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What Istanbul’s New Mayoral Elections Mean for Turkey’s Future

No Matter Who Wins, a Crisis Looms

Supporters of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu wave flags during an election rally in Istanbul,  June 2019 Murad Sezer / REUTERS

On June 23, Istanbul will hold new mayoral elections. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost the original election on March 31, appealed to overturn the results on a technicality, and won. The ruling was only the latest and most striking turn in Turkey’s decadelong period of autocratization, which has seen the imprisonment of a popular opposition leader, closure of over 1,400 civil society organizations and some 175 media outlets, dismissal of 130,000 civil servants, and constitutional transformation from a parliamentary to a superpresidential system lacking checks and balances.

The mayoral vote was plainly canceled because its results were unacceptable to the ruling party, but that doesn’t mean that the AKP can dispense with the trappings of democratic practice altogether. There has been a new campaign, and voters will return to the polls.

The dynamics of this unfair, unfree election illuminate the nature of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s unstable authoritarianism and its precarious future. For all of the consolidation of recent years, Turkey is still in transition, stumbling from a flawed but pluralistic democracy to a topheavy authoritarian system at a time of self-made economic and foreign policy crises. The AKP still relies on the legitimizing effect of winning elections even after it has run roughshod over them. It needs to convince Turkey’s citizens that it embodies the will of the people even as it destroys the instruments for revealing that will. The result is a deeply unstable authoritarian regime that seems destined to drive the country further into crisis, no matter the results in Sunday’s rerun.

WHAT THE AKP WANTS

In electoral terms, the AKP’s task on Sunday is to close a gap of 13,730 votes. Those votes were all that separated the Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem Imamoglu and the AKP’s Binali Yildirim after the AKP had forced every possible recount in its favor, and before the Turkish Supreme Electoral Council canceled the results. Yet closing that gap will be no easy feat, even for the country’s

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