control of the country.

Instead Erdoğan decided to push his luck and the AKP lodged an appeal with the Supreme Electoral Council, alleging irregularities in voter registration. Not surprisingly, and despite world outrage, the council upheld the complaint, voided the election and ordered it to be re-run.

The fresh election was held on Sunday, and voters were clearly not happy about their first effort being overturned. They elected İmamoğlu with a much larger majority, 54.2% to 45.0%: a margin of more than 800,000 votes.

So instead of an opponent elected narrowly with a minority of the vote in a disputed election, Erdoğan gets an opponent with a clear popular mandate and a more energised electorate. It’s as clear an example as you could want of the foolishness of challenging an election on a technicality.

But it’s certainly not the only example. John Howard’s prime ministership in Australia, for example, got an early boost in 1996 when Labor challenged the election of one of his new MPs, Jackie Kelly in Lindsay. It won the challenge, but lost the ensuing by-election with a swing of 5.0%, turning a marginal Liberal seat into a reasonably comfortable one, which Kelly held for another eleven years.

Labor failed to learn the lesson, and in 2017-18 helped set off a round of challenges to a variety of MPs on the grounds of non-compliance with section 44 of the constitution. Voters showed that they regarded this as an irritating technicality by re-electing almost all the MPs concerned, most of them with increased majorities.

Once doubts have been raised about someone’s election, it’s usually better (from their opponents’ point of view) to let those doubts fester, creating a lingering cloud over their legitimacy, rather than give them the chance to cut through with a fresh election. Most voters don’t like unnecessary elections, and they particularly dislike sore losers.

Erdoğan may have been misled by the example of the 2015 Turkish elections. There the AKP lost its parliamentary majority but was able to win it back in a second election five months later, after the opposition parties had failed to agree on forming a government.

But in a hung parliament it’s much easier to obscure responsibility for forcing voters back to the polls; it was not unreasonable for the electorate to blame the opposition rather than the AKP. Similarly, Spanish voters in 2016 swung towards the centre-right after the left-of-centre parties had failed to assemble a government following the previous election, six months earlier.

A direct challenge to an election, however, leaves no room for doubt about who is responsible. Unless there is real, serious malpractice involved, it’s going to just look like an unwillingness to accept the democratic verdict. And voters react accordingly, as Erdoğan discovered.

Whether this will be enough to save Turkish democracy is another question. Nor is the CHP necessarily an attractive alternative; one of İmamoğlu’s main selling points was his hard line against refugees. But it at least demonstrates that the president’s grip on the country is less comprehensive than he thought.

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