Will Erdoğan keep his word if Turkey says “enough”?

With campaigning hotting up before June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections, Turkey’s leader for the last 15 years, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, declared last week that if the nation one day said “tamam” – done, or enough – then he would step aside. Thousands took to social media to proclaim TAMAM. 

For many, even the idea that the increasingly autocratic Erdoğan might entertain the thought of stepping down offered a glimmer of hope. But is it even possible he would keep his word?  

A transition to democracy is considered incomplete unless government changes hands at least once as a result of free and fair elections. But Turkey has been on the reverse path from democracy towards authoritarianism. If the opposition wins, how Erdoğan acts will show whether Turkey’s transition from democracy is complete.

Erdoğan, facing an array of opposition candidates, currently tops opinion polls, but has less than the 50-percent-plus-one level of support he needs to win in the first round of voting and avoid a run-off election two weeks after June 24.

I am not naïve enough to think a Twitter campaign will directly translate into votes for the opposition, but the TAMAM campaign is not insignificant or irrelevant either. 

Firstly, it was a great example of the opposition setting the agenda and pushing Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) onto the defensive. 

Secondly, in an environment where tweets have led to prosecution and detention, such public statements of opposition are significant. Knowing that others feel the same way has an important role in gaining momentum for protest and change. 

Let us go back to what Erdoğan said though.

“Shouldn’t the opposition, which has been waiting for 16 years to come to power, have bigger aspirations, many more projects?  But they don’t. They have only one trouble and that is to bring down (demolish) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It was our nation that brought us to the Istanbul metropolitan mayorship, AK Party chairmanship, the Prime Ministry, the Presidency. In case our nation one day says “done” (tamam), only then we will withdraw to the sidelines. Together with our nation, every time, we stood against those who have tried to bring us down unjustly and unlawfully, from proponents of tutelage to coup perpetrators. God willing, I believe we will once again give the demolition team the lesson they deserve together with our nation on June 24.”

When Erdoğan refers to the nation, he means only those who voted for him, his own supporters. Erdoğan has always considered his supporters as “the nation”. The tamam campaign was an attempt to challenge Erdoğan’s exclusion of his opponents from “the nation”.

In a previous column for Ahval, I wrote about Erdoğan’s polarising language, his exaltation of his supporters as the nation and vilification of all opposition as traitors, collaborators, or terrorists. He repeats exactly the same pattern in this speech. He refers to the opposition as the “demolition team” whose only goal is bringing him down. He moulds the fear and anxiety of his supporters and ties their fate to his own so they will never say “tamam” to him.

In addressing only his supporters as the nation, he does not care whether the millions who oppose him, such as the 49 percent who voted against new presidential powers in an April 2017 referendum, say “tamam”. He will step down if the nation says “tamam”, but the nation cannot say “tamam” because if you say “tamam” you are not part of the nation.   

The campaign conditions leading up to the elections are far from even resembling a level playing field and Erdoğan will not refrain from using any opportunity his total control over the state apparatus affords him in order to get the outcome he wants. 

But, what if an opposition candidate achieves such a landslide victory that even Erdoğan’s best efforts fail? It is not impossible. People of all political views have real grievances, especially due to the worsening economy. Grassroots organisations are actively training people to become ballot box monitors. The opposition parties all have candidates who are able to connect with and galvanise their followers. Most importantly, both the parties and the people are acting strategically.

Electoral institutions influence the way party systems evolve. It is not a coincidence that the United States, which has a majoritarian electoral system, has a two-party system and it is very difficult for third party candidates to succeed. Turkey is voting for the first time for a president who will have full executive powers and the parties are already adjusting to this new electoral system. 

Political parties have already aligned into two coalitions. Opposition voters are sharing the best strategies to succeed against Erdoğan among themselves. Split-ticket voting, that is, voting for a presidential candidate and for parliamentary candidates from different parties, has emerged as a strategy to help the main pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) gain more than the 10 percent of the national vote it needs to take up seats in parliament. If the HDP fails to overcome the 10-percent threshold, many of the parliamentary seats in the mainly Kurdish southeast are likely to go to Erdoğan’s AKP.

What if Erdoğan unequivocally loses the presidential race?  Will he step down? I cannot imagine he will. He and his AKP have set everything up for the moment he assumes ultimate power as president. They will want to reap what they have sown. I do not see the AKP or Erdoğan handing a powerful presidency to someone else.   

Losing the presidency is also not an option because both Erdoğan and the party have too much to lose. If AKP loses its ability to channel the tools and wealth of the state to benefit its base, it will be very difficult for it to keep that support. The AKP is in fact a coalition of different centre-right groups and could face disintegration if it loses power.  

Losing power could also mean losing freedom for some AKP leaders, including Erdoğan, because they will likely face corruption charges. The main opposition presidential candidate last week promised Erdoğan a comfortable retirement, but the reaction of his supporters showed they want justice, if not revenge. 

The high stakes mean June 24 is an existential election for Erdoğan and the AKP. I do not expect a graceful exit even if the outcome is conclusively in favour of the opposition. Note that in his speech, Erdoğan is charging his supporters with the duty of preventing him from being brought down, like when they took to the streets to thwart the July 2016 coup attempt against him. 

If Erdoğan calls on “the nation” not to recognise the election result, hardcore AKP supporters, anxious to the degree of paranoia that there is a big, international conspiracy to remove the president from power, will likely oblige. If Erdoğan were to mobilise his base against the results, it would surely be the final blow to Turkish democracy. My hope is that Turkey goes through the June 24 elections peacefully and without further erosion in the people’s belief and trust in elections. I hope, that if it comes to it, Erdoğan proves my expectations wrong.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.