Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s democracy has slowly but surely been dismantled. The Turkish President constantly violates the personal liberties of the nation’s citizens – surveilling those who oppose him for purely political reasons and confiscating the passports of enemies seeking to leave the country. A 2016 coup attempt only heightened Erdogan’s desire for control, as he arrested and fired over 100,000 government employees and soldiers for their alleged ties to the coup. The Turkish leader and his Justice Development Party (AKP) have faced few obstacles to their rise in power, with an April 2017 referendum supported by the majority of Turkish voters altering the constitution to bolster the President’s authority. However, recent election results in Istanbul and Ankara display the first signs of organized electoral resistance to AKP. While Erdogan and his party infrastructure immediately questioned the legitimacy of the outcomes, the Turkish president must allow these results to stand if Turkish democracy is to survive. If he and AKP invalidate a democratic electoral challenge to their authority, the collapse of Turkey’s democracy will be complete.
Whether or not Turkey can still be called a democracy ultimately depends on which definition of democracy one subscribes to. However, most agree that democracies require a strong electoral process devoid of interference. Joseph Schumpeter has described democracy as, “that institutional arrangement in which people acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote”. By that standard, Turkey should be considered at least partially democratic. Despite a few noted irregularities during the 2017 constitutional referendum and Erdogan’s re-election in 2018, the world’s liberal democracies have accepted these elections as legitimate. Both Schumpeter and Phillippe Schmitter, who defines democracy as, “a system in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens”, focus on a central idea of accountability. Despite their haphazard nature, Turkey still has four to five parties simultaneously jockeying for power, with elections providing these aforementioned opportunities for accountability. In truth, an organized, more democratic, Turkish opposition had simply failed to mobilize until quite recently. Recent mayoral elections in major Turkish cities will test Erdogan’s commitment to both accountability and democracy.
With Turkish democracy on the brink of ruin, Erdogan-backed candidates running in local elections against underdog opponents faltered in the face of economic uncertainty and frustrations regarding Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies. After a grueling campaign, Erdogan’s handpicked choices lost the mayoralties in Turkey’s official and unofficial capital: Ankara and Istanbul, respectively. As the face of his party, Erdogan was immediately called to respond to these defeats. Unspoken was the knowledge that as the type of unconstrained, mostly autonomous agent that Professors Ellen Lust and David Waldner describe in “Unwelcome Change”, he was capable of altering these democratic results if he desired. Turkish democracy’s survival, however, relies on Erdogan’s forbearance. Lust and Waldner’s theory of agent-based democratic erosion is rooted in the concept that democracy survives when politicians value democracy. Erdogan’s authoritarian-curious nature aside, he has always recognized that open elections matter greatly to his citizens. His instant response was fairly tame, expressing his displeasure with the results while admitting that they were likely settled. Erdogan wryly remarked that, “Those who made false claims are welcome to it… let us see how they govern”1. His and the AKP’s actions in the following days, however, were not as conciliatory.
Last Tuesday, AKP officials announced that they submitted a request for a recount in the Ankara election to Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council (a.k.a. YSK) and also objected to vote counts in all 39 of Istanbul’s districts. With Erdogan’s reliance on a review done by an outside institution he has previously pressured, the president inches closer to Ozan Varol’s description of a stealth authoritarian. As Varol warned, “the new generation of authoritarians cloak repressive measures under the mask of law…”. Erdogan and AKP have done just that – claiming to be waiting for a ruling by the ‘independent’ YSK that he has systematically altered and manipulated throughout his presidency via directives, amendments, and new laws. In another example of activity Varol would call “stealth”, these tweaks have allowed Erdogan to blur the line between legitimate and corrupt use of this democratic institution. Opponents responded by drawing a clear line between AKP’s demands that are legal, but display an extreme lack of restraint, and those that are purely anti-democratic. A representative for Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor-elect of Istanbul who ran under the banner of two anti-Erdogan parties, explains: “Making demands to correct factual mistakes in election records are normal… however, asking to count invalid votes can’t be legal”2. YSK’s preliminary ruling satisfied neither side.
Erdogan’s recount requests are entirely legal, but his mounting challenges to democratic election results exemplify the Turkish president’s willingness to exercise every bit of his given power. YSK agreed to a recount in only fifteen of the 39 Istanbul districts that AKP requested. However, they also agreed to recount invalid ballots, a decision of questionable legality that should favor Erdogan’s candidates. Whether invalid ballots can be recounted relies on whether the request was filed on time, and while opponents convincingly claim that AKP’s was late, YSK granted AKP’s request without addressing doubts over its punctuality. As recounts rage on, Imamoglu has called for YSK to speedily certify his victory. The opposition candidate’s urgency is justified, because as Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest, Erdogan’s lack of forbearance could soon lead to anti-democratic action. AKP has criticized their opponents in these races as malicious, self-interested liars, and President Erdogan repeatedly called the elections “matters of national survival”3. These scholars suggest that treating opponents as existential threats both erodes mutual toleration and could portend the justification of authoritarian measures to ensure AKP’s victory. If Erdogan exceeds his legal authority and overturns these local elections, the final remnants of democracy in Turkey will be swept away.
*Image courtesy of the Associated Foreign Press.