Approaching Elections, Turkey's Erdogan Gives a Master Class in Dictatorship

He's jailed the opposition, controls the media and enjoys autocratic political powers: Erdogan’s never lost an election. And he’ll make sure it stays that way

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Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at an Istanbul referendum rally on constitutional reforms to expand his powers that he won on April 16 2017
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at an Istanbul referendum rally on constitutional reforms to expand his powers that he won on April 16 2017Credit: Kayhan Ozer/AP
Simon A. Waldman
Simon A. Waldman

Whether you think Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a dictator, autocrat, or beloved man of the people, he is certainly an astute politician.

The recent announcement of snap presidential and parliamentary elections on 24 June, 17 months ahead of schedule, was a smart move. Sure, Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were always going to win, but now victory is all but guaranteed.

Credit agencies and investors are not positive about Turkey’s economic outlook. Inflation currently stands at 10 per cent and the lira continues to tumble against major currencies. The election will take place before the effects of the slump are fully felt, and there will be plenty who will still vote for Erdogan and the AKP in the hope that economic stability and continuity might weather the downturn.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in full military combat uniform, waves from a helicopter as he visits Turkish troops near the border with Syria. Hatay, Turkey, April 1 2018Credit: Kayhan Ozer/AP

More positively for Erdogan, just last month he was able to claim victory in northern Syria after fighters from the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army dislodged Kurdish militants from control of the Afrin enclave by Turkey’s border. On the campaign trail Erdogan will boast of an important military victory that he secured for the Turkish people. It’s always savvy to be able to rally the troops against an enemy.

Erdogan will no doubt also be talking tough against Greece after recent tensions over sovereignty over two tiny uninhabited Aegean islets.

Opposition parties are also on the back foot. The main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), does not have an official presidential candidate, let alone a figure who can rival Erdogan. If the CHP is to make common cause with other parties and field a unified candidate, as was the case in 2014, they need to get on with it quickly or precious time will be lost.

Meanwhile, the recently formed Iyi Party, a breakaway faction of the AKP-aligned Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), could be disqualified from participating due to a technicality. The Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has been decimated with politically-motivated and trumped-up terrorism charges, trials and detentions against its leadership, including the charismatic Selahattin Demirtas.

A photograph of Selahattin Demirtas, the former co-leader of pro-Kurdish HDP, in detention since November 2016 pending trial for alleged terror charges at an event in Istanbul. March 21, 2018Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

The elections will take place while Turkey's state of emergency is still in place. This gives President Erdogan and the AKP a key advantage.

Last year’s referendum campaign, which Erdogan only narrowly won, was also held under emergency rule. This hurt the ability of the opposition to effectively mobilize and campaign. Critical journalists had been either arrested or dismissed, and the Supreme Board of Elections was stripped of its power to sanction bias media coverage. A last-minute state of emergency decree was made to validate ballots without a seal, questioning the very legitimacy of the election process.

The OSCE which observed the election process, documented many flaws and deficiencies, especially noting that it "took place on an unlevel playing field." Similar circumstances should be expected in the upcoming vote.

Turkey's President Erdogan and his wife Emine after reciting a Muslim prayer in the Hagia Sophia museum. Erdogan's government has discussed its reconversion into a mosque. Istanbul, March 31, 2018 Credit: Kayhan Ozer/AP

Indeed, if last year’s referendum and the previous elections of 2014 and 2015 are anything to go by, expect Erdogan and the AKP to dominate the public debate. Billboards, posters and street campaigners were then, as will be now, overwhelmingly pro-Erdogan and pro-AKP. They will use almost unlimited and unregulated state and private resources for their campaigns.

As in previous elections, the print and broadcast media, either owned by Erdogan allies or subdued after years of abuse, will air hours upon hours of pro-government propaganda and speeches each day. Only minutes will be given to the opposition.

The forthcoming elections will take place just as the Dogan Media Holding, the owners of CNN Turk and the opposition-friendly daily Hurriyet newspaper was sold to Demiroren Holding, a company known to be loyal to President Erdogan. In other words, by the time of the elections the overwhelming majority of all major newspapers in circulation will be sympathetic to Erdogan and the AKP and virtually all of the broadcast media.

Backdropped by a picture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's secularist founder, President Erdogan speaks at his ruling Justice and Development (AKP) Party conference in Ankara. March 30, 2018Credit: Murat Cetinmuhurdar/AP

Meanwhile, tough new legislation on internet broadcasting was also recently approved, preventing an alternative opposition platform to emerge.  Erdogan has already serially proven his capability and interest in switching off social media  like YouTube and Twitter to silence opposition political voices. Even Wikipedia is inaccessible since it was blocked last year.

This is the first time elections will be held after last year’s referendum which transformed Turkey’s parliamentary democracy into a presidential system. The soon-to-be-re-elected president now has the right to appoint government ministers without parliamentary oversight or approval, dismiss parliament, veto parliamentary legislation, issue executive orders and decrees, and appoint almost half of the members of the high court.

This is sugar-coated one man rule. The current ongoing state of emergency after the July 2016 attempted coup is but a taste of what Turkey is about to become. Ever since he first ran for office as Mayor of Istanbul in 1994, Erdogan has never lost an election, and he’s not about to lose one now. President Erdogan is here to stay. 

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

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