Last week’s retirement of the president of the Istanbul election board raised serious questions ahead of the crucial and controversial June 23 rerun of the mayoral vote in Turkey’s largest and most important city.
In several rulings prior to the Supreme Election Board (YSK) decision to annul the initial Istanbul vote, Müberra Gürdal had resisted a mountain of pressure from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). She sent in her retirement notice days after the YSK’s May 6 decision, and will be replaced by Hakimi Ziya Bülent Öner, a family court judge who oversaw the electoral board in Istanbul’s conservative Fatih district.
Gürdal’s resignation came after weeks of dispute over the March 31 Istanbul result, which was won by main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu.
The first count in Istanbul was followed by weeks of appeals by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its far-right coalition partners the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
Their initial appeals to re-examine more than 300,000 invalid votes were lodged with district electoral boards, many of which set to work immediately. The CHP raised an objection with Gürdal’s Istanbul board, which called a halt to the citywide recount of invalid votes, citing precedents from previous YSK rulings.
This set an unprecedented chain of events in motion as the AKP countered with an application to the YSK, which met at midnight to discuss and then overturn the Istanbul board’s ruling.
It also made Gürdal a target for Turkey’s pro-government media, which attempted to smear the judge in news stories suggesting her husband, retired judge Mehmet Gürdal, had been arrested in connection to the outlawed Gülen religious movement.
The AKP says Gülenists infiltrated state institutions, including the judiciary, and used their influence in a series of efforts to overthrow the government, culminating in the July 2016 coup attempt. Even tangential links to the movement have destroyed public officials’ careers since the coup attempt was thwarted.
In Gürdal’s case, the allegations were based solely on the fact that a Gülen movement suspect shared her husband’s name, as she was forced to say in a written statement.
Yet while the Council of Judges and Prosecutors has confirmed Gürdal’s statement, AKP officials including deputy chair Ali İhsan Yavuz and the party’s representative at the YSK, Recep Özel, have continued to make claims that Gülenists organised electoral fraud in Istanbul.
The claims were given the widest coverage after the state-run Anadolu Agency published a news article, immediately before the YSK ruling was made, alleging that 43 presiding officers at polling stations were linked to the Gülen movement.
In the period leading to the YSK’s decision, AKP and MHP attempts to overcome İmamoğlu’s lead through recounts fell short, and the CHP candidate received his mayor’s mandate from Gürdal’s electoral board on April 17.
In doing so, Gürdal’s Istanbul board had also rejected appeals by the AKP and MHP to stop İmamoğlu from receiving his mandate, and instead recount the Maltepe district ballots once again.
The board’s decisions increased the pressure on Gürdal over the 19 days of İmamoğlu’s administration, and her retirement comes after she was targeted by pro-government media and AKP and MHP-controlled local administrations in Istanbul.
There are early signs that this type of pressure on officials involved in the election will only increase the second time around.
For the first time, the YSK will share lists of presiding officers and members at each polling station with political parties. This had not previously been done to prevent political pressure on polling officials. This move means those officials are in danger of being subjected to the same experience as Gürdal.