FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Ekrem Imamoglu, main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate for mayor of Istanbul, wait for him to visit Anitkabir, the mausoleum of modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in Ankara, Turkey, April 2, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/File Photo
April 5, 2019
By Ali Kucukgocmen and Orhan Coskun
ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) – It was midnight on election night when Turkey’s main opposition party finally believed it had overturned a decade and a half of failure at the polls and delivered a stinging defeat to the country’s master campaigner, President Tayyip Erdogan.
The candidate of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) for mayor of Ankara was comfortably ahead in the capital, but in Istanbul – the biggest prize in Sunday’s local elections – Erdogan’s ruling AK Party candidate had declared victory.
CHP politicians and supporters, who had endured more than a dozen election and referendum losses at the hands of Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AKP since 2002, were well accustomed to crushing disappointment once the ballots were counted.
This time was different.
“At around 12 a.m. we realized that we were clearly the winners of the election, that we had won,” said Suleyman Celebi, an aide to CHP Istanbul candidate Ekrem Imamoglu.
The party’s own data, he said, showed they had defeated Erdogan’s close ally and former prime minister Binali Yildirim, despite an exhaustive and bitter two-month campaign waged by the president and backed by an overwhelmingly pro-government media.
Once they saw the numbers, Imamoglu and his team refused to back down. “We believed after that that there was no turning back, and that we would win,” Celebi told Reuters.
That newfound confidence, supported by initial results the next morning showing Imamoglu had narrowly beaten Yildirim, was forged in an opposition campaign that contrasted sharply with Erdogan’s high-profile, confrontational election strategy.
The softly-spoken Imamoglu, spurning the kind of mass rallies which Erdogan addressed daily, sought to win over a broad spectrum of voters with a positive message, meeting many of them face-to-face in a campaign which even his opponents acknowledged struck a chord with the electorate.
Celebi said Turks, tiring of “divisive and polarizing language” from their leaders, warmed to a new style of politics. “This time we saw an open will to vote for Ekrem Imamoglu across all parts of society,” he said.
The CHP made a formal alliance with the breakaway nationalist Iyi (Good) Party and also won votes in Istanbul from supporters of the pro-Kurdish HDP party, which chose not to field a mayoral candidate there to boost Imamoglu’s chances.
Confirmation of defeat in Istanbul – a city of 15 million people – and Ankara would not reduce Erdogan’s sweeping presidential powers, but would seriously dent the aura of invincibility he has built up during 16 years of ever-tighter control over the country.
His AKP, which has challenged results in both Ankara and Istanbul, still won 51.6 percent of the national vote together with its nationalist MHP alliance partner, down from 53.7 percent in parliamentary elections last year.
Three party sources who spoke to Reuters all said there were flaws in a campaign which struck a relentlessly belligerent tone, linking Erdogan’s opponents to terrorists and painting the vote bleakly as a “matter of survival” for Turkey.
“Maybe we should have given another message instead of ‘survival’,” said one source at AKP headquarters in Ankara who described it as ill-suited for voters worried about living standards and local services.
As early as January, AKP officials were sounding the alarm over falling public support amid high inflation and rising unemployment.
Authorities responded to soaring food prices by setting up stalls in Ankara and Istanbul selling subsidized vegetables.
That too may have backfired, the same source said, as TV footage of people queueing for food revived images of “old Turkey” and the chronic inflation of the 1990s. “Long lines being formed disrupted the perception of the AK Party,” he said.
Another party source said the AKP was still missing former campaign manager Erol Olcok, a close friend of Erdogan who masterminded AKP election victories before he was killed on an Istanbul bridge during a failed military coup in 2016.
In recent elections, the AKP could not “find its groove”, he said.
Praising the CHP’s strategy of focusing on “direct contact with the people”, a third source said: “If we had paid attention to the messages from the start and then taken necessary steps, the results could have been different today.”
For Imamoglu, now preparing to take over Turkey’s largest city and govern 15 million people with a projected expenditure of 24 billion lira ($4.3 billion), the campaign is over but the battle not yet won.
The AKP has appealed results of all 39 districts in Istanbul. A party official said on Thursday that once the recount was complete, the AKP’s candidate would emerge on top.
Imamoglu says the electoral board “must do its job” and declare him victor but, in keeping with the tone of his campaign, he has stressed consensus over confrontation.
“We really need to help each other,” he said a day after the vote, as it became clear the close result could trigger a bitter dispute. “I would like to remind you that we walk side by side on the same path, that we are in the same boat.”
($1 = 5.5907 liras)
(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Editing by Dominic Evans and Gareth Jones)
Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan cheer during a rally for the upcoming local elections in Istanbul, Turkey, March 30, 2019. REUTERS/Murad Sezer
March 30, 2019
By Tuvan Gumrukcu
ANKARA (Reuters) – Turks go to the polls on Sunday in local elections that President Tayyip Erdogan has described as a matter of survival for the country.
Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for more than 16 years thanks to strong economic growth and supreme campaigning skills, has become the country’s most popular, yet also most divisive, leader in modern history.
However, he could be dealt an electoral blow with polls indicating his ruling AK Party (AKP) may lose control of the capital Ankara, and even Istanbul, the country’s largest city.
With the economy contracting following a currency crisis last year in which the lira lost more than 30 percent of its value, some voters appeared ready to punish Erdogan who has ruled with an increasingly uncompromising stance.
This week, as authorities again scrambled to shore up the lira, Erdogan cast the country’s economic woes as resulting from attacks by the West, saying Turkey would overcome its troubles following Sunday’s vote and adding he was “the boss” of the economy.
“The aim behind the increasing attacks toward our country ahead of the elections is to block the road of the big, strong Turkey,” Erdogan told one of his six rallies in Istanbul on Saturday.
Sunday’s elections, in which Turks will vote for mayors and other local officials across the country, will be the first since Erdogan assumed sweeping presidential powers last year and will be a reckoning for his government, which has come under fire for its economic policies and record on human rights.
Voting starts at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) and polls close at 5 p.m., with a clear picture of the winners probably emerging around midnight.
Defeat in either Ankara or Istanbul would bring to an end a nearly quarter century rule by Erdogan’s AKP or its predecessors in those cities and deal a symbolic blow to Turkey’s leader.
Ahead of the vote, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Iyi (Good) Party formed an electoral alliance to rival that of the AKP and its nationalist MHP partners.
The pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), which Erdogan has accused of links to Kurdish militants, has not made an official alliance and is not fielding candidates for mayor in Istanbul or Ankara, which is likely to benefit the CHP.
The HDP denies links to the outlawed militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
In the days leading up to the vote, Erdogan has held around 100 rallies across the country, speaking 14 times in different districts of Istanbul over the past two days alone and more than four times in Ankara throughout his campaign.
He has described the elections as an existential choice for Turkey, blasting his rivals as terrorist supporters aiming to topple Turkey. He has warned that if the opposition candidate wins in Ankara, residents would “pay a price”.
His opponents have denied the accusations and challenged his characterization of the elections as a matter of survival, saying Erdogan had led the country to its current state.
“What matter of survival? We’re electing mayors. What does this have anything to do with the country’s survival?” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the CHP, told a rally in Eskisehir.
With reference to Erdogan, Kilicdaroglu said: “If there is a survival issue in Turkey, it’s because of you.”
(Editing by Dominic Evans and David Holmes)
An election banner of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, with the Byzantine-era monument of Hagia Sophia in the background, is pictured in Istanbul, Turkey, March 28, 2019. REUTERS/Murad Sezer
March 29, 2019
By Dominic Evans and Ali Kucukgocmen
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Less than a year after Tayyip Erdogan celebrated election triumph with fireworks in Ankara, Turkey’s all-powerful leader faces the embarrassment of losing his capital in local polls marred by bitter campaign rhetoric and economic storm clouds.
Erdogan has ruled Turkey for 16 years with an ever-tightening grip and his June 2018 national election victory vastly expanded his presidential powers, alarming Western allies who fear Turkey is drifting deeper into authoritarianism.
But the 65-year-old president could be brought down to earth on Sunday when Turks vote in municipal elections which threaten to inflict the first defeat for his Islamist-rooted AK Party in Ankara or the country’s biggest city and business hub, Istanbul.
Erdogan has portrayed the vote as an existential choice for Turkey, blasting his domestic opponents as terrorist supporters and even invoking the New Zealand mosque killings as examples of the broader threats he says Turkey faces.
“It is a matter of survival against those who want to divide this country and tear it to pieces,” he told hundreds of cheering supporters at a rally earlier this month in central Istanbul’s Eyup Sultan district, next to a 19th-century mosque.
He has toured the country for weeks speaking up to eight times a day – a punishing routine which showcased the supreme campaigning skills that have made him the most popular and powerful leader since modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
It also highlighted, his critics say, Erdogan’s growing reliance on divisive rhetoric since a currency crisis in August ended years of strong economic growth which had helped deliver successive election wins for his AKP, attracting support from well beyond its conservative Muslim core.
A steep fall in the lira last Friday revived memories of last year’s meltdown, and provoked a flurry of stop-gap measures to halt a slump on the eve of voting which could erode support.
For many Turks, the vote is all about whether Erdogan can still deliver a decent standard of living.
“A crushing majority of people – including of course voters from the government party and its partners – think the economy is the number one problem in Turkey,” said political analyst Murat Yetkin.
Some polls give the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate in Ankara, Mansur Yavas, a lead over his AKP rival. In Istanbul, where the AKP is fielding former prime minister Binali Yildirim, the race appears close with the CHP.
Other cities may also be seized by the secularist opposition party.
REFERENDUM ON ERDOGAN
Analysts caution against reading too much into polling data – Erdogan won a first-round presidential victory last year, defying many expectations – and even if the AKP were to lose, it would not diminish the president’s official powers.
But those very powers that he assumed last year leave him increasingly exposed when things go wrong.
“The whole system has been so centralized around one individual that even a municipal election is a referendum on Erdogan himself,” said Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of Teneo political risk advisers.
Defeat in either city would bring to an end a quarter century of rule by Erdogan’s AKP and its Islamist predecessors, and deal a symbolic blow to a leader who launched his career in local politics and served as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s.
For two months he has addressed rally after rally, repeating well-honed presentations that include campaign songs, gifts of tea to supporters and lists of AKP achievements from garbage clearing to home building and infrastructure mega-projects.
Overwhelmingly supportive media broadcast hours of live coverage. Campaign posters proclaim that Istanbul is “a love story” for the AKP, and municipal duties are a “labour of love”.
But Erdogan also promises his political opponents he will “bury them in the ballot boxes” just as Turkey’s armed forces have killed militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which he regularly links to the pro-Kurdish HDP party.
In the speech in Eyup Sultan he said CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, an election ally of the HDP, was “arm in arm” with a terrorist organization. “Who is behind him? Terrorists are behind him. Mr Kemal is walking together with them”.
The CHP and HDP deny any links to the PKK.
To his passionate supporters, Erdogan is speaking a self-evident truth. “I see, I hear, and I believe what I see and hear – not just what Reis (the chief) says,” Ismail Zeybek, a 40-year-old electrician, said at the rally.
Others say that by portraying the vote as a question of survival, the president is splitting his country. “What kind of relation could there be between local elections and existence? He is trying to win votes by polarizing,” said Mert Efe, a resident of Istanbul’s Besiktas district, a CHP stronghold.
When a lone gunman opened fire in two mosques in New Zealand a fortnight ago, Erdogan said if anyone tried to come to Turkey to do harm they would be sent back “in caskets” like Australian and New Zealand troops who fought Ottoman soldiers in Gallipoli a century ago.
He repeatedly showed extracts from the gunman’s manifesto, which he said threatened Turkey and Erdogan himself, as well as blurred footage from the shooting itself – even after New Zealand’s foreign minister flew to Turkey to ask him to stop.
“Looking at the rhetoric he is using, we have never seen this before on a municipal level. It’s unprecedented,” Piccoli said. “This concentration of power is running short of ideas, that is why he is pushing more and more this nationalist, religious agenda.”
In the final days of campaigning Erdogan also revived calls for Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia museum – the foremost cathedral in Christendom for 900 years and then one of Islam’s greatest mosques for 500 years until 1935 – to become a mosque again.
FOUR MORE YEARS?
After winning a 2017 referendum on his powerful executive presidency, and then last year’s hard-fought parliamentary and presidential elections, Erdogan could in theory enjoy the next four years free from electoral challenge.
A poor showing on Sunday, however, would strain his parliamentary alliance with the nationalist MHP party, raising the possibility that Erdogan could be back on the campaign trail sooner than the next scheduled national elections in 2023.
If the AKP suffers a “large-scale shock” involving the loss of both Ankara and Istanbul, or saw the share of the vote taken by the AKP/MHP alliance fall well below 50 percent, it would be a clear sign that Erdogan’s party is on the wane, said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and analyst at Carnegie Europe.
“That would have consequences over time. It would make it more difficult to hold onto power through 2023, especially given that this perceived political weakness would be combined with the economic slowdown,” Ulgen said.
If the vote does not go the way Erdogan hopes, he will be faced with a more immediate decision on Sunday night.
Asked whether he plans to address supporters again as he did triumphantly from his AKP headquarters in Ankara last June, Erdogan said his balcony speech had become an election night tradition.
“We did this in every election. I think it would not be right if we didn’t do it at this election. But we have not sat down with colleagues to make this decision yet.”
(Additional reporting by Omer Berberoglu and Daren Butler; Editing by Pravin Char)
FILE PHOTO: Special Counsel Robert Mueller departs after briefing the U.S. House Intelligence Committee on his investigation of potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 20, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein/File Photo
March 25, 2019
By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Special Counsel Robert Mueller has concluded that nobody associated with President Donald Trump’s campaign “conspired or knowingly coordinated” with Russia during the 2016 presidential election, and U.S. Attorney General William Barr says he does not see enough evidence to charge Trump with obstruction of justice.
But that does not necessarily mean Trump is in the clear – he still faces multiple investigations into his business and other aspects of his political campaign, and Democrats are launching a wave of probes from Capitol Hill.
Following are some possible next steps as Washington continues to wrestle over Russia’s role in the election, the conduct of Mueller’s investigation and other aspects of the Trump-Russia saga.
HOW MUCH OF MUELLER’S REPORT CAN BE MADE PUBLIC?
Barr said he wants to release as much of Mueller’s report as he can, as long as it does not undermine legal proceedings that should be kept secret, such as grand jury interviews, or interfere with other ongoing investigations. He is now going through the report to determine what can be released.
Democrats are pressing Barr to release the entire report so they can draw their own conclusions. If he does not do so, expect a protracted tug-of-war that could end up in court.
THE QUESTION OF OBSTRUCTION
Foremost on Democrats’ minds is whether Trump obstructed justice by interfering with Mueller’s probe and other investigations.
Barr says he did not, but he adds that Mueller presented evidence on both sides of the question. Democrats will press for access to Mueller’s full report – as well as the underlying evidence he collected over the course of an investigation that interviewed 500 witnesses and issued more than 2,800 subpoenas.
The Democratic chairs of six House of Representatives committees said on Friday they expected that evidence to be turned over on request to their panels, which cover everything from taxes to banking.
The House Judiciary Committee is also expected to continue its own investigation into alleged obstruction of justice after requesting documents from 81 people and organizations several weeks ago.
TRUMP’S ALLIES SAY IT’S TIME TO MOVE ON – OR MAYBE NOT
The Russia probe has dogged Trump’s presidency from his first months in office. Trump allies say it is now time to move on and focus on substantive issues like trade and the economy.
But some of Trump’s biggest supporters on Capitol Hill do not want to put the issue to rest just yet.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, a Republican, has said he wants to investigate whether top officials at the Justice Department discussed forcing Trump from office, and is pressing the FBI to hand over documents relating to their surveillance of Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser on Trump’s election team.
BARR ON THE HILL
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat, said he planned to ask Barr to testify before his committee to explain why he thought Trump should not be charged with obstruction of justice.
Many Democrats are already suspicious of Barr’s views on the issue. As a private lawyer, Barr wrote an unsolicited memo to the Justice Department last year arguing that Mueller’s obstruction inquiry was “fatally misconceived” and saying that presidents have “all-encompassing” authority over law enforcement investigations, even those that relate to him directly.
Barr’s views of presidential power are relevant not only when it comes to obstruction of justice but other issues like how much the administration is required to cooperate with congressional investigators – which will be a key issue over the next two years.
Barr faced pointed questions from Democrats during his January confirmation hearing. Any session devoted to obstruction of justice and presidential powers could be much more contentious.
Mueller has not spoken publicly over the course of the 22-month investigation, but that might change now that his work is done.
Nadler and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff have said they may try to get him to testify in front of Congress. The questioning might be relatively polite – as a former FBI director and decorated Vietnam War veteran, Mueller is one of the most respected people in Washington.
But his testimony may not be that revealing. Mueller has cultivated a reputation as a scrupulous prosecutor, and he may not be willing to discuss evidence or reach conclusions not contained in his report. Also, as special prosecutor, he is required to defer to Barr as to what can be disclosed to the public.
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Ross Colvin and Peter Cooney)
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