As the re-run elections in Istanbul approaches, Germany — Turkey's top trading partner — has called for fair elections. Why is this election so significant? Is this the beginning of the end for President Erdogan’s party?
Turkey faces a historic election this Sunday. Never before has a local election in Turkey drawn so much international attention. Istanbul, home to around 16 million inhabitants, known for its captivating beauty and as the money machine for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), will go to the polls this Sunday, for the second time in three months to elect its mayor.
In the race are AKP candidate Binali Yildirim — who served as Turkey's last prime minister before the position was eliminated as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan consolidated power through a 2018 public referendum — and opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, who was declared the winner of the March 31 contest.
When the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) overturned the elections of March 31st due to alleged "irregularities," international criticism was loud, including from Germany, whose populace includes a sizable minority of Turkish origin.
Now, many see the second election as a litmus test for the state of Turkish democracy. Among them is Nils Schmid, foreign policy spokesman for Germany's co-ruling Social Democrats. He says the renewed elections are "a test for Turkish democracy" and is calling for free and fair elections.
Whether the elections proceed without intervention and whether Erdogan's AKP party is willing to accept a potential defeat could ease — or increase — tensions that have ratcheted up between Turkey and Europe.
Despite the fact that the AKP lobbied the country's supreme electoral council to investigate the results of the March 31 contest, Turkey expert Demir Murat Seyrek of the European Foundation for Democracy thinks the party is likely to accept the results this time around, even if its candidate loses.
If the party were to dispute the election results again, this "would give the image that there is no more democracy in Turkey and elections cannot change anything," says Seyrek. This, he says, is something president Erdogan is keen on avoiding — in part because it could increase opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu's popularity.
Beginning of the end?
Even though this is a local election, it is a very significant one. That's why Hakan Tas, a member of the German Left Party, is currently in Turkey and plans on visiting various polling stations. "Istanbul is the city where the AKP gets most of its income, and with this they feed institutions close to them," he tells DW. Tas believes that if the opposition candidate Imamoglu wins, "(AKP) leaders will start packing their bags."
However, foreign policy spokesman Bjian Djir-Sarai of Germany's business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) doesn't see the Istanbul mayoral elections as "the end of Erdogan's rule" if AKP's candidate Binali Yildirim were to lose. It is "certainly an election with a symbolic nature and will be very important for Turkey's further development."
Following the election re-run on June 23rd, Turkey expert Seyrek is expecting new political balances in Turkey, "probably with new players emerging" even if the opposition were to lose.
In Turkish media multiple stories have surfaced that former president and founding AKP member Abdullah Gul could form a new party with former Economy Minister Ali Babacan. Whether this could materialize and how it would affect the ruling party remains to be seen.
Investors watching 'very carefully'
Another reason many experts believe that Erdogan would accept the re-run results, even if his candidate loses? The president cannot risk upsetting financial markets or foreign investors.
Turkey's economy continues to be fragile, with high unemployment rates, the Turkish lira losing value and Turkish companies burdened with foreign currency debt. "Economic reforms can no longer be postponed," says Seyrek.
Foreign companies, including the German ones, are watching political developments "very carefully," says FDP's Djir-Sarai. "If developments continue negatively, as they have so far, [and] Turkey continues to isolate itself, when rule of law continues to be systematically dismantled, it's a matter of time for these companies to reduce the scale of their operation."
German investors and companies are particularly important for Turkey. Germany is Turkey's number one trade partner, and according to the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce, there are more than 6,500 German companies in Turkey, with a total of 120,000 employees. However, the tension between the two countries in the recent years and Turkey's violation of human rights and freedom of speech have also affected foreign investors' perception of Turkey.
The SPD's Schmid also calls for urgent reforms: "When rule of law isn't ensured, when corruption is widespread, then these are bad conditions for investors. Turkey felt this in recent years," he said. "That's why it's time for consistent reforms towards establishing rule of law."
'A very difficult partner'
Despite all democratic deficits, Turkey remains an important partner for Germany and a NATO ally. Turkey is an "extraordinarily difficult" partner, says FDP's Djir-Sarai, "but at the end of the day a partner, so we have to stay in a dialogue ... and we have to continue cooperation."
On Sunday, the world will be watching the Istanbul elections closely. If opposition candidate Imamoglu wins again, this will be a double defeat for the Turkish strongman and will bring new hope to his critics that change is possible. But if Yildirim wins, his ally Erdogan — Istanbul's former mayor — will once again be ruling the city where he started his successful political career.