Sunday morning -- the day of highly anticipated local elections in Turkey -- brought blue skies and sunshine in Istanbul. Voters turned out early, waiting cheerily in snaking lines outside polling places in Fatih and Pendik, Cihangir, Uskudar and Kadikoy. Then reality set in.
The trouble began with reports of violence in Turkey's southeast, as brawls and gunfights broke out between backers of rival candidates, resulting in at least eight deaths. Reports of vote manipulation soon streamed in from across the country -- polling place workers handing out the wrong envelopes or urging voters to back a specific party; vote-count observers blocked from entering polling places; ballot papers annulled; the niqab serving as an ID card in one conservative district. As of this morning, the count of citizen-submitted reports of fraud and irregularities at one reliable website stood at 289.
Shortly before polls closed, news websites affiliated with the Gulen movement became inaccessible, reportedly subject to cyber attacks (they have since been restored). Early vote counts diverged widely, with the backers of respective parties reporting the numbers in their favor. To top it off, the power went out in several cities across the country, hampering evening vote counts. Some saw a human hand, others pointed to poor weather conditions in eastern regions.
We saw the expected: politicians of all stripes turned out to vote, including Turkey PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan in one of the 1970s-style sports jackets he favors; in a conservative district of Istanbul, bare-chested FEMEN protesters stood on top of tables at a polling place and denounced Turkey's government; and the the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won Istanbul in a tight race, taking the day's biggest prize.
And the unexpected: a story posted on the website of pro-government Daily Sabah, since altered, claimed Erdogan had won the mayoralty in his childhood home of Rize, along the Black Sea; the AKP lost the Hatay (Antakya) mayoralty to the CHP, in possible fallout from its Syria policy; and as of this morning, the vote in Ankara remained disputed and may end up in court.
There were also signs of progress. In the 90-plus years of the republic, no major Turkish city had been run by a woman. Now the country has not one, but three female metropolitan mayors, including the AKP's Fatma Sahin in Turkey's sixth-largest city, Gaziantep. Further, in the Meram district of Konya, Turkey gained its first-ever headscarfed mayor. Turnout reportedly hit a record, with 92 percent of the country's 52.7 million eligible voters taking to the polls. And the Turkish Communist Party (TKP) looked set to record its first-ever mayoral win, in the eastern province of Tunceli.
But this day was about one man. In the end, despite the corruption allegations, the mass protests and shameful leaks, the AKP took about 45 percent of the national vote, making the party a perfect six for six in elections since its 2001 founding and hinting at a one-party state. An empowered, energized Erdogan declared victory long before midnight, warning that his enemies would "pay the price."
With more meaningful elections still to come, it's a safe bet that the crackdowns on opponents of the regime -- journalists and Gulenists, secularists, protesters, progressives, and social media users -- will continue, perhaps even increase. Erdogan is likely to either run for president this August, or alter party rules and campaign for a fourth term as prime minister in parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2015.
The Turkish people have spoken, and if the current results hold, it would seem they’re OK with a corrupt near-police state overseen by a bombastic, dissent-crushing, conspiracy theory-prone strongman. Despite the arrival of spring, Turkey may be looking at a long, dark political winter.