Turkey is gearing up for a pivotal election that will decide its direction of travel for years if not decades to come. As the six-strong Nation Alliance is preparing to face off with President Erdogan on 14 May, the stakes could not be higher.
Voters will decide not only who gets to run Turkey over the next five years but what, in truth, will be the shape of the regime. Since the mid-2010s, the country has lived in a sort of twilight zone. It is no longer a democracy, but it is not yet a fully fledged autocracy either.
On the one hand, there is a strongman in charge, he and his closest allies control the vast resources of the state, the boss single-handedly decides on vital policies—whether it is to cut down interest rates or to launch an overseas military operation—and all checks and balances have long been dismantled.
On the other, opposition parties and voters have not thrown in the towel. They have learned how to operate in an inhospitable environment where the odds are always stacked against them, to overcome their differences and forge common agendas, and, at times, even to prevail. The 2019 local elections led to a resounding opposition win, with the governing AKP losing Istanbul and Ankara.
Most important of all, Turkish citizens have not come to the conclusion that their vote does not matter.
They are prepared to turn out in huge numbers at the polls on election day, whether it is to support Erdogan or to punish him. Democratic habits that have been built over seven decades are hard to erase.
Turkish society has proven resilient in the face of creeping authoritarianisation in the 2010s. Yet that halfway state of affairs—or “competitive authoritarianism”, to borrow a term from Political Science—may prove just a passing stage. Turkey could be at risk of sliding into mature autocracy. A stolen election followed by way of repression could have a deleterious effect on democratic institutions, elections first and foremost.
There are roughly three scenarios of what could happen on May 14 and, potentially, the presidential run-off.
Under the first, the Nation Alliance (consisting of six parties in the opposition, ed.) would score a resounding win with help from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), capturing the presidency and the legislature by a healthy margin. A landslide opposition victory will tie Erdogan and AKP’s hand and leave them with no option but surrender power. Their best hope would be winning the next election, possibly on the wings of rising social discontent against Turkey’s new rulers, fueled by the lacklustre state of the economy.
The second scenario is the exact opposite: Erdogan wins a majority on May 14 or in the run-off with a solid lead ahead of Kemal Kilicdaroglu and the opposition bloc. In that case, what we will end up with is, really, more of the same. Yes, the new-old president will tighten his grip on power but the rules of political life—competition without an even playing field—will not change fundamentally.
Obviously, this is the scenario Erdogan is angling for—emerging victorious in an election which is free but not fair because the incumbent holds most of the cards, including media backing and access to state’s money and other material resources. That way, he could enjoy electoral legitimacy for five more years while the opposition will be left with some chance to gain power in the next contest—e.g. the 2024 local elections.
Yet there is a third, much darker and scarier, scenario. The opposition wins by the thinnest of margins, say 1-2%. Erdogan refuses to surrender power, using institutional tricks and especially his control of the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) to cancel the election or obtain a partial recount of the votes. Eventually, he is proclaimed the winner. Nation Alliance challenges the result. The courts are no arbiter in that under existing rules only YSK, rather than the Constitutional Court or the Council of the State, can hear appeals to YSK’s decisions.
Mass protests follow in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and other big cities. But they lead to a harsh crackdown as happened with the 2013 Gezi demonstrations. People are tear-gassed and beaten, some end up in detention and eventually face trial and jail time, some are killed. Erdogan is enthroned for another period. He says yet another coup aided and abetted by hostile foreign powers has been foiled. The opposition is demoralised and, soon enough, CHP and IYI are at each other’s throats. They are marginalised in parliament, with some factions later co-opted by the presidential palace.
The fall-out of such a scenario on Turkish politics and society will be utterly negative. A stolen election and a crackdown on the opposition, of the kind the HDP suffered post-2015, will set Turkey on a dark path. Repression will beget more repression. The regime will harden into a textbook example of a personalist autocracy. The country will pay a heavy price.
Turkey is not doomed to authoritarian rule. Odds are that it would eventually revert to the sort of flawed democratic system it had until 2015-16. As other strongmen through history and around the world, Erdogan will find it difficult to find a successor and pass the baton.
The regime he built in his image is neither sustainable nor does it deliver on expectations: the governance failure in the response to the February 6 earthquake is a stark and depressing example.
Yet the long term is hardly a consolation to those who have to live and survive in Erdogan’s Turkey. In the short term, they may be in for another period of turbulence.
The views and opinions expressed above are those of the author(s) and do not reflect those of the Free Turkish Press.