The June 24 snap presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey were the subject of much anticipation, hope, and excitement. Ultimately, the election came to a disappointing and anti-climatic end, with charismatic, opposition presidential candidate, Muharrem İnce, who had injected a tremendous boost of energy into the old guard secularist party, the CHP, sending a Whatsapp message to a television journalist announcing his concession. Erdogan had won 52.5% of the vote to Ince’s 30.7%. On Twitter, Ince’s supporters compared his concession to being broken up with via text message.
After the snap elections were announced, the CHP and two other parties, the new far-right IYI party and the conservative Islamist Saadet Party, formed an odd, if effective alliance. They came together around the shared desire to prevent the AKP, the party of Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and its ally, the nationalist party, MHP, from gaining a majority of parliamentary seats. Ultimately, however, the opposition failed in its goal, with the AKP winning 42% of the votes in the parliamentary contest and the MHP winning 11%, significantly out-performing predictions.
As a result of a constitutional referendum held on April 16, 2017, these elections complete Turkey’s transition from a parliamentary democracy, with a symbolic president as head of state, to a full executive presidential system. Parliament will still, however, have some limited power and could, in theory, check the executive’s power.
Before the elections, polls suggested there was a significant possibility the opposition alliance, together with the Kurdish HDP party, would secure enough votes to prevent an AKP-MHP majority in parliament. Ince’s rallies also drew enormous crowds while Erdogan’s support looked lackluster in comparison. There seemed to be a good chance Ince, together with the other opposition candidates for president, could force a run off by siphoning just enough support to prevent Erdogan from winning more than 50% of ballots in the first round of voting.
Because of the social, political, and institutional conditions surrounding these elections, cynical observers, such as myself, did not believe the opposition would succeed in winning either the presidential or parliamentary election. Indeed, there were a number of developments in the run up, during, and following voting that highlighted these issues. The presidential candidate for the HDP, for example, had to run his campaign from prison, where he was being held on trumped up charges. Because the Turkish state controls the media, opposition parties barely received any coverage during the campaign season. Opposition organizers were attacked and intimidated by extreme nationalists and supporters of the government. The Turkish election board, whose members are appointed by the ruling party, moved polling locations in the Kurdish-majority southeast away from population centers. The election board also allowed ballots that had not been stamped by polling places to be counted, creating an opportunity for ballot stuffing. On top of this, there were credible reports of other ballot irregularities.
Erdogan did not wait for the official results before declaring victory, creating a fait accompli situation. Nevertheless, as votes were being tallied, both by the government and opposition parties, it was clear Erdogan would retain the presidency and the AKP-MHP alliance would have enough seats to dominate parliament. Still, it was devastating to watch the hopes of so many Turks crushed in real-time.
As some have noted, Erdogan struck a “conciliatory” tone in his victory speech. I, however, remain skeptical he will ease up on his crackdown against the political opposition and dissenting members of civil society. Erdogan has every reason to continue consolidating his power and few reasons to keep his promises. It is clear even in the highly restricted, illiberal atmosphere that marked the Turkish election that Erdogan is, at best, supported by only a sliver more than half the population. In order to effectively control and crush dissent amongst those Turks who despise him, Erdogan must keep his repressive measures in place. Having won another election, even by a slim majority, he will likely now claim an even stronger “democratic” mandate for the human rights violations he has perpetrated and will continue to perpetuate.
Going forward, Erdogan is well-placed to be in power for a long time, and will not risk his position by doing something irrational, such as giving Turks more civil and political freedoms.