Turkey’s Elections Won’t Be Free or Fair – FOREIGN POLICY

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But the opposition could still win. By Nate Schenkkan and Aykut Garipoglu in Foreign Affairs on May 3, 2023.

On May 14, Turkey will hold its most consequential election in decades. For the past 20 years, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have led the country down an authoritarian path, removing checks and balances and cracking down on dissent. They have seized control of the media, imprisoned political opponents, and suppressed  civil society. Simultaneous presidential and parliamentary contests will determine whether this trajectory continues or is interrupted.

Although Erdogan has steered Turkey toward autocracy, the country’s political field remains competitive and pluralistic. With under two weeks to go, and with the country reeling from an economic crisis and the massive February earthquakes, the opposition is leading in several polls. Turkey’s election won’t be free or fair, but it could still spell the end of Erdogan’s political career.

Erdogan and his party have meddled in elections several times in the past decade, but not always successfully. In 2014, when the AKP’s candidate looked like he would lose the mayoral race in the capital Ankara, the official state agency’s reporting of ballot-counting suddenly stopped for several hours, only to restart with the AKP candidate as the winner. The opposition’s suit over the election was declined by the Constitutional Court. In 2017, on the afternoon of a constitutional referendum that transformed Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system, judges overseeing voting announced that ballots would be counted even if they lacked an official seal of validity. No one knows how many unstamped ballots were tallied because of this ruling, and the referendum passed with just over 51 percent of the vote. And in 2019, when the AKP lost the crucial Istanbul mayoral election, judges seized on preposterous slender allegations of irregularities at polling stations to overturn the vote and hold a rerun—which the opposition then won by a larger margin.

This year, the AKP has a wide array of tactics it could employ to shape the election outcome, including recent changes to electoral laws, persecution of the opposition, arbitrary criminalization of speech, and a surge in public spending to win over voters.

In 2022, the AKP and its parliamentary coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), passed changes to Turkey’s electoral law over the opposition’s objections. The most crucial reforms impact the selection of the judges who rule on election disputes on the Supreme Election Council (YSK), which oversees all elections in Turkey. Under the new measures, YSK judges will be selected by lottery rather than by seniority. Erdogan purged the judiciary after the 2016 coup attempt and, according to Reuters, 45 percent of Turkey’s 21,000 judges had three or less years of experience as of 2020. A lottery increases the odds that AKP-appointed judges will handle election cases. What’s more, the YSK in January appointed a new chair with family ties to one of Erdogan’s allies.

The YSK has so far issued several rulings in favor of the AKP. In one case, the YSK allowed 15 government ministers who are running as AKP parliamentary candidates to continue their duties as ministers during the campaign—giving them continued access to ministry resources.

Relying on a system stacked with loyal judges, the AKP has used the courts to bar some competitors from running for office. Selahattin Demirtas, the popular co-founder of the left-wing pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), has been imprisoned since 2016 on several charges, including disseminating terrorism propaganda, despite repeated European Court of Human Rights rulings that he must be released. Many other HDP politicians and mayors have been jailed or removed from office since peace talks between the state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party broke down in 2015.

After running in the last round of presidential elections in 2018 from prison, Demirtas and the HDP have declined to put forward a presidential candidate this year and instead announced their support for the broad opposition coalition led by Turkey’s center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP). The HDP itself may be shut down entirely through a case currently being considered by Turkey’s Constitutional Court, despite the party’s request to delay the potential ruling until after the elections. The case is being brought by a state prosecutor, who alleges the party is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

To evade a possible ban, the HDP has chosen to run its candidates on the party list of the Green Left party. Last week, authorities detained 126 people, including many top HDP party members as well as Kurdish journalists, lawyers, and artists. Among the detained are lawyers who were set to volunteer as election observers and journalists ready to report on expected irregularities.

The courts were also used to shape the selection of the main opposition coalition’s candidate. In December, a court ruled that popular CHP member and Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu’s disparaging comments about the judges who overturned his first mayoral victory in 2019 constituted an illegal insult against public officials. If convicted, he would face a possible sentence of two and a half years in prison and a ban on participating in politics. The court decision contributed to fractures among the two largest parties of the opposition bloc—the CHP and the Good Party—which ultimately nominated CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu as their presidential candidate. As the election draws closer, the opposition has faced not only legal pressure but even armed attacks.

Arbitrary and harsh legal consequences for speech have also become commonplace in Erdogan’s Turkey. The country is infamous for imprisoning journalists and otherwise restricting free expression.

Last October, the AKP-MHP ruling coalition adopted a vaguely worded law that criminalizes online “disinformation” and places onerous requirements on social media companies to stop its spread—or be blocked. With increasing frequency under Erdogan, Turkish authorities have consistently prosecuted ordinary social media users on insult and terrorism charges, and the new law will surely be used to suppress opposition speech and other forms of dissent. In April, an online political activist who produced and shared stickers with images satirizing Erdogan’s campaign posters and drawing attention to rising consumer prices was detained after photos of the stickers went viral. He was accused of insulting the president and violating the election law but was later released from detention.

With print and broadcast media under firm government control, the opposition campaign has struggled to receive coverage in mainstream media. Social media—despite all its flaws—has been a lifeline. The prospect of more prosecutions for online speech under the new disinformation law has a chilling effect on independent journalism and the opposition’s ability to reach voters, especially on sensitive issues like the potential manipulation of ballot counting. The government’s blockage of Twitter in the days immediately following the February earthquakes, which it claimed was to stop the spread of disinformation, showed that the AKP will not shy away from using state power to control public narratives.

Before the earthquakes, Erdogan’s biggest vulnerability was his mismanagement of Turkey’s economy. Due to the president’s own idiosyncratic economic ideology, the government and central bank have aggressively lowered interest rates despite rampant inflation, and the Turkish lira has lost 91 percent of its value since 2013. More than half of this depreciation has occurred in the past two years, and the year-on-year rate of inflation has, at times, exceeded 100 percent for food and energy prices.

In the run-up to the election, Erdogan has rolled out a series of social spending hikes designed to rally his base and thwart opposition critiques of his economic policy. Last December, he announced that the government will increase the minimum wage by 55 percent in the new year and promised to eliminate the age minimum requirement for retirement for about 2.3 million workers if they meet certain criteria. (Ironically, opposition parties have long pushed for such reforms, but Erdogan rejected them.) In January, the president also announced that civil servants’ wages will be increased by 30 percent. This largesse will be costly to the state and the economy, but Erdogan is focused only on the election date. Most of the negative repercussions from the spending will be felt after the new five-year presidential term has begun.

Turkey’s opposition faces a daunting task in trying to overcome the AKP at the ballot box. After two decades in power, Erdogan has consolidated state control in a manner that is unprecedented in the country’s 75 years of multiparty politics. Throughout his tenure, the president has shown himself to be a relentless and opportunistic leader unafraid to resort to repressive tactics and willing to make or break alliances if doing so suits his short-term interests. The stakes of this election could not be higher for Erdogan, and he knows it.

One danger is that the opposition will pull ahead on election night—but narrowly—and that Erdogan will lean on the YSK and other institutions to make up the polling difference. This is the scenario that many claim occurred in Ankara in 2014 and in the constitutional referendum in 2017—and was unsuccessfully attempted in Istanbul in 2019. Another danger is that the opposition will win but that Erdogan will refuse to concede, setting up an unprecedented confrontation between the two camps. The risks will rise if the election goes to a second round because no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote. (Though Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu are by far the most important candidates, a few lesser-known politicians have also thrown their hats in the ring and could spoil a first-round victory.) With only two weeks between rounds, the atmosphere in the country—already tense in advance of a historic vote—could reach a fever pitch.

That means the international community must deploy substantial resources for monitoring and documenting electoral violations on the ground—from forms of interference that take place long before election day to those that take place on or after it. Observers must also be prepared to publicly denounce violations as soon as they occur, and to make clear to Erdogan and the AKP the tangible consequences—in terms of changes to foreign relations and sanctions on officials involved in election violations—of meddling with the results or violently suppressing protests in the case of a contested outcome.

After the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection in the United States and Brazil’s contentious presidential election last year, there is renewed global attention on the importance of respecting electoral outcomes and ensuring a peaceful transition of power. The international community should focus its attention on ensuring that both occur in Turkey. The country’s democracy hangs in the balance.

Nate Schenkkan is the senior director of research at Freedom House.

Aykut Garipoglu is a program officer for Europe and Eurasia Programs at Freedom House.

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