Turkey: the post-election brawl – a regime at a crossroads
The mission that “revolutionary guards” took upon themselves in the aftermath of the putsch was to radically transform Turkey’s social, political and institutional landscape. How are they doing?
On April 9, Devlet Bahçeli – leader of Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) –declared that he did not recognize Ankara’s newly elected mayor Mansur Yavaş, the candidate supported by the National Alliance (NA) between the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and İYİ Parti (İP) as his mayor. This, Bahçeli asserted, is because “even though Yavaş received the mandate, he still did not win in good conscience (kamu vicdanı).”
In the same statement, Bahçeli also raised the prospect of re-running the İstanbul elections. Shortly after, Süleyman Soylu – Turkey’s hawkish Minister of Interior Affairs, who had until this point kept a noticeably low profile since the elections on March 31 – appeared in front of the cameras to second Bahçeli’s take on the need for an election repeat in İstanbul due to suspicions of ballot fraud. Soylu claimed that this “would benefit democracy because it would clear the elected mayors of any impropriety.”
Later that day, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself also joined Bahçeli and Soylu, and told journalists shortly before taking off for his meeting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin that “irregularities [in İstanbul] are not random but systematic and organized.”
In the midst of this baffling display of public posturing and political maneuvering, NA’s mayor-elect in İstanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, received his mandate – on April 17 to be exact. Meanwhile, the legal process over whether to cancel the İstanbul elections continues, with Turkey’s Supreme Election Council (YSK) still expected to make a decision. The paralyzing deadlock over the İstanbul Metropolitan elections has pundits at home and abroad perturbed about the predicament facing elections in Turkey – namely, the sole legitimacy of the ballot as determinative of who assumes office after elections. It is our contention, however, that far from being the cause, the İstanbul “controversy” is symptomatic of a country-wide shift of attitude – accelerating since at least the putsch of July 15, 2016 – over whether elections ought to be the defining source of political legitimacy.
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This crucial point appears to have been overlooked in the current debate – all the more so since İmamoğlu assumed office as mayor. During the recent campaign, the three leading figures of the People’s Alliance (PA) – Erdoğan, Bahçeli and Soylu – have repeatedly threatened to examine the poll results and determine who among those elected would be “suitable” to hold municipal posts. To ignore these campaign messages risks overlooking how premeditated this process of drawing conclusive referentiality away from the ballot box has been. In short, the PA strategy has been “hiding in plain sight” for some time.
As one of the authors of this article has argued elsewhere, the AKP elite and its allies, following the putsch in 2016, have taken a revolutionary approach to political legitimacy in Turkey, redefining it at its core. In other words, the regime now sees its legitimacy as solely reflected – both literally and figuratively – in the body of the “true citizens” (millet): those who came onto the streets during the night of the coup attempt of July 15–16, 2016, to block tanks and rally support for Erdoğan.
It is these supporters – the “true believers” – that the regime “counts” in terms of a “legitimate” popular will. Hence, the regime has adopted a new self-image as a revolutionary guard that is beyond and above the political. We should caution here that we do not use the word “revolutionary” normatively. Instead, we emphasize the groundbreaking boldness of ruling elites to re-conceptualize “popular legitimacy,” and to claim an entitlement to radically redesign the social and political landscape in Turkey on that basis.
Increasing suspicion and reluctance to acknowledge the election ballot as the sole and sufficient condition for political representation is nothing less than a continuation and expression of this revolutionary perspective, most recently manifest in the statements by Bahçeli and Soylu.
Kurdish areas as the laboratory of authoritarianism
In Turkey, the major successor-state of the Ottoman Empire, the ballot box has over 140 years of history. The country has held multi-party elections since 1908, although legislative bodies have been intermittently suspended or discontinued. It should also be noted that the political system in the country has often been identified as one of the few competitive electoral regimes in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, elections in Turkey have rarely been exemplary in their transparency. To begin, there have been systematic irregularities in elections in Kurdish areas since at least the 1990s; the 10 percent electoral threshold that has been in place since 1983 is also a principle means of blocking Kurdish political representation. Beyond these, the mostly cited examples of non-transparent/unfair election outcomes are the very first direct general suffrage elections in 1946, the 1983 parliamentary elections after the 1980 military coup – in which only the candidates and parties approved by the national security council could run – and the 2014 municipal elections in Ankara. It should be noted here that those murky or corrupt practices were meant to fix the ballot tally without rejecting the principle that the tally would decide the winner.
However, for the first time in the history of modern Turkey and even the late Ottoman period going back to 1876, the validity of election outcomes is now dependent on post hoc certification by ruling elites that the candidate with the most votes is “fit for office”.
One early warning of this logic was the appointment of government trustees in many Kurdish cities based on a presidential decree passed on September 1, 2016 in the wake of the July 15 putsch. This move was justified rhetorically by the newly articulated requirement that all officeholders should show “patriotism” and “loyalty” to Turkey. Elected Kurdish mayors who were removed from office were accused of fomenting or supporting terrorist activities and organizations.
We should note here that in Turkey, political suppression and physical violence in Kurdish areas is hardly new. It indeed goes back to the very early days of the republic. What matters most for our argument here is that the methods tested and honed in these areas are now being applied extensively elsewhere in the country. The post-2016 revolutionary character of the ruling elites has made this connection more visible.
The utter chaos that has followed the March 31 elections has exposed the rulers’ strategy of applying the post-2016 logic further afield, beyond the Kurdish parts of the country for all to see. The mention of “indicative” ballot outcomes by the three PA leaders – Erdoğan, Bahçeli and Soylu – was clear for anyone paying close attention in the run up to March 31, when they declared that only “the right kind” of person, irrespective of the vote tally, should fill mayoral offices across the country.
Remarks made by the PA leaders throughout the campaign about the NA candidate for Ankara mayor, Mansur Yavaş, are a clear exmple. Two weeks before the municipal elections, Turkish prosecutors even prepared an indictment against Yavaş over claims that he had abused his powers while acting as an arbitrator in a legal dispute. Even though Yavaş’ mandate was certified on April 8 by YSK, Bahçeli’s remarks the following day that Yavaş victory could not be accepted “in good conscience” had already raised eyebrows.
Nullification of election results
In the Kurdish heartland – the testing ground for the regime’s oppressive measures to undermine the power and conclusiveness of the ballot box – the situation is, to be sure, much worse. Elected mayors in Diyarbakır, Van and Mardin have not yet had their mandates certified. In total, 51 out of 70 HDP candidates who won on March 31 are still waiting for official certification.
To add insult to injury, on April 10 the YSK – despite having officially certified their candidacies prior to the election – disqualified a swathe of HDP candidates who had stood again and again won mayoralties from which they had been ejected after the September 2016 presidential decree.
Exacerbating this post hoc nullification of election outcomes was the decision to certify losing AKP candidates in other parts of the region. For example, in the Bağlar district of Diyarbakır – where HDP candidates secured 70.2 percent of the vote – the losing AKP candidate was nevertheless certified with just 25.6 percent; in Van’s Tuşba district, the certified AKP candidate took just 39.9 percent of the vote while the real winner from the HDP received 53.1 percent. Çaldıran and Edremit in Van province, Tekman in Erzurum province and Dağpınar in Kars province are other districts in Kurdish areas where AKP runners-up were declared the winner over their HDP competitors who received larger shares of the vote.
Undermining the ballot by defaming the winners
The post-March 31 crisis has thrown ballot results as the foremost source of legitimacy for representation in Turkey into question. While this is unprecedented, it was indeed quite predictable. What was not expected, apparently – especially by the PA – was a victory in İstanbul by Ekrem İmamoğlu, an atypically soft-spoken and pragmatic leader with an all-inclusive and non-partisan rhetoric. Since Erdoğan had presumably not anticipated the win, he had not thought to set İmamoğlu up in advance of the poll and so made no effort to paint him as “not the right kind of person” to hold office.
In the absence of such premeditation, the PA has so far resorted to a menu of manipulation in İstanbul to delegitimize the election results – foot-dragging in acknowledging the opposition’s victory and manufacturing any pretext that might allow them to throw out these results and start again. These allegations – happily spread both by pro-government journalists and PA politicians – of “organized crime”, “organized malfeasance,” and even a “coup” cooked up by an international network of Turkey’s enemies, are entirely unfounded.
On April 10, the ex-mayor of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, AKP candidate for Buyukcekmece – one of the most strongly contended districts during recent İstanbul elections – went even further, noting that “the opposition removed those voters whose political preferences for the AKP were obvious – based on their surnames – from the electorate lists.” Added to this menu, following İmamoğlu’s entering into office on April 17, are the paralyzing legal-bureaucratic maneuvers to turn elected mayors into lame ducks.
These controversies and disputes in and beyond İstanbul over the election outcomes demonstrate that the PA leaders will not hesitate to define “who the winning mayors will be” and to defame those “unworthy of being elected” according to their political concerns, legal/criminal imaginative “creativity” or value judgments. As such, their strategy strips the ballot of its long-established salience. Ballot results are now dependent on the ruling elites’ approval after the fact. Such a state of affairs makes a mockery of the principle and practice of political representation.
The menu of manipulations that is at the disposal of the PA offers numerous options: refusing to grant mandates either due to previous presidential decrees or by bureaucratic foot-dragging, declining to sign-off the recount results, manufacturing criminal charges. Last but not least, arbitrary rejection of the results simply on the basis of PA leaders’ personal dislike for or suspicions about the winning candidate is yet another method that the PA leaders have been resorting to. Such criteria began to be voiced more often, as indicated in Bahçeli’s comments about Ankara’s mayor elect Mansur Yavaş or his more recent comments on CHP’s İstanbul candidate that “this guy [İmamoğlu] would not make a mayor”.
All these tactics suggest that PA leaders and columnists within Erdoğan’s close circle perceive the election outcomes in İstanbul and beyond as a “counter-revolutionary” mobilization, perhaps even comparable to the July 15 putsch, which put their power and the regime’s survival at risk. At the same time, and equally importantly, these responses also reflect the deepening concerns within the PA about the vulnerabilities of the regime.
Erdoğan’s vacillation reveals cracks within the ruling bloc
Notwithstanding the continued public show by Erdoğan, Bahçeli and Soylu of alliance unity on April 9, both the PA and the AKP seem to lack a strong consensus within. Erdoğan’s oscillating narrative over whether or not the İstanbul metropolitan municipal elections will be re-run validates this. One of the earlier signs of an internal conflict or discrepancy took place on the night of March 31. It is extremely unlikely that the AKP candidate Binali Yıldırım would have claimed victory right before midnight when the tally was too close to call, without first seeking the approval (or at least encouragement) of President Erdoğan. Yet, to everyone’s surprise, when Erdoğan appeared, belatedly one and a half hours later, at 1 a.m. to give his “balcony speech” – by now a tried and tested ritual after each election – he insinuated that there had been a defeat in the metropolis, noting that “even if the people delivered a metropolitan municipality overall [to the opposition], they gave the districts to the AKP.”
After a brief period of silence, Erdoğan re-appeared in front of the cameras on April 3; this time speaking in a quite different tone. Calling İmamoğlu a “lame duck,” he noted that the process in the İstanbul elections was still ongoing, and even if İmamoğlu had won, he would not be able to govern because of the likelihood of partisan deadlock between an AKP-majority city council and a CHP-run municipality. Only two days later, on April 5, Erdoğan surprisingly and confusingly reverted to a softer tone emphasizing that the election process had finished and YSK had the sole and primary authority over managing the legal process.
Erdoğan’s vacillation over the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality elections reached a climax in the days that followed. Shortly before taking off for his meeting with Putin on April 8, he told journalists that “they [the AKP] have provided the YSK with evidence demonstrating systematic and organized irregularities in İstanbul.” The next day, Erdoğan’s photo with the regime hawks who militantly advocated a re-run taken on the plane on the way back to Turkey – was published, repeating earlier allegations of “organized fraud.”
The March 31 defeat and the growing İstanbul “controversy” has brought to light deepening clashes and frictions within the ruling bloc, surfacing the barely subterranean resentments held by various elements, perhaps even leading to splits. At the same time, it also rendered Bahçeli’s ambitions to make the most out of Erdoğan’s setback visible. This became even more apparent after İmamoğlu received his mandate on April 17. Two days later, Erdoğan tweeted that “debates over elections should be put behind them and 82 million [Turkey’s population] should – regardless of their political differences – act together in matters concerning our country’s survival (beka) under one single Turkey Alliance (Türkiye İttifakı–TA).”
Cracks in the edifice?
On April 21, Bahçeli, in a rather destabilizing manner, responded that “a country-based alliance (TA) is not possible, and that our [i.e. the MHP’s] alliance is (only) with the People (Cumhur) and with our AKP fellows.” In the afternoon of the same day, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu – leader of the CHP, the main opposition party – was attacked at a soldier’s funeral in Çubuk province of Ankara.
Interestingly, as Erdoğan only commented about the attacks via a tweet, and in an unusually low-key manner, Bahçeli was fast to comment rather sarcastically that even if the incident was sad, “Kılıçdaroğlu should have known better where to go [the PA won the majority of the votes in Çubuk].”
Soylu joined Bahçeli on April 22 and denied the statements by CHP officials that the Ministry of Interior had not been informed in advance about Kılıçdaroğlu’s attendance at the funeral, and blamed the CHP for its “contact with the People’s Democracy Party (HDP) which is known to have ties with the Kurdistan Worker’s Army (PKK).” Bahçeli and Soylu arguably aim at capitalizing on any signs of Erdoğan’s weakened position, especially given the internal conflicts within the party.
A fork in the road
The putsch on July 15, 2016 came within the context of an already redefined electoral politics in the aftermath of the June 7, 2015 elections. The uniqueness of the putsch lies, however, in its capacity to reformulate the very source of legitimacy and to spread a politics of fear – an atmosphere from which no political actor can escape or hide.
The halting of the coup attempt by the popular show of “people power” on July 15–16, 2016 enabled the regime actors not only to imagine but also to present themselves as “revolutionary guards.” The mission that these “guards” took upon themselves in the aftermath of the putsch was to radically transform Turkey’s social, political and institutional landscape.
The June 24, 2018 elections put a legal seal on the path towards institutional disintegration and authoritarian consolidation. This institutional decay has been reinforced by the ideological and psychological changes enabled by the putsch of July 2016. The approval of Erdoğan’s one-man-rule ironically further compelled him to an ultra-nationalist front of actors with diverging interests.
As we reflect on the March 31 elections, we will likely remember them as a second critical juncture making this path difficult to reverse. The difficulty lies not only in the increasing arbitrariness of exercising power, which is bad enough in and of itself. More importantly, it is driven by a paradigmatic shift in what casting a ballot is supposed to signify in Turkey.
As voting has become, at least for the ruling clique, “indicative” and no longer “determinative,” Turkey stands at a fork in the road. The regime has reached its limits, not only in domestic politics but also in foreign policy, with the ongoing stalemate in Syria and the tension with the US over Turkey’s planned purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia. Moreover, the ever-deepening economic crisis adds another layer of heavy strain. These multi-layered pressures increasingly put the regime’s aspirations at odds with the actual needs and realities that it has to respond to, triggering and accumulating tensions within the ruling bloc.
Regardless of the outcome of the İstanbul deadlock, we observe with tremendous regret that the hopes for a swift and smooth return to “normalization” fade with each passing day. Having gone through almost total collapse of institutional checks and balances, the country seems increasingly more vulnerable to extreme and marginal scenarios. What such a potential sequence of events might exactly lead to is beyond the objectives and capacity of the analysis here.
It is not difficult to infer that a regime in total crisis (political, economic, diplomatic) blocking the previously existent channels of representation will probably pave the way for highly contentious – i.e., non-institutional and non-constitutional – politics to erupt. That said it is much harder to foresee the configuration that such a mobilization might take.
One important dynamic or parameter, is the agency of the pluralist and progressive opposition in Turkey. On the one hand, the current dire situation makes it particularly difficult for the opposition to overcome the all-too-likely hazards the regime is charting Turkey towards. Yet, while difficult, it is still not impossible that the opposition might skillfully utilize the opportunities that the current systemic crisis offers to mobilize broader echelons of the population against the regime. At the same time, there remains as well the distinct possibility that the internal crumbling of the regime bloc might come sooner rather than later.
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