My 10 year old and a few of his friends wanted to pose in front of a huge Erdogan poster in an upscale Ankara neighborhood 10 days before the presidential elections. One of his friends, who attends a private elementary school and has secular parents said, “Let’s do two thumbs up.” When I asked “But why?” they all replied, “He is the winner.” Arda’s not a fortune teller. There were no surprises in the election results. And when there are no surprises, is it really democracy?
One bad sign is declining turnout. Seventy-four percent of the eligible voters turned out to vote. While that is high for the U.S., it’s the lowest turnout in Turkey since 1977, when voting became compulsory. Even a few months ago in, turnout for municipal elections were 90%.
Even though it was the first time Turkish expats were allowed to vote where they reside, more than 80% chose not to vote.
You can explain this away if you are trying to put a good face on it. Ramadan had just ended. Farm workers were travelling around the country. The strategy of the main opposition’s joint candidate, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, backfired: The leaders of the major left and right wing opposition parties aimed to join forces against Erdogan, but their constituents did follow the plan. Ihsanoglu failed to generate a boost among conservatives, and in many cities nationalist voters opted for Erdogan. Ihsanoglu refrained from rallies during Ramadan while Erdogan campaigned relentlessly. His absence from the trail allowed Erdogan to even convince voters “Ihsanoglu is neutral on Gaza.” (It’s hard to imagine Ihsanoglu was truly indifferent about the Palestinian issue since he was the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Countries for a decade.) The left’s candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, out-performed many expectations, doubling his party’s vote, but many on the left feared that, as a Kurd, he might vote with their bloc.
But, we’re burying the lead. This was the first time Turkish voters had the opportunity to directly choose their president, and not just any President, but the man who has so consolidated his political power that this election may have taken him past the point of authoritarian return.
Sure, overall, it was a free election in a democratic country. Yet, if we scratch the surface, we see that it could hardly be referred as a “fair” election. The Organization of Security and Co-Operation in Europe produced a 13-paged report explaining why the Turkish presidential elections were not fair. In a sign of the consolidation of power in Turkey, the Supreme Board of Elections promptly discarded OSCE’s report as “groundless,” though it failed to refute the agency’s findings.
Signs of Erdogan’s tightening grip on his country’s levers of power are easy to see in the restricted media, ambiguous election rules, and lack of accountability on campaign finance regulations. Let’s start with the media, and not just the media, but the ability to be seen by Turks at all. Until the last 15 days, Demirtas was almost never seen on Turkish state-run television. I was living in a neighborhood the opposition won—and not a single photo of Demirtas or Ihsanoglu was present — it was all Erdogan. It is difficult to call it an equal playing field given the opposition’s lack of access to media.
On the media, OSCE reported that: “TRT1 devoted 51 per cent of coverage to Mr. Erdoğan, while covering Mr. İhsanoğlu and Mr. Demirtaş with 32 per cent and 18 per cent, respectively. In addition, 25 per cent of Mr. İhsanoğlu’s coverage was negative in tone, while Mr. Erdoğan’s coverage was almost all positive.”
This was explained as “normal” by the Deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, who was perplexed that opposition candidates would demand more time on TV. Arinc asked, “how can the opposition candidates be equal with Erdogan?”
Erdogan also benefited from the ambiguity of election and campaign rules and regulations. The January 2012 Law on Presidential Elections (LPE) received no support from opposition parties and there was little public consultation. This law established the direct election of the president, but also blocked anyone to be a candidate unless 20 parliamentarians nominated him or her. If a judge or a banker wanted to run, they’d be required to resign prior to becoming a candidate for Presidency. But the law that says this is required for “fair” elections lets a Prime Minister or a Minister (read: Erdogan) stay in his job, with all the attendant powers over media that come with incumbency.
The law allowed candidates to fundraise from the public and set donation limits for individuals, but it left unregulated financial contributions from political parties and candidates’ personal funds, which mean you can’t find out who paid for political advertising, rallies, and other expenses.
Even before that law, the 1982 constitution gave the Supreme Board of Elections powers without judicial review, erasing any concept of “separation of powers,” and taking away the power to appeal election disputes.
Given all this power, many pundits wondered why Erdogan had campaigned so intensely. Yet, when your goal is not just the election, but a transformation of the political scene, you need to keep up the game. Erdogan’s relentless campaigning was to convince its constituencies for the legitimacy of an “executive presidency.” That might sound like the U.S. presidential system, but he’s not interested in the rest: federalism, a bicameral Congress or independent Supreme Court.
Known to follow the public opinion surveys carefully, Erdogan was well aware that Turkish public was not in favor of a “presidential system”; hence, he utilized this campaign process to lay the foundations of the idea. The net effect of his talking down the premiership, and talking up the presidency, was to convince voters the office is not so important, that Erdogan runs the show from whichever seat he occupies.
Who can stand in front of Erdogan’s dreams? In the last 12 years, press has been successfully tamed; judiciary, security forces and almost all bureaucracy skillfully stacked with loyalists; laws have been repeatedly revised to silence any opposition and corruption charges against himself and his allies. He eloquently established institutions and promptly declared them useless–the latest example being TIB, a telecommunications board. Legislation is frequently an expedited process and the public rarely has an opportunity to view what is at stake.
Erdogan has won another election, but it represents a dramatic expansion of his powers, not just another office. He has made it quite clear that he aims for an illiberal democracy, where even questioning why there could not be a live presidential debate between candidates would promptly put your name on the blacklist. In the corridors of Ankara, the game is the same: new Turkey means more of Erdogan.
If even a child can tell you who will win an election 10 days before the vote, do you have a democracy anymore?
Pinar Tremblay is a visiting scholar of political science at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. This piece originally appeared at The Weekly Wonk.