by Will Colin-Diamond
UPDATE: On May 6th, the High Election Council announced that it had annulled the results of the Istanbul municipal election following an “extraordinary objection” by the AKP, and scheduled a special election for June 23rd. This development casts serious doubt on the independence of the election authorities, up to this point considered the only bulwark against absolute dictatorship.
The world’s leading jailer of journalists is not a title many nations would bear proudly or willingly. Usual suspects may include Russia, China, Egypt, or Iran, but the current holder is actually the Republic of Turkey—democratic heir to the Ottoman Empire, straddling Europe and Asia. In the years since a failed coup attempt in 2016, the Turkish government under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Air-doh-wahn) has perpetrated a massive crackdown on elements of Turkish society it perceives as subversive or inconvenient: Kurdish politicians, university professors, judges, police personnel, journalists—even foreign nationals.
During Erdoğan’s 11 year tenure as Prime Minister of Turkey (2003-2014), despite initially garnering support based on his promotion of secular economic development, increased ties with the European Union, and zero tolerance for corruption, Erdoğan became increasingly authoritarian and Islamist as the years wore on—and his rhetoric and strategy appear to have shifted accordingly. Case in point: a clear program of creeping islamization, increasing the role of religion in public affairs in a country whose founding principles were famously opposed to just that. One can only speculate about the underlying motives behind this departure from his initial campaign promises of secular economic development, but Erdoğan’s close ties to Fethullah Gülen—an influential Islamic preacher—during his first decade in power suggest a skillful political calculus. Their relations soured following an incriminating corruption scandal in 2013 that suddenly pitted the two against each other. Erdoğan accused Gülen of being the mastermind of all of Turkey’s misfortunes, labeling his movement a terrorist organization (FETӦ) and blaming it for the mass protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park the same year.
Since then, Erdoğan and his media allies have situated Gülenists as a fifth column in the Turkish government and military that is working to undermine democracy to their own nefarious ends. Nearly every encroachment on civil liberties and human rights has since been justified by the threat of FETӦ, such as the two-year state of emergency that was declared following the 2016 coup attempt, which—true to form—was attributed to Gülen himself.
It’s reasonable to wonder what kind of democracy would tolerate such severe repression, but for the past three years, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has carried every major election, including a constitutional referendum that actually expanded presidential powers. However, these have been narrow majorities—a numerous but fractured opposition based in the Kurdish Southeast and large urban centers in the West has struggled to overcome differences and compete with Erdoğan’s popularity and AKP unity—at least, until now.
In municipal and provincial-level elections in March 2019, the AKP suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), losing the mayorships of Istanbul and Ankara—the largest and capital city respectively. But what caused this shocking upset? Has the spirit of Turkish democracy awakened? As heartening as that sounds, the consensus is a bit more pragmatic. The Turkish Lira has fallen almost 65% against the dollar in the last five years. The last summer also witnessed another precipitous drop in the Lira as tensions with the United States over an imprisoned American pastor reached a high point, with Trump threatening sanctions. Foreign investment has declined due to increasing concerns over the independence of Turkey’s Central Bank as Erdoğan has intervened to keep interest rates low. The economy officially entered recession in mid-March, ending a decade of uninterrupted growth, and commodities and food prices have skyrocketed. All this came to a head as voters went to the polls intending to rebuke the AKP. Perhaps the classic Clinton-era “it’s the economy, stupid” rings true here.
However, credit is also due to the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which, in an effort to avoid splitting the vote, strategically did not nominate candidates in cities where the CHP had a strong chance of winning. This, combined with strong organizing on the part of the CHP (thousands of volunteers in Istanbul were mobilized to monitor ballot boxes, enabling the party to keep an independent tally of votes) as well as defections from middle-class AKP voters, led to the miracle in March. But is Erdoğan simply going to put up with the results?
For the time being, it looks as if he has no choice. To blatantly defy the popular vote would undermine his claims of legitimacy even among his most ardent supporters, and the ensuing chaos would not bode well for a fragile economy. In the past few weeks, the AKP has desperately tried to reverse the outcome in Istanbul, petitioning the High Election Council (YSK) for a recount, which was rejected. The YSK instead announced that it will investigate some 40,000 potentially fraudulent votes, but the election is almost certainly over. What this means for Turkey’s future is anyone’s guess—the next presidential election is in 2023, which leaves plenty of time to undermine, smear, and potentially even arrest the opposition. That said, Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu and Ankara mayor Mansur Yavaş have been given an extraordinary opportunity to prove to the Turkish people that there is another way. Perhaps there is hope.
Image by Aris Gionis