“Democracy has won,” Sabah, a pro-government newspaper, proclaimed in a headline Monday.
But even amid this new optimism, Turks were reminded Monday that political freedoms remain at risk as a trial of 16 civil society activists opened outside Istanbul. The activists are accused of trying to overthrow the government, based on evidence human rights groups have dismissed as unfounded.
A day after the election, a front-page story in Cumhuriyet, an opposition paper, said that “one-man” rule had been “thrashed.”
The outcome badly tarnished Erdogan’s political reputation, analysts said. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, a formidable political machine, failed to win even districts of Istanbul where it has enjoyed bedrock support, according to the results.
Erdogan’s personal attempts to sway the race in favor of Binali Yildirim, his former prime minister, also had backfired: The president’s fiery stump speeches seemed only to amplify Imamoglu’s conciliatory rhetoric.
Erdogan faces no immediate political threat, with four years left of his presidential term. But the results have left him more exposed to criticism — of his economic policies and authoritarian style of leadership — than he had been in years.
The election was “an answer to Erdogan’s increasingly arrogant rhetoric against all his adversaries, as well as against his moves to rule the country single-handedly,” Murat Yetkin, a political analyst, wrote in a post-election essay. The Turkish leader probably would instigate a purge of those within his party who were responsible for the humiliating defeat, Yetkin wrote.
But that would not help, he wrote. Rather, it “could accelerate the groupings and cracks within the party.”
The cracks were already evident. After Erdogan’s AKP challenged the March election, Ahmet Davutoglu, once a close ally of Erdogan, criticized the party’s direction in a 15-page statement, sparking rumors of a breakaway faction. Another former Erdogan ally, Abdullah Gul, who used to be president, made comments outside a polling place Sunday that were widely seen as suggesting that he had voted for the opposition.
After the results on Sunday showed the AKP had been defeated for a second time, Mustafa Yeneroglu, an AKP member of parliament, suggested the party had lost its way.
“We must let go of the past and the myths,” he wrote on Twitter. The party needed to focus on young people, “the balance of power and fundamental rights” — an apparent reference to Erdogan’s accumulation of power.
For many, the AKP’s swift acceptance of the election results Sunday eased fears that Turkey’s democracy was in jeopardy. Yildirim, smiling, conceded the race less than three hours after the polls had closed. Soon afterward, Erdogan sent Imamoglu a congratulatory message on Twitter.
But Turkey’s institutions, particularly its judiciary, faced another critical test with the opening Monday of the trial of the civil society activists.
The activists, including Osman Kavala, a prominent businessman and philanthropist, are accused of instigating the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. The demonstrations were sparked by a government plan to construct an Ottoman-style barracks in the park and grew into nationwide anti-government protests.
Erdogan and his allies frequently have deployed Gezi Park as a cudgel in Turkey’s culture wars, drawing a line between protesters they characterize as immoral and patriotic Turks. In the case that began Monday, government prosecutors — referencing the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and other protest movements — accused the defendants of fomenting the protests, with the backing of George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist.
In an analysis of the government’s lengthy indictment, Human Rights Watch said the case “bears the hallmarks of a politically-motivated effort to turn into criminal prosecution completely unsubstantiated claims.” The charges, it added, “are not only manifestly ill-founded, but also an effort by government authorities to usurp the judicial system for political purposes.”
Kavala, who founded an organization that promotes diversity, culture and human rights, has been imprisoned since November 2017. “The accusation that led me to be detained for twenty months is based on a series of unreasonable claims and assumptions that are not supported by evidence,” Kavala told the court Monday, according to a copy of his testimony posted on the Free Osman Kavala website.
“A fantastic fiction was produced by distorting concrete facts,” he said.
Yeneroglu, the AKP lawmaker, also questioned the prosecution, writing on Twitter on Monday that after reading the indictment, “I could not find any financial evidence that Kavala was the ‘organizer, director or financier of the Gezi events.’ ”
“I hope a convincing judicial decision will be given to the public as soon as possible,” he added.