Istanbul & Brexit

Istanbul & Brexit


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The financial and cultural heart of Turkey, Istanbul, awaits an interesting few years of change. On Sunday, Ekrem Imamoglu, the candidate for the Republican People’s Party (CHP) was elected mayor of Istanbul. This was a consequence of the March 31st local election results being annulled by Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council (YSK), despite requests by the ruling AK Party to recount the votes in Istanbul after widespread allegations of fraud in tallying votes.

A popular but distorted narrative is that AK Party unilaterally chose to cancel Istanbul’s March 31st election results after a narrow loss to the CHP. Yet, AK Party requested merely for the votes to be recounted due to major inconsistencies in vote tallies. It was the independent YSK that then decided, due to legal nuance, to renew the election despite this option clearly being unpopular.

The image painted of Turkey by foreign media is continuously one of a country that does not value democracy. Yet, the weeks leading up to June 23rd perhaps saw some of the most intense and open political debates in recent Turkish history. A week before the election, AK Party candidate Yildirim, former Prime Minister and Speaker of Parliament, and CHP candidate Imamoglu had a televised debate; this was a first in Turkey since elections in 2002. Just five minutes after preliminary results, at 19:20 local time, Mr. Yildirim accepted the results and congratulated Mr. Imamoglu, stating his hopes that the two major parties would cooperate. President Erdogan later tweeted his congratulations for Mr. Imamoglu, as well.

EU campaigners wave the EU and UK flags outside parliament in London, Britain, 31 January 2019. EPA-EFE/ANDY RAIN

EU campaigners wave the EU and UK flags outside parliament in London, Britain, 31 January 2019. EPA-EFE/ANDY RAIN

Though many are framing the loss of AK Party’s control over Istanbul as a major blow to the governing party, this is an overly simplistic way to view the situation. After all this was a local election…

The same narrative that views Sunday’s election results as fatal for AK Party, a party that I continue to be very involved in as a former cabinet minister and a former member of Parliament representing Istanbul, frames AK Party and President Erdogan as increasingly authoritarian. The Party has been assailed with countless allegations of election rigging, which now make no sense, in order to explain the Party’s historic popularity in Turkey. The reality is that most of Turkey is socially conservative, and is in favor of institutional reform, the principles upon which we founded the Party. What this recent election proves, if anything, is that Turkey is a true democracy and that any political party in modern-day Turkey can still be held accountable by the will of the people. Given that reforms in 2016 introduced civilian control over the military, stemming Turkey’s long history of military coups, and a testament to the strength of our democracy in the form of Sunday’s election results, I am optimistic about the development and future of our democracy.

Indeed, another critical issue that might end up with a renewed election is the uncertainty around Brexit. Following Theresa May’s resignation, Boris Johnson continues to hold a lead, albeit a narrowing one, over Jeremy Hunt to be the next Prime Minister. Mr. Johnson has pledged a “do or die” solution to Brexit, claiming that Britain will leave the European Union by October 31st with or without a deal. This poses a major issue; Mr. Johnson has claimed that article 24 of the World Trade Organization’s general agreement will allow Britain to continue zero-tariff trade with its EU partners even if there is no deal. As many analysts have stated, however, the article stipulates that this can only be done if two trading partners “plan and schedule” a permanent settlement beforehand, which is highly unlikely given the short time frame.

This places the onus upon Johnson, should he become Mrs. May’s successor, to prioritize EU non-members such as Turkey. Turkey is not only Britain’s 13th largest trading partner overall but also Britain’s 5th largest partner outside of EU countries. Yet, the possibility of a no-deal Brexit and Johnson’s almost fatal “do or die” approach still makes Turkey uneasy. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has stated that Turkey, Poland, and Cyprus will face the greatest level of trade disruptions should Britain leave without a deal, with Turkey having exported $11.1 billion to Britain in 2018. A hard Brexit is expected to cut Turkey’s exports to Britain by some 20%. How smooth diplomatic relations between Turkey and Britain will be, with Johnson who even bears some Turkish heritage, as Prime Minister, is also a prudent question. Johnson is argued to be at the forefront of propagating Islamophobic tendencies in Britain, having led a strongly anti-immigrant Brexit campaign in 2016.

I must admit that the whole Brexit debate is a result of political populism. Cameron, in order to avoid the division among conservatives and to protect his leadership position within the party, posed this complicated question to the people who were not well informed of the consequences of their vote. He thought that he would easily win (like the Scottish independence referendum) the referendum in favour of the UK remaining in the EU. Then individuals like Johnson spearheaded the Brexit campaign for their own political benefit by way of irrational fearmongering and demagoguery. Rather than on the merits of EU membership, people voted on fear of migration, terrorism, unemployment, and the alleged loss of sovereignty and British money to Brussels. Despite this, most of the Scots, the Irish, the city of London as well most of young people voted to remain. Hence the margin of difference in favour of Brexit was narrow.

The more the UK understands what Brexit means the more difficult Brexit becomes, because as the party politics seem to prevail, no politician dares to reverse this impasse. In fact, in the last European Parliament elections, Brexiteers could not make more than 37%. Remainers and undecided altogether got more than 60%.

Turkey naturally would prefer the enlargement-friendly UK to remain in the EU. Turkey would like to see a stronger EU with the UK and Turkey as members. However, if Brexit finally occurs, depending on the form of UK’s future relations with the EU, Turkey and the UK should protect their strong political and trade ties as well as the rights of their respective citizens. Furthermore, Brexit may also have consequences on the island of Cyprus. We hope that the UK will also consult Turkish and Greek Cypriots, co-owners of the Island, on future political and economic arrangements on the island.

The renewal of Istanbul’s municipal elections saw a major change of opinion in a matter of just three months. Perhaps, the renewal of the Brexit referendum after three entire years would also yield some new results.

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