Analysis

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

With Erdogan’s reelection, Turkey faces a future as a purely autocratic state, persecuting political rivals and settling scores

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during a referendum meeting in Istanbul.
Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Press Service, Pool Photo via AP

With more than 90 percent of the votes counted Sunday night, one could predict with a great deal of certainty that Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be Turkey’s president until 2022 without having to contend in a second round. Judging by the distribution of the votes, Erdogan has preserved his power bases, though Turkey continues to be divided between his supporters and opponents.

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If there aren’t any exceptional developments, like wholesale forgeries that will need clarification in court or require new elections in some of the districts, Turkey will turn into an autocratic state under the rule of a president who doesn’t recognize any limits to political power.

His authority under the constitutional amendments approved by the referendum in 2017 and which he could implement from now on would give him unprecedented influence: He could appoint a government (the post of prime minister would be abolished), dissolve parliament with almost no restrictions, intervene in the policy of the central bank, and choose the MPs from his party, since for the first time the president can also be a party member and certainly head of the party, a role that gives him unlimited powers to manage his parliamentary bloc. Erdogan will gain almost complete immunity from prosecution and under the amended constitution it will be almost impossible to impeach him for any reason.

>> Where did the anti-Erdogan opposition go wrong?

His opponents’ hopes that at least in parliament they would be able to challenge the ruling party could also dissipate in the light of the data (not yet final) received last night. According to these numbers, the Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party is about five percentage points weaker than in the June 2015 elections (44 percent versus 49.5 percent), but it is still too early to assess how many seats it will hold.

According to the complex system of allocating votes, the surpluses that will accumulate from all the parties that did not exceed the high electoral threshold (10 percent) play a large role in the number of seats the ruling party ultimately gets; in theory it could win a majority of the seats even if it doesn’t get 50 percent of the vote. In the 2015 elections, for example, it received 317 out of 550 seats although it received less than half the vote.

Such a result would allow Erdogan to form a new government without the need for partners, but even if he does not win a majority in parliament, he can lead it as he wishes because before the elections he formed an alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party headed by Devlet Bahceli. Together, the two parties could create a bloc of 56 percent that could yield considerably more seats than their votes ostensibly justify.

The Republican People’s Party, the largest opposition party, was also weakened in the elections, with the preliminary figures showing a 3 percentage point drop from the 2015 election. But its big accomplishment was the support garnered by its presidential candidate, Muharrem Ince, who got more than 30 percent of the vote. This is an important personal victory; even if it does not give him the chance to run for president against Erdogan in the current elections, it makes Ince a weighty competitor for 2022. The support he drew in a relatively short period of time may indicate that the public no longer accepts the sweeping view that Erdogan has no competitor.

If Ince succeeds in rehabilitating the image of his party and manages to persuade the public and especially the younger generation that it is not a party of old elites; if he allows new blood to join and perhaps unites with other small parties whose campaigns this time eroded support for his party, he might even manage to win control of the parliament elected in another four years.

Erdogan had good reasons to advance the presidential and parliamentary elections, the most urgent of which was his desire to surprise his rivals and not give them time to prepare for them. He believed that the economic crisis could undermine him if he was not reelected soon, and he also wanted to take advantage of public support for Turkey’s involvement in Syria, despite the criticism of the invasion voiced by some politicians, including within his own party. His assumptions proved correct, at least with regard to the current elections.

At the same time, these elections yielded some political forces that could point to a new trend. One was the emergence of the Good party, lead by Meral Aksener, who broke off from the Nationalist Movement Party, Erdogan’s ally. Aksener is a nationalist leader who seeks to deport the 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, but she opposes the presidential-authoritarian regime that Erdogan plans to lead.

Aksener, who as a presidential candidate got only 7.5 percent of the vote, had agreed to support her rival, Ince, if he had been able to force a second round of voting for president. This alliance could also indicate that the Turkish political tradition of uncompromising rivalry that characterized political parties before the emergence of the Justice and Development party could change, and make it possible to struggle against the political monopoly of Justice and Development, which has turned Turkey into a one-party state.

No less important and interesting is the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party led by Selahattin Demirtas, who, despite running for president from prison, won 7.7 percent of the vote, and his party crossed the electoral threshold, to the great displeasure of Erdogan, who fought the party vehemently.

This party had already been a favorite in the previous election, not only among the Kurdish minority but also among liberal, young and secular Turks. During this election campaign, Ince even went to visit Demirtas in prison to demonstrate his desire to join forces with the Kurds. In a country where the president has managed to frame the Kurds as a terrorist population and define anyone who supports them as a traitor, this was a courageous move by an opposition leader who was ready to confront the president on an issue that could hurt him politically.

If the results from Sunday night remain the official ones, one can expect not only celebrations initiated by the ruling party and the president, who will seek to prove the power and quality of Turkish democracy, but also a new round of persecuting political rivals and settling scores. Erdogan, for whom tolerance and patience were never strong points, will now begin to build the new Turkish Republic in his own image.