On December 14, Istanbul’s Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, was sentenced to two years and seven months in prison. He was convicted of calling the members of Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council “fools” in 2019, following their decision to rerun Istanbul’s municipal election. Given the baseless nature of the accusation, this was plainly a politically motivated verdict.
Legally, the ruling is not final. There is an appeal process, which would normally take more than a year to complete. And even if İmamoğlu loses his appeal, he will not go to prison as sentences of less than three years are not served. He will, however, be banned from standing in elections or holding any elected office. While the case lacks any legal basis, it will nevertheless have significant political implications.
One likely outcome would be to hand the post of mayor of Istanbul to the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The AKP already holds a majority in the municipal council, which would elect the new mayor. More importantly, the verdict will impact the presidential election scheduled for June 2023. İmamoğlu is one of three potential opposition candidates, along with Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavaş and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Many experts would argue that İmamoğlu is President Tayyip Erdoğan’s strongest challenger. The court’s politically charged ruling reinforces this assessment.
The irony is not lost on anyone. In 1998, while mayor of Istanbul, Erdoğan himself was banned from politics for “inciting hatred,” after reciting a poem at a political rally. At the time, Turkey’s then very powerful generals considered Erdoğan dangerously popular and hoped to remove him from political life. In fact, their strategy backfired and his deceitful removal from politics only increased his popularity. He soon forced his way back into politics and became prime minister in 2003.
İmamoğlu’s case has been widely compared with Erdoğan’s ban from politics. The verdict already seems to have given a significant boost to İmamoğlu’s popularity. However, the impact on İmamoğlu’s ability to stand as the opposition’s joint presidential candidate is still unclear. His supporters argue that the verdict would not normally come into effect before the election. So he could ride this wave of popularity as the joint presidential candidate. Others believe that this move would be a too risky, as the politically motivated courts could choose to confirm the verdict at a moment that would leave the opposition without a viable candidate. Erdoğan is probably counting on using the case as a “sword of Damocles” to prevent İmamoğlu’s candidacy without finalizing the legal process.
The verdict also has important implications for democracy in Turkey. It represents a qualitative leap in Turkey’s long process of autocratization. The country has long ceased to be an electoral democracy, and is now defined as a “competitive authoritarian regime.” Under such a regime, elections are not a sham – as observed in fully authoritarian systems – but the playing field is skewed against the opposition. The opposition does have a genuine chance of winning an election. That is the competitive dimension. But winning is an uphill struggle because the electoral process is extremely flawed and designed to favor the incumbent. In short, elections are free but not fair.
Over the past decade Turkey has become a textbook example of competitive authoritarianism. Media freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of organization have been severely curtailed. State resources have been used to support the ruling AKP while institutions has clearly worked to undermine the opposition. Still, the system did remain competitive. Indeed, in the 2019 municipal elections the opposition won most of the major cities including Istanbul and Ankara. Ever since that defeat, Erdoğan has been working to undermine the competitive element of the political system.
Immediately after the municipal elections, Erdoğan’s government forced the courts to arrange a rerun in Istanbul. The result was a bigger margin of victory for opposition candidate İmamoğlu. The AKP also removed all mayors elected on the ticket of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), alleging that they supported terrorism, and appointed “trustees” in their place. There is also an ongoing court case seeking to close down the HDP. The case against İmamoğlu is the most ambitious of such moves, targeting Erdoğan’s most potent rival. Erdoğan’s efforts to remove his political rivals from the field in advance of the 2023 presidential election represents a deliberate attempt to undermine the competitive dimension of the regime.
This should ring alarm bells in Europe. While competitive authoritarian regimes are by nature unstable and can potentially revert to electoral democracy, this becomes very difficult once the competitive element has been lost. İmamoğlu’s conviction suggests that the government is ready to completely abolish the competitive dimension. This also raises serious concerns over the integrity of the electoral process. European institutions should monitor the electoral process in Turkey very closely. As the saying goes: “only amateurs steal elections on election day.” Erdoğan has reminded us that he is no amateur. If they are to assess whether elections are free and fair, monitoring groups need to scrutinize the entire process, not just the vote itself.
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