Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at a press conference during an extraordinary summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul, Turkey, on May 18, 2018. Anadolu Agency/ Press Association. All rights reserved.President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced that presidential elections planned for November of 2019 have been moved forward to June 24, 2018. This announcement represents the next in a long string of actions that has led to a definitive shift away from competitive democracy in Turkey.
It’s important to understand that these are not simply routine elections; they will mark the official break with a parliamentary democracy that Turkey has maintained for over half a century, giving way to a presidential republic. In a narrow victory that opposition parties vigorously contested, the Turkish electorate approved these changes in an April 2017 referendum. The eighteen approved amendments to the constitution granted sweeping new powers to the President and abolished the office of Prime Minister. These new powers include the ability “to appoint ministers, prepare the budget, choose the majority of senior judges, … enact certain laws by decree,” announce a state of emergency and dismiss parliament, as reported by the BBC. The reform’s backers argue that it will streamline decision-making in a country where parliamentary politics have frequently led to inaction. Opponents worry that this change will eliminate any checks on the fulfillment of Erdogan’s dictatorial aspirations.
Nonetheless, despite a narrow victory, a majority of Turkish voters approved these reforms. Why, then, should it matter when they are held? There is far more to achieving democratic outcomes than holding elections. Democratic functioning requires robust protection for basic freedoms, such as freedom of association or expression, so that genuine competition can develop. The total absence of these rights in present-day Turkey forecloses any possibility of fair outcomes from these elections.
The state of emergency, which has remained in place since the attempted coup in the summer of 2016, is a primary reason for this absence. This allows the Turkish government to restrict or ban gatherings and censor the media. It also limits checks on presidential decrees and oversight of arrests and prosecutions. Additionally, Turkey suspended the European Convention on Human Rights which safeguards basic protections like “the right to life, freedom from torture, the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression.” Nor have any of these changes represented empty threats; the government has, since the attempted coup, purged hundreds of thousands of people from the civil service, shut down critical media organizations, and arrested tens of thousands of suspected members of the opposition. These measures have severely limited the space for opponents to organize and garner support.
Aside from the fact that these new elections will be held under the state of emergency, the short time frame itself gives Erdogan the upper hand. The repressive measures enforced during the state of emergency and extensive purges in the governmental establishment have decimated the opposition. Elections held in June give opposition parties no time to recuperate, to groom candidates or to build a base of support.
This is surely not accidental; Erdogan has shown himself to be a shrewd master of political opportunism in the past. With these early elections Erdogan is able to ensure that he stays in power for the next five years, capitalizing on a political high that is unlikely to last until November of next year. Already there’s evidence that Erdogan’s popularity might not be as durable as he would like. While voters backed political changes in last year’s referendum, they did so only by a narrow margin. Political and economic forecasts suggest troubled times ahead.
Delivering economic growth has been a key component of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) success. It is unclear how the party will fair if this growth slows or if Turkey undergoes a recession. Similarly, Erdogan can presently cite Turkey’s occupation of Afrin, in Syria, as a popular victory – something that he may not be able to do in a year’s time. In short, Erdogan’s decision to hold elections this June betrays fear that his popularity is fading and that he will be unable to win elections held in November of 2019.
This most recent announcement, therefore, represents an under-handed political manoeuver that undermines the integrity of Turkey’s democracy. International actors who are safe from the censure and repression that exists within Turkey should take advantage of their access to basic freedoms and condemn Erdogan’s latest move for what it is: a case of autocratic entrenchment. Meanwhile, if Erdogan is so confident that he is the only one capable of delivering on Turkey’s needs, he should demonstrate that confidence by standing up to opponents in a real democratic contest.