Bringing democracy back in Istanbul
The particulars of what any Imamoğlu mayoralty might look like, however, are less important than broad questions about what the present state of affairs means for Turkish democracy. Media conditions and purges have already, for years, damaged the country’s reputation as a democracy.
It is a little over one month until Istanbul votes again on its next city mayor and a little under two since the last time it did. The reasons for the annulment of the first vote, won by opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoğlu, are so tenuous that even the government those results so displeased don’t much trouble to repeat them. Put briefly, they centre on the status of polling station officials that – if serious – would invalidate every Turkish election in living memory, including those of President Erdoğan.
It was by 14,000 votes that Imamoğlu first won Turkey’s largest city at the end of March, and with media silenced, opposition politicians in jail, and multiple ballot irregularities that seem to have favoured the government in recent elections, there are good reasons to believe that the rightful margin of victory might have been greater rather than lesser. Be all that as it may, we are where we are.
Imamoğlu has been upbeat about his prospects in a rerun. “Everything will be fine” is his campaign slogan, and in general a fitting summary of his lively and optimistic character. Extending solidarity to Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo during the Notre Dame fire, and cutting transport fares for Istanbul’s youth, in only the two weeks for which he held office, Imamoğlu began to stamp a more open, civic set of values on the city. He has also disclosed that, in even that short period of time, his team was able to get an impression of the waste, backhanders and general culture of corruption that has taken over Istanbul finances in the decades that the AKP has held power.
The particulars of what any Imamoğlu mayoralty might look like, however, are less important than broad questions about what the present state of affairs means for Turkish democracy. Media conditions and purges have already, for years, damaged the country’s reputation as a democracy. To give Turkey its dues, there was insufficient recognition of its democratic credentials – best summarised by the half-hearted nature of EU accession talks – when a decade ago they were in much better shape. Eastern European governments now erode civil rights and academic freedoms from safely inside an EU club that Turkey – at a time of functioning democracy – was made to believe it would never be welcomed by.
That said, it is no use blaming others for the failings that Turkish ministers are currently presiding over in their own country. Democratic violations in Hungary don’t make democratic violations in Istanbul any better. The more pressing concern is how we get out of this scenario. Imamoğlu’s solution, on the face of it, is to win Istanbul again and by a bigger margin. He won’t be advancing this message naively, and people inside and outside of his team will be well aware that the government has every incentive simply to cheat big and try to make sure of the outcome. One of the beautiful things about a democracy of millions of voters is that, even if a government is willing to cheat, you still need a ridiculous number of ballots – and thus a scale of organisation it is hard to keep secret –in order to outweigh all of the legitimate ones. Travel agents in Istanbul have reported a total cancellation of all holidays booked on the day of the election, as residents delay trips in order to stay home and vote.
In some respects, what happens in Istanbul is a case study that must be watched for lessons in how (and more pessimistically, if) Turkey can be wrested back from an aggressive government willing to use everything – including police brutality, prison, confiscation of property, and election tampering – to hold power. Where the tools at an oppressive government’s disposal are clearly so very physical, how is a mere idea – even one as powerful and agreed-upon as democracy – able to stay those forces determined to crush a fair society?
Imamoğlu’s determination to just win again, one that is apparently shared by much of Istanbul, is a clear statement of continued faith in the democratic process, even if nobody believes any longer that that process is being operated faithfully. Similarly, whatever people might believe in private, nobody in a position of influence can openly state that the call of a re-run is explicitly unfair. The current situation is one that obliges people to respond in good faith to actions taken in bad faith, for that is the price of keeping intact a consensual understanding of power that eventually can be won back. The Turkish opposition is now engaged in a policy which requires committing to democracy where there is little, almost as if to will it back into existence. As Michelle Obama used to say of the racism and political obstruction that she and her husband faced from the US Republican Party and its media supporters, “When they go low, we go high”.
What will happen when Istanbul votes again on June 23rd is very much unknown. There are both cynical and optimistic interpretations of the likely outcomes, of which the cynical are the more dangerous. By releasing the government from expectations of decency, cynicism gives the government permission to do as it pleases. The result and its consequences will, in either scenario, open new understandings for how Turkish democrats reinstate the political order they need and want. In a world constrained by a similar struggle between force on one hand and rules on the other, the lesson is one that will prove instructive for people well beyond the city of Istanbul.