Turkey elections: A story of resistance
In the 100th year of its founding, the Republic of Turkey is about to elect its new president by universal suffrage in a two-round majority vote for a five-year term. Running for a third successive term, Erdoğan has never been so challenged in his 20 years in power. His opponent in the race for presidency is Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the secular center-left candidate of an opposition made of six political parties. This historical union constitutes their strength whereas their great political discrepancy – they range from pro-Kurdish to ultranationalist parties– is their irresistible weakness in a society that has become increasingly polarized over the last decades. The severe economic crisis that has been ongoing since 2021, with inflation climbing above 83% in 2022, as well as the two terrible earthquakes last February, which were followed by poor rescue management, led many to predict the end of Erdoğan’s reign. However, by gaining about 49% of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections on 14 May, he reminded political commentators that major crises have always been his driving force. He always managed to turn them to his advantage with the support of his electoral basis. This is what has allowed him to deftly brush aside all accusations of autocratic rule, despite the increased authoritarianism that the country has witnessed since 2013. Yet, for both sides, democracy has undoubtedly been the leitmotif of these elections. And it continues to be so, a few days before the second round on Sunday 28 May, both candidates having yet a very different conceptual and empirical approach to democracy.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s program contains principles such as the strict separation of powers, the return to a balanced parliamentary system, and the respect for human rights, but carefully ignores the Kurdish question. By contrast, the incumbent president uses the conjuncture of crisis that his policies have generated to assert the need for the stability that he embodies, also against the terrorist threat allegedly represented by his rival’s coalition. Erdoğan bases his strength and legitimacy on his indisputable enduring popularity. His political longevity challenges the reign of the founding father of Turkey, Atatürk. The choice of the first-round echoes with the electoral victory of Adnan Menderes, stemming from an anti-Kemalist political current, during the young republic’s first multiparty elections on the 14 May 1950. While he cannot replace him, he strives to compete with him in history books and to supplant him in the hearts of the Turks. Elections are usually approached as a plebiscite. Therefore, Erdoğan defines and values democracy as the expression of the nation through the votes. However, under the rule of law, the principle of legitimacy is subordinated to the respect of legality, and therein comes the rub.
Erdoğan’s very candidacy is contentious. The Turkish constitution, which was amended in 2017, limits the exercise of the office of president to two terms. Yet the Erdoğan camp justifies this third candidacy by claiming that the constitutional amendment in effect reset the clock on his terms. The second justification relies on the constitutional provision according to which an exception to the two-term limit is possible if the Turkish National Assembly decided to be dissolved by a two-thirds majority during the second presidential term. The legal possibility was yet hampered by the political leeway, as Erdoğan did not have so much Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputies behind him. Bypassing the parliamentary vote, Erdoğan used his presidential prerogatives, validated by the High Electoral Council, by decreeing a roundabout dissolution on the basis of early elections. Initially planned for June 2023, the presidential elections, which take place simultaneously with the parliamentary elections since the constitutional reform of 2017, have been brought forward by a month; in other words, before the end of Erdoğan’s second term. He was thus able to present his candidacy for the third time while waving the banner of the rule of law.
This has not been an isolated elusive electoral phenomenon. One of the major issues was the conduct of elections in the regions affected by the earthquakes, where a state of emergency was declared rather than a state of natural disaster. This offered significantly more leeway to public authorities. In addition, given the still very fragile local situation, many people were unable to prove their identity, or most importantly, could not fulfill the basic condition of three months residency before the election to be registered on the electoral roll. Managing over 3.5 million of displaced people, of whom only 133 000 have been able to re-register in their hometowns, has represented a huge administrative challenge. The elections were nevertheless carried out. Disillusioned, afraid of the unknown of the post- Erdoğan era, or grateful for the hastily constructed prefabs, these regions largely voted in favor of the incumbent president in the first round of the elections. And nothing indicates that this will change in the second round. Even though no manipulation of this chaotic situation seems to have been reported, the possibility cannot be entirely excluded. The memory of previous electoral irregularities, such as the power cuts during the final count in 2014 (officially due to a cat getting into an electricity transformer!), or of unsealed envelopes and stolen ballots in 2017, are still fresh. The conduct of the polling on 14 May appears not to have been spared from similar maneuvers. During the counting of ballots, AKP representatives submitted systematic objections using millions of pre-printed forms to slow down the counting, dragging thus the recording of the result of the ballots out in the system. Opposition leaders made statements on that evening, urging people not to believe the results that Anadolu Ajansı, the official Turkish press agency, was already announcing although the counting was still in progress. This information was relayed to the international press agencies. The margin in Erdoğan’s favor seemed to ensure that his tight -and thus credible- victory would be recognized in the eyes of the world and, by extension, in those of his own people. Not only does this kind of international resonance gave his power more legitimacy. It also set the framework of a rightful contestation of fraud in case of a reverse scenario of his electoral defeat, which still was possible since the counting ended with the ballots of bigger metropoles, often less favorable to Erdoğan.
One also remembers Erdoğan’s institutional maneuvers to avoid or cancel electoral defeats, like the annulation in 2019 of Istanbul’s mayoral election results before eventually admitting those of the new elections, which confirmed the victory of the rival Republican People’s Part (CHP) party led by Ekrem İmamoğlu. This showed another problematic aspect of the current state of the rule of law in Turkey, namely its practical scope that normally implies independent courts. Many studies have shown how the politization of the judiciary and the crackdown on political opposition that have taken an unprecedented turn after the coup attempt in 2015 have led to the exile of many intellectuals and entrepreneurs. They also dramatically limited the freedom of expression of political and civil opponents such as Selahattin Demirtaş, the former leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), imprisoned since 2016, or of the businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala, imprisoned since 2017. With the control of 90% of Turkish media as well as a social media crackdown by the current government, the threat of politicians being held accountable by the “fourth estate” has been neutralized. This concentration of power has often led to call Erdoğan being likened to a sultan, an assessment, however, with which I cannot entirely agree. Until the mid-19th century, the Ottoman sultans generally ruled within a framework of good governance and various forms of (non-strict) separation of powers. Characterizations of the Ottoman Empire that constitutes to be a bias today, such as Montesquieu’s famous “oriental despotism”, were in fact often expressing covert criticism of the own government to avoid censorship. The autocracy displayed by Erdoğan seems ironically to be more a legacy of the very leader with whom he is competing, Atatürk himself.
Interestingly, the entire electoral process has carried a moral dimension formulated as “honor” (namus), which is a sensitive spot in Turkey’s social values. When referring to the honorability of a president who accepts to resign in case of electoral defeat, Kılıçdaroğlu invokes the sense of integrity and honesty in line with the values carried out by the rule of law. By contrast, Erdoğan uses the term “honor” to designate the ballot boxes. They are “the honor of democracy” that need to be protected from irregularities, shifting the responsibility of political authority on the citizen and the parties. In his quite patriarchal moralistic narrative of “honor”, there is a puzzling sexualized metaphor. Democracy is a woman. Protecting her from being raped (theft of ballots, etc) is preserving her honor and her family’s, i.e. the party and by extension, the nation. In addition to being an excellent strategist, Erdoğan understands the social psychology better than any of his predecessors and knows how this argument can resonate among the population and make him appear as a strong and loyal man. It also has de potential of creating turmoil on the ground if needed. Tragically, what emerges from this metaphor is that the professed protection of ballots articulates his wish for control and possession rather than for ensuring a safe ground for the expression of the nation’s will, which a democracy would call for.
When we have a look to the overall bleak picture surrounding the elections, there seems to be little room for minds not biased by the media or the fear of crackdowns, which jeopardizes the rule of law per se. Yet the Turkish electorate is not discouraged, and the faith in the possibility of change through the elections is still very much alive. Western democracies, faced with growing electoral apathy, can only dream of the 89% voter turnout achieved in the first round of elections. Erdoğan’s likely victory, with the support of the third challenger of the first round, the ultranationalist Sinan Oğan, should not overshadow the important achievements revealed by this election campaign. Although a far-fetched alliance, the oppositional front united around Kılıçdaroğlu is remarkable in a country that remains very nationalistic. It managed to hand Erdoğan his first personal electoral defeat in 20 years, as he was previously used to winning outright in the first round. Moreover, the bumpy EU accession process (started in the 1960’s!), of which the demeaning double standard has deeply disappointed the population, did however not distract them from believing in democratic values. Transcending an outdated religious/secular dichotomy, civil society has proven able of mobilizing during the electoral campaign and during the election itself via for instance citizen-observers volunteering to participate survey at polling stations. Clearly, Turkey’s civil society remains an important breeding ground for democracy that Erdoğan’s government authoritarianism has been unable to break.