Could March vote boost hope in Turkish democracy?

Once a model country for emerging democracies in the Middle East, Turkey has turned into another clichéd authoritarian regime. The election process is rife with irregularities, unfair tactics, and undemocratic procedures that mar one of the few channels to express dissent.

Local elections at the end of March will be the first held since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gained sweeping new powers under an executive presidency that came into effect after elections last June. While Erdoğan’s name will not be on the ballot, the vote will essentially be a referendum on his rule.

The economic slowdown, corruption allegations, and disdain for the ruling party among some voters increase the vulnerability of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the upcoming vote for mayors and district councillors.

Winning the election in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and financial hub, is particularly important for Erdoğan, who entered the political limelight by becoming its mayor in 1994. Erdoğan has allocated vast government resources to mega-projects in the city, such as the New Istanbul Airport and the Istanbul Canal Project, both of which have been criticised by opposition groups, with allegations of corruption and other irregularities.

Erdoğan began work on an election strategy for the March polls way ahead of the opposition parties. First, citing signs of “metal fatigue” within his own party, in late 2017 he forced some elected AKP mayors of major cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, to resign before the end of their terms.

Secondly, the president has undermined pro-Kurdish opposition parties and limited their ability to engage in free and fair campaigns by ordering the removal of elected mayors from the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and Democratic Regional Party (DBP) in more than 100 districts and replaced them with government-appointed administrators.

Thousands of opposition figures and politicians, including Selahattin Demirtaş, the charismatic former HDP leader and a candidate in the 2018 presidential election, as well as journalists and academics were indicted and jailed on vague terrorism charges.

Demirtaş remains in prison despite the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling that he be released. Erdoğan and the AKP continue to label their opponents, especially candidates from the HDP, but also from the leftist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), as terrorist supporters, if not outright terrorists.

The dismantling of the separation of powers and negation of the independence of institutions such as the judiciary and the supreme election council have led to concerns over the even-handedness of previous elections both within and outside of Turkey.

Independent international observers reported that the June 2018 elections were anything but fair. The vote-counting process was biased against the opposition parties, and the so-called ‘election reforms’ that passed in the days leading up to the polls aided the AKP and its alliance.

In December, for instance, Turkey’s parliament passed new legislation giving unchallenged power to Erdoğan to fund municipalities at his discretion and thus allocate more resources to those under the control of the AKP or its far-right allies.  

Thirdly, Erdoğan controls the vast majority of media outlets. The media blackout on the opposition parties and presidential candidates during the June 2018 elections was a testament to the government’s power to dominate the public sphere and drown out opposition voices.

The AKP’s campaign strategy is based on adversarial politics focusing on internal and external enemies, such as what it calls the “interest-rate lobby” and “dark powers”, which have dominated media coverage.

Efforts to demean, humiliate, or criminalise opponents are rampant. The tactics have helped the AKP avert public discussion of real problems, such as the economy, and instead dominate the public sphere with this narrative and keep the opposition on the defensive.

Finally, Erdoğan and the AKP have subordinated foreign policy to domestic policy and election cycles. The president has used military operations against Kurdish armed groups inside Turkey and in Syria to mobilise constituents, galvanise nationalist sentiment and divert public attention from domestic issues.

The government now says it is about to launch another military campaign against Kurdish forces in Syria. But U.S. President Donald Trump’s sudden announcement last month that he was withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria led to Erdoğan changing his narrative and portraying himself as the liberator of Kurds and Arabs in Syria and the one who will completely defeat the Islamic State and bring peace to Syria.

So, will the local election results bring any hope for Turkey’s democracy? The answer is probably “no,” regardless of the outcome.

The AKP won more than 40 percent of the vote in the 2014 local elections and 2018 parliamentary elections. If the AKP gains a similar or greater share in March, it will give Erdoğan a psychological boost and consolidate his legacy as a leader who never lost an election. His power, once again, will be solidified through a process known as “electoral authoritarianism“.

If the AKP takes significantly fewer seats on provincial councils or, more importantly, loses either Ankara or Istanbul, Erdoğan’s public image will be damaged. A weakened AKP may give hope to the opposition and give them political momentum, but Erdoğan might resort to more authoritarian tactics to thwart that momentum.

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