Opinion

Anti-Erdogan Opposition Fails to Halt Turkey's Descent Into an Elected Dictatorship

In elections that were neither free nor fair, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stage-managed a mandate for ultimate power. But Turkey's opposition parties, despite the buzz they created, also have to account for their failure

President of Turkey and the leader of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a rally at the Gaziosmanpasa district of Istanbul, on June 22, 2018
BULENT KILIC/AFP

>> Turkey Elections: Erdogan's Win Paves the Road Toward Autocracy

The June 2018 elections will go down as the day that Turkey’s opposition could have defeated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and halted the country’s decent towards an elected dictatorship, but failed. 

Erdogan’s master stroke was to call elections nineteen months early. He knew that if elections were to be held during an economic crisis, it would cost him dear. So, he avoided it. 

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the AKP, waves to supporters as he and his wife leave the polling station during snap twin Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections in Istanbul. June 24, 2018
BULENT KILIC/AFP

Make no mistake, the outlook for Turkey’s economy is gloomy. Inflation is in double figures, the Lira continues to plummet, and youth unemployment stands at around 25 percent. There’s also a current account deficit and foreign investors are pulling out. In short, it’s looking bad.

But the brunt of the financial crisis has yet to arrive. Most people have not felt the full pinch. By calling early elections, Erdogan was able to avoid the fallout while catching the opposition off-guard. It took the Republican People’s Party (CHP) weeks to pick its presidential candidate. 

When the opposition finally managed to get it together they did a good job. They formed the "Nation Alliance" which consisted of the CHP and the newly established IYI (Good) Party, a breakaway faction from the ultra-right National Movement party (MHP). They were joined by the Saadet Party, religious conservatives who had fallen out of love with Erdogan. 

Together, they managed to create a bit of a buzz. Some thought that Erdogan may not reach 50 percent of the vote, forcing a run-off in the presidential election.

Others thought that maybe, and especially if the liberal and Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) managed to scrape past the 10 percent threshold needed to have parliamentary representation, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) along with the MHP, bosom buddies since the 2016 attempted coup and together form the "People’s Alliance," would not win the majority of seats in parliament. This scenario would thwart Erdogan’s plans to have ultimate power. 

Supporters of Muharrem Ince, Presidential candidate of Turkey's main opposition CHP, hold banners reading "president of all of us" posters of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of Turkish Republic. Istanbul, June 23, 2018
YASIN AKGUL/AFP

But such assessments were overly optimistic. If the results posted by the state-owned Anadolu Agency are to be believed, the AKP and the MHP won 42.5 and 11.2 percent of the vote respectively (with 96 percent of votes counted), meaning that the pro-Erdogan "People’s Alliance" have the majority of seats in parliament.

They will rubber stamp the whims of President Erdogan who after reportedly winning 52.6 percent of the vote, can now appoint cabinet members without parliamentary oversight, select almost half of the high court, draft the budget and in some matters rule by decree. 

If these results are correct, it begs the question, where did the opposition go wrong? 

Despite an attempt to repackage the party through the energy of its presidential candidate Muharrem Ince, a firebrand former high school teacher, there was still political bickering and infighting within the CHP. Ince’s supporters were largely excluded from the party list drawn up by the CHP’s leader Kemal Kalicdaroglu, who feared a mutiny if Ince was too successful. Kalicdaroglu need not have feared; Ince’s impassioned speeches to hundreds of thousands of spectators at mass rallies was a case of preaching to the choir. 

Meral Aksener, Iyi (Good) Party leader and presidential candidate, casts her ballot at a polling station in snap twin Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections in Istanbul on June 24, 2018
YASIN AKGUL/AFP

Meral Aksener, the much-hyped leader and presidential candidate of the breakaway IYI Party, turned out to be a dud, barely scraping above 7 percent of the national vote. Potential supporters probably preferred to stick to the MHP, calculating it had the greater chance of being in power. Instead of stealing votes away from the MHP, it looks like Aksener and her party probably took votes away from her ally, the CHP, which won only 22.7 percent of the national vote, one of its worst performances in recent years. 

There’s also of course the fact that the elections were neither free nor fair. Erdogan and the AKP used state resources to ensure victory. The media is almost totally pro-Erdogan after years of co-option and censorship. On election day, there were reported cases of fraud, including ballot stuffing, an incident where a car filled with ballots was pulled over heading to a polling station near the southern city of Urfa. Ahead of the elections, legislation was passed to allow ballots without official seals to be counted, and the location of some voting stations in the east of the country were relocated. In Van, for example, some were obliged to walk 8km in order to cast their vote. 

There were also cases of harassment and violence against opponents of Erdogan and the AKP. The main victims of this intimidation were the liberal and Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Not only is its presidential leader languishing in prison since November 2016 on flimsy terrorism charges, but not a day went by without some form of violent attack against the HDP. 

Those looking for a silver lining may say that the HDP did well to pass the 10 percent threshold to be represented in parliament. At least Erdogan’s plans to exclude Kurdish representation from parliament, while many of the party’s members remain imprisoned, failed. 

Regardless, the results of these elections were the best that Erdogan, the AKP and their allies could have hoped for. But the victory is at expense of national cohesion. The country is more divided than ever - while looking ahead towards an economic disaster, which will have to dominate the attention of President Erdogan for the next five years. 

Dr Simon A. Waldman is a Mercator-IPC fellow at the Istanbul Policy Center and a visiting research fellow at King's College London. He is the co-author of The New Turkey and Its Discontents (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @simonwaldman1