How Turkey’s elections could go wrong

QAMISHLI, Syria (North Press) – Nominally, at least, Turkey is a democracy – the largest between Germany and Pakistan. In reality, no one is quite sure. Throughout two decades in power, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has muzzled the press, imprisoned elected leaders, and undermined the country’s checks and balances. If Turkey’s electorate does indeed give Erdogan the boot, as polls suggest they might, it is not clear that he will acknowledge it, or that there will be a peaceful transfer of power.

Erdogan has survived nearly a dozen elections, referendums, and presidential polls. Most of these have been deemed free, though they have been won by populist rhetoric, manufactured crises, control over the media, and, at times, the slimmest of margins. In 2019, however, the president’s party, the AKP, had to endure its toughest loss yet. During municipal elections that year, four of the five largest cities voted out the AKP in favor of the main opposition party, the CHP. In Istanbul, the AKP forced the electoral commission to re-take the vote, which yielded an even larger margin in favor of the CHP candidate. He was later prosecuted by the Turkish government for trumped-up charges.

The AKP government has also launched a court case against the pro-Kurdish HDP party, which may be closed days before the election. This move follows the imprisonment of scores of HDP representatives in the country’s southeast and their replacement with presidential appointees. Such moves do not increase confidence that the AKP is ready to play by the rules of democracy.

As POMED, a Middle East-centered research group, has outlined, Erdogan has steadily used its control over much of the Turkish media and the courts to present himself in the best light, censor critical voices, and occasionally shut down access to social media sites like Twitter.

Erdogan has also not shied away from using violence to skew elections his way. Pre-election campaigns have often been subject to attacks, particularly directed at opposition parties. Yesterday, May 8, supporters of the MHP party, the AKP’s junior partner in government, stoned the bus of the CHP’s presidential candidate in the eastern city of Erzurum. Violent incidents have also been recorded in Europe, where expatriate Turks have begun to go to the polls.

The use of violence has also been more systematic. As a report by the Rojava Information Center shows, Turkish attacks against northern Syria have been timed to coincide with elections and referendums in Turkey. Invasions targeting Kurdish forces, in particular, have often been used to drum up nationalist support. Since 2016, incursions into Syria have been mounted whenever Erdogan’s approval rating slipped below 50%. A further incursion in 2022 was only halted by Russia’s and the US’ protests.

An additional complication is the fact that, as a recent Foreign Policy piece laid out, no Turkish president has ever been peacefully voted out of office. This is not just a historical curiosity, but a symptom for the lack of mechanisms available to hand over power peacefully, and the culture of coups and violence which have shaped the republic’s young history.

Far from a trend towards democratization, Erdogan has in fact amassed more power than anyone since Ataturk, the country’s founder. Since an attempted coup against him in 2016, Erdogan has purged the armed forces of adversaries and replaced the leaders of most civil institutions with yes-men. Dislodging him and his governing apparatus will be no easy feat.

On May 14 (or May 28, should the presidential race need a second round), Erdogan might thus order the electoral commission to annul the results and order fresh elections; he could still launch an invasion of Syria and claim extraordinary powers, potentially pushing back a second round; or he could use the armed forces or his personal paramilitary groups to take power outright.

Recent comments made by Erdogan should worry observers. Last week, he told supporters he would not let the country fall to a president supported by Qandil, referring to the headquarters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which, the president says, support the CHP hopeful. Other AKP officials have made similar remarks. To what degree this is a threat and not just rhetoric is anybody’s guess. Erdogan himself has never been democratically unseated. He was dethroned only once, as Istanbul’s mayor in 1998, when he was imprisoned and his party was outlawed.

Reporting by Sasha Hoffman