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The West Should Not Underestimate the Strength of Turkey’s Democratic Spirit

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Sloat is a Robert Bosch senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. She was a Research Fellow at Queen's University Belfast from 2001-2005.

This Sunday, Turkish voters will cast ballots for the parliament and president. Elections were originally scheduled for November 2019, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan moved them forward 18 months—before an economic slowdown started to bite, the nationalistic pride of military success in Syria faded, and opposition parties got organized.

These elections have particular significance, marking Turkey’s transition from a parliamentary to a presidential system. The changes, approved in an April 2017 referendum, abolish the role of prime minister, authorize the president to appoint the cabinet and issue executive orders, and reduce legislative power.

Read more: Four things to know ahead of Turkey’s elections

Amid an increasingly authoritarian climate following a failed coup in July 2016, with 160,000 detained and most opposition media outlets shuttered, many view the results as a foregone conclusion. Yet Turkey, for all its flaws, is not Russia. Elections may be imperfect, but they still matter. If not, why bother changing the date? Even those who dislike Erdoğan rejected the attempted military putsch in favor of regime change via the ballot box.

Turkey has held reasonably free and fair polls since 1950. In recent years, there have been some allegations of foul play. During November 2015 parliamentary elections, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted restrictions on media freedom and limits on some candidates’ ability to campaign due to localized violence. In last year’s constitutional referendum, the opposition criticized a last minute decision to count contested ballots. Yet notwithstanding any shenanigans, the results reflected a divided country: Erdoğan’s party lost its parliamentary majority in June 2015 elections (leading to the November do-over) and the referendum barely passed (51.4 percent for and 48.6 percent against).

To be sure, Sunday’s elections will not be “fair.” The OSCE’s preliminary report cited restrictions on freedom of assembly, association, and expression. The media landscape consists almost exclusively of outlets owned by pro-government businesses. The government has maintained a state of emergency since the coup attempt, which bans demonstrations and protests. The leader of the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, has been imprisoned along with other party members and officials since November 2016 on spurious terrorism charges; he has attempted to campaign from jail. Changes to election procedures—such as allowing law enforcement to monitor voting, relocating polling stations on security grounds, and counting ballots without official seals—have heightened concerns about potential abuses.

Read more: A jailed Kurdish kingmaker could decide Turkey’s future

However, these elections will arguably be “free.” They are also far more competitive than expected. The recent election and referendum results show Erdoğan is not invincible. He has floundered on the campaign trail, perhaps due to opposition pressure or fatigue. His formation of an alliance (People’s Alliance) with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) indicates concern about his electoral prospects. Most significantly, Erdoğan is vulnerable on the economy—the issue that helped bring his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 2002. Although pocketbook politics has contributed to his continued popularity, opinion polls suggest the economy is voters’ top priority; rising inflation and unemployment as well as the lira’s 20 percent depreciation against the dollar this year diminish his appeal.

Despite the uneven playing field, Turkey’s opposition parties—often criticized for being divided and weak—have energized the country with serious and well-organized campaigns. The social-democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) put forward a dynamic candidate, Muharrem Ince, who has garnered enthusiastic support with promises of improved Western relations and populist economic policies. Meral Akşener broke from the MHP to create the Iyi (Good) Party and began effectively challenging Erdoğan. When the earlier election date raised questions about her new party’s eligibility to run, the CHP “loaned” 15 legislators to ensure Iyi Party had sufficient numbers to form a parliamentary group. These parties (plus two smaller parties) formed an opposition alliance (National Alliance), which could cost the AKP a governing majority. All eyes are on the Kurds: opposition control is more likely if the HDP, which is outside this formal alliance, crosses the 10 percent threshold to enter parliament.

The election has three possible outcomes: Erdoğan wins, backed in parliament by his party’s alliance; one of his opponents wins, supported by the opposition coalition; or there is a mixed result with the president and parliament belonging to different camps.

Although opinion polls in Turkey are unreliable, they generally suggest the third scenario: AKP loses parliament, no presidential candidate secures the requisite 50 percent-plus-one, and a run-off is held on July 8. Although the opposition has agreed to rally behind the second candidate, the safe bet is Erdoğan emerges victorious but weakened. This would create a unique situation in Turkey, with a newly empowered president confronted by a hostile legislature.

Irrespective of the outcome, this snap election campaign has highlighted the resilience of the Turkish public, the fallibility of its long-time leader, and the strength of alternative ideas. Hours after parliament was bombed in the attempted coup, Turkish legislators met there to pass a joint resolution condemning the attack on their democracy. “Despite our political differences,” it stated, “we all are on the side of the national will.” This election should remind the West yet again not to underestimate the strength of Turkey’s democratic spirit.

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