Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a practitioner of new authoritarian methods, initiated in the aftermath of the 2015 parliamentary elections a new concept of authoritarian exercise of power. In 2015, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to reach a majority in the Grand National Assembly occupying only 259 out of 550 seats, and Erdogans´ government experienced a setback for the first time in the party´s upwards trend. Nevertheless, the circumstances after the June 2015 elections still served Erdogan as the formation of a coalition of opposition parties failed and the AKP was able to win a majority in the re-elections in November 2015 with about 9 percentage points more votes. The year 2015 introduced a new phase of authoritarianism in Turkey as Erdogan, Prime Minister at that time, noticed that he could not make his political power reliant on elections and the volatile electorate. Following the 2016 coup attempt and under the state of emergency, regulations to retrieve municipalities in the East that were lost to the People´s Democratic Party (HDP): “95 of 102 democratically elected Kurdish mayors” were dismissed. By appointing trustees into municipalities, the Erdogan regime was not only able to erase its rivals from the political arena but also expanded its “patronage” and degraded the opposition. Erdogan appointed trustees, so-called “kayyums” to mayor post, where HDP mayors provided service and were removed. With the new regulations, Erdogan changed the circumstances in the electorally lost provinces, regained the region’s economic and political benefits, and minimized the electoral costs on his behalf. As Tepe and Alemdaroglu pointed out in their article, contemporary authoritarian rulers do not oppress the oppositional parties as well as the voices of dissent in the population, but they change the rules of the playground, so that their actions are legal, even if not legitimized.
The appointment of trustees represented only the tip of the iceberg. Recep Tayyip Erdogan initiated a campaign of hatred as he realized that HDP challenged his electoral preeminence in the eastern regions: The party spectrum became more polarized as he tried to destroy a strong opposition party by imprisoning its party leader and numerous party members, preventing the formation of oppositional alliances by accusing every party cooperating with HDP to be in support of terrorism. Approximately a year before the next general elections in 2023, Erdogan brought up the security issue and their fight against terrorism again. This polarization policy would also have had a strong impact today if the opposition had not formed an exemplary 6-member coalition. The bypassing of the HDP can be seen as a strategic act, as it prevents the coalition from being labeled as supporters of terrorists.
The upcoming elections in 2023 are seen as a final chance to prevent the total authoritarianism of the Turkish government, but it could also aggravate the situation when president Erdogan manifests his power after 20 years in government. In 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic will be celebrated and there wouldn’t be a better time to hold elections where democracy is fully at stake. This time before the elections in 2023, which seems to become one of the most competitive with candidate alternatives that could lead the opposition to victory, the depth of interference also increased with the significance of the election: Disinformation Law was introduced in October 2022, imposing severe restrictions on the use of social media and reporting with possible imprisonment of up to three years as a consequence, and the restriction of oppositional challengers with the backing of legal verdicts from pro-Erdogan-judges.
Turkish society became acquainted with the Disinformation Law when the Internet and social media sites were severely restricted and a media ban was introduced immediately after an explosion in a well-crowded square, in Taksim on 13 November 2022. Twitter and other social media channels are used as propaganda tools by Erdogan and other authoritarian leaders. However, civic groups and opposition leaders used continuously social media channels to recruit the electorate for voting and to operate against electoral fraud, since the government party is in control of a “vast majority of (…) media outlets” and the oppositional leaders´ ability to reach the population is restricted to few media channels and newspapers. Therefore, the Disinformation Law constitutes a strong restriction of communication between the opposition front and the population.
A second act of tightening the grip to avoid electoral defeat in the 2023 elections, involves legal actions against key figures: In May 2022, the politician Canan Kaftancioglu was sentenced to 5 years probation and was banned from politics after a tweet. She played a crucial role in winning the local elections in 2019 in Istanbul for the benefit of the greatest oppositional party, the Republican People´s Party (CHP). In December 2022, the Mayor of Istanbul and one of the strongest candidates for the presidential elections against Erdogan, Ekrem Imamoglu, is recently sentenced to more than two-and-a-half years imprisonment accused of insulting public officials. When Imamoglu´s appeal against the judgment does not succeed, a political ban would be initiated leading to the removal of one of the strongest candidates against Erdogan.
A third move is on its way to initiation and will be confirmed in January 2023. The HDP is under court investigation and under the threat of closure. The party’s leader is not only in prison for 5 years and continuously MPs are stigmatized and prosecuted because of a connection with the terrorist grouping, the Kurdistan Worker´s Party PKK, but their funding was stopped as well. The HDP is being fought by all means and in case of closure, their electorate of around 14 % and their decisions in the 2023 elections, will probably determine the winner. In the matter of a ban on HDP from participating in elections, around 80 % of the respondents in the predominantly Kurdish regions stated that they would vote for the candidate the HDP leaders decide to support. Thus, events in the Kurdish regions, the court decision against the HDP and the political attitude of Erdogan towards the Kurdish electorate will result in a major shift of voters in the first half of 2023.
To conclude, not only have the legal rulings and introduction of the Disinformation Law weakened the hand of the opposition, but Erdogan can also claim that the court made a legitimate decision. He has passed numerous resolutions and constitutional amendments over his 20 years in government, as well as placed his own men in key positions so that he does not have to get his hands dirty to secure his power. The national election in 2023 will show whether his strategy of Erdogan to ban political parties and key figures from elections as well as the drastic restriction of the press and social media will do him more harm than good.