Could a diverse alliance end Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule?
Could a diverse alliance end Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule? –
Four years ago, when ballots in local elections across Turkey were still being counted, municipality workers in Istanbul had already put up billboard posters of the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his Justice and Development (AKP) party’s candidate for mayor in the cultural and commercial capital, thanking the city’s residents for their votes.
The hubris was short-lived. An opposition candidate won, and did even better in a controversial and high-stakes re-run – a moment that in retrospect many hoped would mark the beginning of the end of the political powerhouse’s long career.
Since becoming prime minister in 2003, Erdoğan – Turkey’s most influential ruler since the founding of the republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk 100 years ago – has reshaped the country in his image.
Over the past decade, the reis, or boss, has cracked down on peaceful protests and freedom of speech, overturned the results of the general election in 2015, renewed Turkey’s war against the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), purged the country of his enemies in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt, persuaded Turkey to switch to a presidential system, and embarked on ambitious and unpredictable foreign policy adventures.
The conservative 69-year-old and his AKP still command deep loyalty from many religious Turks, who were marginalised by a secular ruling elite for decades: by some estimates, he still enjoys 45% support. However, after 10 years of growing authoritarian rule, the appetite for change is strong. The 2019 mayoral race in Istanbul showed that Turkey’s ailing democratic institutions still had a pulse, and that the AKP was not as all-powerful as it seemed.
This time around, the government’s inability to get on top of rampant inflation or the lira’s collapse has once again cost it support – as has the lacklustre response to this year’s devastating earthquakes. Polling – although frequently unreliable – has consistently put the 74-year-old challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu ahead, sometimes by a margin of just half a percentage point.
When polling stations closed at 5pm (3pm BST) on Sunday, preliminary data from Turkey’s main election body suggested Erdoğan had an early lead of 56.7% compared with Kılıçdaroğlu, on 37.4%, with 17% of votes counted.
By the evening, however, those figures had considerably narrowed, with agencies reporting that Erdoğan had fallen below the 50% marker needed to avoid a runoff.
Turnout is usually very high, so a clearer picture is unlikely to emerge until about midnight local time, and official results could take three days. If the opposition can move the needle enough to deny the incumbent a clear first-round victory of 50%, triggering a runoff, which would be held on 28 May, the already considerable tensions across the country could skyrocket.
Erdoğan and the people around him have a lot to lose, and may not be able to resist the temptation to put a thumb on the scales to engineer a victory. The question no one has an answer to except the president himself is: how far is he willing to go?
“During the campaign period, we already witnessed ruling elites’ efforts to intimidate voters and to delegitimise a possible opposition victory by tainting it as a ‘coup’ and an ‘invasion,’” said Sinem Adar, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“One could expect objections to vote counts at the provincial and district levels and recounting of votes, especially if the opposition wins in the first round, but the difference between the top two candidates is marginal. This means that a high-level mobilisation by political parties and civil initiatives will continue to be important to safeguard the votes in the following days after tonight.”
As the 2019 mayoral election in Istanbul proved, one of the most crucial moments in Turkish elections now begins after the polls close. Four years ago, many Istanbullus who had dejectedly shown up at polling stations to carry out their democratic duty earlier in the day watched the televised outcome at first with curiosity, and then excitement. When the live stream of results from the government news agency stopped altogether at about 9pm, people across the country realised that Erdoğan’s party was losing.
After weeks of AKP appeals, Turkey’s electoral board upheld a complaint regarding ballot counting and annulled the opposition victory. The decision sparked outrage even within the ruling party’s ranks, as it severely dented the AKP’s already damaged democratic credentials.
The opposition has learned lessons from that incident. An alliance of six ideologically diverse opposition parties has presented a united front in this year’s election, trying to attract votes from Turkey’s Kurdish minority and working-class conservatives disillusioned by economic pain and the lack of support after February’s earthquakes. Parties and civil society organisations have also mobilised a record number of volunteers to monitor polling stations and witness vote counts.
In remarks on the eve of the election, the pugnacious president struck an unusually conciliatory tone, saying he would accept the results of Sunday’s ballot, and if he lost, a transition of power would be peaceful.
As mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, Erdoğan made a comment to an interviewer that has come back to haunt him on several occasions. “Democracy is like a train … You get off when you arrive at your destination,” he said.
The president departed the train some time ago. In the coming days, we will find out if the rest of Turkey is willing to follow him on that journey.