IRI Expert in Balkan Insights: Turning the Tables on Turkey’s Democracy

Turning the Tables on Turkey’s Democracy

Balkan Insights 

By Ilija Vojnovic 

Turkey held crucial local elections on March 31, the eighth election in five years. Five years ago, Turkey was still an economically prosperous and mostly stable democracy, on the path to EU membership and maintaining healthy relations with its traditional Western allies and partners.

By spring 2019, it was struggling to maintain internal order, on the verge of ending its EU bid, increasingly internationally isolated, and suffering from its weakest economic performance in years.

Blatant signs of democratic erosion throughout this time were hard to miss; nonetheless, Turks voted in municipal elections that were generally accepted as free and fair.

However, the cancellation of the results of the March 31 Istanbul mayoral race pushed Turkey even further into unchartered waters. as its backsliding democracy and already complex political environment became even more unpredictable.

Since Turkey began its transformation from a parliamentary democracy into an executive presidential system, political power has become much more centralized, and crucial characteristics of democracy have withered away.

Following several turbulent years, which saw an escalation in domestic terrorism, regional security challenges, and an attempted coup in 2016, political pluralism and freedom of expression in Turkey have become increasingly constricted.

Key institutions such as the judiciary have been struggling to maintain their independence and credibility. Particularly during the post-coup state of emergency, Turkey’s democracy experienced its most significant transformation, which culminated in constitutional reforms that abolished the parliamentary system of government.

Yet, even during this rise of illiberalism, the decision-making process still did not rely exclusively on the ambitions of the increasingly empowered President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

One pillar of democracy remained respected: free and fair elections whose results were rarely contested, let alone rejected, either by the losing side or by independent observers.

Previously, electoral irregularities had been reported repeatedly in Kurdish-majority areas in the Southeast and infamously in the 2014 Ankara mayoral race, but even in these cases, opposition parties ultimately accepted the validity of the results.

The general notion among many in the opposition was that, despite the government’s domineering and undemocratic manner, elections represented the will of the people, were almost sacrosanct and were “too big to fail.”

Turkey’s ruling establishment deployed this argument in discussions with international actors concerned about the state of its democracy: “Say what you will about how we govern, but our election outcomes are inviolable.” This appeal has been a powerful argument. Or at least it was, until now.

The first time the Pandora’s Box of direct political influence in the independence of the electoral process was opened publicly was during the April 2017 constitutional referendum when the High Election Board, YSK, defying the law governing elections, decided to accept unstamped ballots.

Essentially, the YSK changed the rules of the game after the game was over, opening the gates to possible electoral malfeasance. A dangerous precedent was set, but since there was no proof that this decision directly affected the outcome of the vote, the opposition’s protests were limited and quickly subsided.

The environment surrounding the March 31 nation-wide local elections was more challenging for Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, AKP, than at any time since they had taken power.

The country had been struggling with economic challenges and the majority of voters had experienced a visible decline in their quality of life. Most voters agreed that Turkey was in crisis. This took its toll on people’s enthusiasm and faith in their country’s future; many were determined to go to the local polls to demand change.

In addition to these economic factors, an increasingly centralized decision-making system also reduced the ruling establishment’s appeal to voters in the local elections.

President Erdogan had long been seen as the only real political heavy-hitter and the only man calling the shots.

As he personally took over crucial local-level campaigns in the big cities, voters began to see the ruling coalition’s local candidates as weak dependents on central structures and as mere appointees of the President, all but totally disempowered to respond to the needs of their local communities.

Many voters expressed confusion over the ruling AKP’s choice of mayoral candidate for Istanbul: former Prime Minister and Speaker of the Parliament Binali Yildirim’s bid for the post of mayor actually seemed like a step backward in this seasoned politician’s career. By contrast, most opposition candidates in the local elections came from the communities in which they were competing.

Many had previously served as district mayors, a position thought to be fairly independent from influence from the party headquarters, and from which politicians directly served their local communities.

Election fatigue, voters’ overall dissatisfaction with their deteriorating quality of life, and the low quality of many of the AKP candidates resulted in a major loss for Erdogan. His AKP lost mayoral races in five of the six most populous and wealthiest cities in Turkey; the opposition’s success in these places mirrored the cities’ rejection of Erdogan’s constitutional referendum reform in April 2017 (though nationwide, voters ultimately narrowly passed that referendum).

Over the past several years, polling has revealed the consistent polarization of the electorate, with roughly 55 per cent of voters supporting the governing coalition and the remaining 45 per cent opposing it.

The local elections made it clear that even some supporters of the AKP and its coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party, MHP, now numbered among the dissatisfied. Prior to the elections, one common comment from supporters of the AKP and MHP was that the local elections were an opportunity to rebuke the ruling coalition without forcing a full national political makeover.

It seems that many voters did just that, abstaining or even crossing previously impermeable ideological and party boundaries to vote for opposition candidates on March 31.

The Istanbul mayoral race was the biggest upset for the governing coalition: opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu won by over 13,000 votes.

Throughout Turkey’s history, the parties that won in Istanbul were almost always able to use that victory as a steppingstone to national power. Additionally, during the AKP’s 17-year rule, much of the city’s $4 billion budget was directed to foundations, organizations and interest groups tied to the ruling party.

These political and financial factors prompted the AKP and MHP to contest the opposition’s victory in Istanbul, demanding recount after recount, which only confirmed that Imamoglu had won the election.

After Imamoglu was confirmed as the new mayor of Istanbul, the AKP and MHP made one final push and filed an extraordinary petition to the YSK calling for the total annulment of the Istanbul mayoral race.

While the petition was under consideration, the AKP restarted its campaign machinery as if already preparing for a rerun. And then it happened – following five weeks of suspense, the YSK cancelled the opposition’s historic victory in a 7-4 vote.

The decision was based on “irregularities in some of the ballot box committees:” some officials had not been civil servants as required.

Nonetheless, the same officials had been appointed by the government in this and all previous elections, most of them won by AKP, and this had not invalidated the results of those contests.

Furthermore, even though Istanbul had four levels of local government up for election simultaneously on March 31 (local neighborhood head, district council, district mayor and city mayor), only the city mayoral election was invalidated.

In the other three, unquestioned, races, in most districts in Istanbul, the AKP was able to claim victory.

The YSK’s controversial decision immediately triggered the further devaluation of the Turkish lira. Even though Turkish public banks reportedly lost about $1 billion in attempts to prop up the currency, the lira took another nosedive and experienced its largest decline in eight months.

Other economic indicators, such as credit default swap increases, reflected a serious decline in investor confidence in the country.

Critics’ concerns that the AKP would refuse to recognize the results of a democratic election and peacefully hand over power, long expressed privately, were now openly part of the public discourse.

Domestic and international observers understood that the YSK decision was made under political pressure, demonstrating Erdogan’s willingness to cast away Turkey’s last fig leaf of democratic legitimacy in order to maintain control of the most populous and lucrative city in the country.

Regardless of the results of the June 23 Istanbul election rerun— and, in the event of another Imamoglu victory, it’s not easy to imagine Yildirim conceding after the AKP’s doubling down on its initial loss —a large stain on the most resilient institutional mechanism of Turkey’s democracy will remain.

Predicting the result of the election in Turkey may still be possible, but it is no longer the most important question at hand. What matters more is the reaction to the results of the election from the small group of decision makers around the President.

Political analysis has lost a lot of its value as the country has become subject not to the body of Turkey’s laws or the voice of the voters, but to the arbitrary and inconsistent whims of the political will.

For years, the AKP and Erdogan in particular have maintained a reputation for being in touch with the Turkish people and the soul of the country.

His and the party’s connection with constituent needs was one of the reasons for the party’s dominance in Turkish politics starting with their catapulting to power in 2002, foreshadowed by Erdogan’s election victory in the race for for Istanbul mayor in 1994.

AKP leaders were among the only politicians at that time who demonstrated understanding of the concerns of the majority and proactively dealt with those concerns.

In recent years, the AKP has all but totally abandoned this approach. By rejecting the results of the March 31 Istanbul mayoral election, AKP for the first time openly refused to accept the voters’ will.

It is not easy to predict the reaction to another potential loss for Yildirim. Will the government try to contest and ultimately cancel the election again, or will Imamoglu this time be allowed to take the mayor’s seat?

And even if Imamoglu becomes mayor, the question remains whether the recently empowered executive branch would allow the normal, unobstructed functioning of an opposition-controlled Istanbul.

The decision to cancel the results of March 31 set a new precedent: when voters in Turkey make the “wrong” choice, they will be offered a chance to correct their mistake. The possible reversal of this fundamental premise of democracy will be the focus of the June 23 rerun in Istanbul.

Ilija Vojnovic is a Resident Program Director at International Republican Institute (IRI), Turkey.

The opinions expressed are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

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