The masses have spoken, but not all hope is lost, for Turkey’s democracy

This inherent ability to cancel itself out is democracy’s paradox:  to “sow the seeds of its own destruction”, succumbing to the electoral will of the majority.

Tezcan Gumus
20 April 2017

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan addresses supporters in Presidential Palace, Ankara, Turkey April 17, 2017. Depo Photos/Press Association. All rights reserved. The 51.3% win for the ‘yes’ vote means the country in 2019 will transition to a presidential system from a parliamentary democracy that it has lived under since 1945. Unlike the US-style presidential system, the Turkish model won’t have the separation of powers that provide strong checks on the executive. Rather presidency a-la Turka provides the executive with the keys to the state, legislature, and judiciary. The president will be accountable to virtually nobody, the country susceptible to the whims of a single person’s wishes. These victories fuelled the perception of the AKP as the architects of contemporary Turkey who alone understood what was best for the country.

Turkey has for many years witnessed the steady dismantling of democracy under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule. Consecutive electoral victories since 2002 by Erdoğan’s AKP allowed the party to govern single-handedly with an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly. Over time, these victories fuelled the perception of the AKP as the architects of contemporary Turkey who alone understood what was best for the country. Ruling with a strong majority in parliament for Erdoğan and his AKP comrades was equated with the unrestricted exercise of a power carried out with systemic efficiency.

Indeed, the early years witnessed some democratic gains but after the 2007 victory the trend began to reverse, picking up full speed from 2010 onwards. During these years, the legislative actions indicated a government taking great strides at pulling apart any democratic institutions and practices. Turkey’s already fragile democracy couldn’t withstand the onslaught of their overwhelming majority. Erdoğan’s government became comfortable, at times gloating, in their efforts to muzzle, marginalise and repress their opposition. What little tolerance existed disappeared altogether for any opposition and critics.  What little tolerance existed disappeared altogether for any opposition and critics.

In the face of the erosion of political and civil rights of their fellow countrymen, freedom of assembly, the press, independence of the judiciary and social harmony withered away, replaced by an extremely polarised and divided society. The public continued to re-elect Erdoğan.

The period of democracy’s cessation was neither brief nor sudden. Rather the coming end of democracy was slow and steady. Developments following the failed coup on the night of July 15, 2016 marked the inevitable termination of democracy, formalised with the slim victory for the ‘yes’ vote in the referendum.

Reversible democracy?

Turkey’s experience flies in the face of assumptions that the path of democratisation is near irreversible, at the least difficult to reverse. The country’s experience is another lesson that in democracy nothing is out of the question if the majority so choose. It demonstrates democracy has no inbuilt mechanism to deny anti-democratic ideals from slipping into its midst. When supported by enough numbers anything can be put into question, interrogated, repealed – even the idea of democracy itself.

The cancellation of democracy indeed remains a perpetual risk, which no democracy can legitimately guard against.  This inherent ability to cancel itself out is democracy’s paradox:  to “sow the seeds of its own destruction” as Mark Chou has stated, die at its own hands, succumbing to the electoral will of the majority.

All is not lost

Yet, all hope for Turkey’s democracy is not lost. The coming end of democracy need not be permanent or assured. As the masses can choose to end democracy, they are as capable of reviving it.

In opposing the presidential system, 49% of the country voted ‘no’. This by no means is a small minority in a country in which around 46 million are reported to have cast their ballots. The difference between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ vote is around one million, by no means irreversible. Despite utilising the state’s resources to drive his campaign, control over 90% of the country’s media, imprisoning politicians, activists and journalists, and creating an alliance with the Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (Nationalist Movement Party, MHP), Erdoğan failed to receive a decisive victory, hardly the “strong mandate” he was striving for. The combined vote share of the AKP and the MHP was more than 60% in the 2015 elections, and the April 16 result did not yield a similar result from their union. This 51% signifies a significant drop in both their vote potentials. Worryingly for Erdoğan, the ‘no’ vote won in Turkey’s largest cities Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.

A solid belt along the Aegean and Mediterranean regions rejected the proposed executive presidency. Worryingly for Erdoğan, the ‘no’ vote won in Turkey’s largest cities Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. Together with other major cities of Antalya, Adana and Mersin, where ‘no’ also prevailed, they represent the country’s financial, industrial and touristic heartlands all opposed to Erdoğan’s vision for Turkey. In addition, the majority of the Kurdish majority regions in the south and southeast voted overwhelmingly against the constitutional changes.

Peak Erdoğan?

Perhaps, this is an indication that Erdoğan has reached the limits of his electoral power and could have a hard time sustaining his narrow popularity in the lead up to the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections.

Subsequent developments from the referendum suggest there are credible claims that voter manipulation occurred to hand the narrow victory to the ‘yes’ campaign. The two main opposition parties Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican Peoples’ Party, CHP) and the Halkların Demokratik Partisi (Peoples’ Democratic Party, HDP) and hundreds of citizens have appealed to the election watchdog for the annulment of a critical referendum that resulted in a narrow win for the government, arguing that unsealed ballot papers and envelopes were counted in open violation of the law.

The European Commission has also urged Turkey to launch “transparent investigations” into alleged voting irregularities in the constitutional referendum. The international observers charged on April 17 that the referendum campaign was conducted on an “unlevel playing field” and that the vote count was “marred by late procedural changes that removed key safeguards.” Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Board (YSK) made a controversial last-minute decision on April 16 to count ballots that had not been stamped by officials. This has brought into serious disrepute the legitimacy of President Erdoğan’s victory domestically and internationally, which will further stimulate the “no” camps.

Indeed, the outcome shows a deeply polarised society. As troubling as this is, the staunch resistance by the opposition groups signifies that the fight for democracy has yet to be concluded. Given that this group did not wilt away in the face of undemocratic and illiberal practices in the lead up to the vote, there is no indication that they will disappear now that the decision has handed him victory. Further slight shifts on the political landscape provide further hope. There are murmurs that experienced and established former politicians from MHP like Meral Akşener, or the AKP, could be getting ready to form another centre-right party in the post-referendum era. Depending on the names involved, a new centre-right party might challenge Erdoğan’s electoral power. Erdoğan’s likely response will be to… extend his grip over the state to expend all his power to advance his personal vision.

Erdoğan’s likely response, in the short term, will be to press ahead with his victory and extend his grip over the state to expend all his power to advance his personal vision. It will be hard for him both to extinguish the deep tradition and spirit of competitive politics and completely erode the organisational power and support of party’s like the CHP and HDP, that have shown immense resilience.

Erdoğan is experienced enough to know that this slim victory, in spite of his efforts, will not allow him to take steps as freely as he could with a greater margin. Turkey’s parliamentary system has been replaced with a presidential one that is not restricted by any checks and balances, with no quick reversal in sight. Yet, the world’s political history is littered with the many lives and deaths of democracy. Turkey will be no exception. As grim as it might seem at this point, there still beats a pulse of hope. The tussle between the two diametrically opposed camps will create the space and tension to keep political pluralism alive in Turkey, just enough to sustain the flame for democracy.

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