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Turkey’s snap elections: a level playing field?

The question remains whether the next elections will be free and fair. In light of Turkey’s recent political development, this is highly unlikely: the end of democracy sometimes comes not with a coup but with a vote. 

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan poses for photos with children in commando uniforms as he addresses the members of his ruling party at the parliament in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. DepoPhotos/Press Association. All rights reserved.Despite months of insistent denials, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called for early parliamentary and presidential elections to be held in June 2018 instead of November 2019. Hours after his announcement, Turkish parliament extended the state of emergency through July, the seventh such extension since the failed coup attempt.

By bringing the election forward by more than a year, analysts posit that Erdoğan is trying to get ahead of a downturn curve in Turkey’s fortunes that could impact his standing in the near future. The call seems to have come at the request of his ultranationalist ally, Devlet Bahçeli of the Nationalist Action Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi - MHP), in a culmination of the situation forced upon the government due to Turkey’s military incursions in Syria and the country’s growing economic woes. 

Apart from the required second round of voting following its failure to form a government after the 2015 elections, the ruling Justice Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi - AKP) has never called for an early election since coming to power a decade and half ago; and the party repeatedly rejected growing speculations that they would call them this year.

Erdoğan himself was publicly against holding early elections, referring to them as “a sign of underdevelopment” and “treason”. Many analysts still expected the call, and early elections were not a question of “if” but “when”. In a speech announcing the early election, Erdoğan said “it has become a necessity for Turkey to overcome uncertainties as soon as possible amid developments of historical importance in our region as well as the cross-border operation we are carrying out in Syria.” By “uncertainties” he referred to the transition phase in between the parliamentary system and the new executive presidential system narrowly voted through in last year’s constitutional referendum under state of emergency law. The desire for a prompt transition to the presidential system can be accorded some validity as a driving factor. In Pinar Tremblay’s view, “the bureaucracy has been in a limbo between the office of the president and the prime minister”. The transition is also believed to have created tensions among the AKP’s higher echelons on how to function in such a hybrid system.  

While the call for an early election might be a well-thought-out strategy to catch the opposition off-guard, two months is hardly enough time to prepare for both parliamentary elections and the country’s new two-round presidential vote, to occur at the same time. Doubts are therefore looming on whether the government can ensure that forthcoming election will be free and fair. 

If the outcome of June’s elections is hardly in question, then why do they still matter? The answer lies in political science literature on electoral authoritarianism, in political systems where a façade of multi-party elections is maintained, but the political power remains uncontested. Such elections, however, serve to demonstrate the popular support for an entrenched regime and thus bolster state legitimacy, further reinforcing regime hegemony. For this reason, the outcome of the upcoming elections, even if it is the expected victory for the AKP, are particularly crucial to Turkey’s democratic trajectory. 

Similar to last year’s vote, the lack of equal opportunities, partial media coverage and limitations on fundamentals freedoms, create a playing field that is hardly level for all the eligible parties contesting in June’s election.

Economic woes

The dire situation of the economy is perhaps the first and most compelling factor in Erdoğan’s call for early elections. While Turkey has witnessed an unprecedented economic growth under the rule of the AKP, recent conditions are no longer entirely rosy. According to a recent report from the Economist (2018), Turkey’s current-account deficit has risen from $33.7 billion at the end of 2016 to $41.9 billion. The attendant credit boom raises the spectre of high inflation, an economic disease which haunted Turkey for over three decades from the 1970s until the early 2000s. Without fiscal and monetary restraint, a prolonged period of double-digit inflation may well lie ahead. Recent showing in the lira supports this prediction of economic vulnerability. In early April, the exchange rate depreciation hit record lows, indicating international ambivalence about Turkey’s economic future amid continuing political uncertainty and investor doubts regarding the Central Bank of Turkey’s ability (and authority) to tackle a double-digit inflationary spiral.

According to Roger Blitz, foreign investors have suspected the autonomy of the Central Bank of Turkey is compromised by pressure from Erdoğan, who has repeatedly argued that interest rates should be lower. There is ongoing tension between the Central Bank’s desire to raise interest rates and curtail inflation and Erdoğan’s determination that lowering interest rates will encourage inflation to fall at the wrong moment and that the country’s economic growth would be negatively impacted. Therefore, Turkey continues to suffer from Erdoğan’s preferred economic model of high growth, one which has produced high inflation, high interest rates, high government spending, high unemployment, and a high current account deficit, all made worse by the country’s difficulties in attracting foreign investment.  

The Turkish president has also refused to acknowledge the correlation between Turkey’s deteriorating political situation and its poor investor climate. Since the failed coup attempt, Turkey has suffered a series of downgrades by international rating agencies. In its latest rating, the American-based Moody downgraded Turkey’s credit rating two marks below investment grade from Ba2 to Ba1, and cited two interrelated concerns: large external financing needs and worsening of the political climate. With an uncertain political situation, international creditors and investors are growing concerned at the credibility of the country, as well as the potential for investments lost through expropriation, economic downturns, or other related political changes. 

Erdoğan has responded by criticising international credit agencies for downgrading Turkey’s debt rating, he referred to them as attempts to “corner Turkey”, chastising them for “making statements against our country”. Credit agencies, however, cite the erosion of the country’s institutional strength since the failed coup attempt. Erdoğan’s criticism was also perceived by many as veiled attack on the Deputy Prime Minister of Economics, Mehmet Şimşek, who is regarded by investors to be among the few government figures who understands Turkey’s economic problems and has publicly agreed with the position of the credit agencies. While stricter fiscal discipline is essential to help control the spiralling inflation rate, the widening current account deficit and the fast-growing foreign debt, it is more likely the government will instead invest in extravagant promises in order to buy the support of certain demographics before the election.

Already, despite these deepening financial issues, the Turkish government has rolled out a broad-based pay-out package in an effort to court the favours of pensioners, farmers and minimum-wage owners ahead of the elections.  The government is also expected to make use of the still-impressive growth rate for the general election. To keep voters as content as possible, the government may opt for introducing more social benefits and expanding public spending. Turkey’s relative stable economy has kept the AKP in power for nearly two decades, but it may not support the party so easily for much longer.  

Incursions in Syria 

Another factor behind Erdoğan’s call for early elections is a desire to take advantage of the rally-around-the-flag effect of Turkey’s relevant military success in the Kurdish town of Afrin, Syria – or at least, this is how it has been portrayed by the Turkish media. In early 2018, The Turkish government launched a military campaign, codenamed Operation Olive Branch, in Afrin and Tell Rifaat, in Northwest Syria. The offensive was against the Democratic Kurdish Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat‎ - PYD) and its armed wing Peoples Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel - YPG), both of which Turkey alleges are offshoots of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê – PKK). After nearly two months since the start of the operation, the Turkish-led Free Syrian Army drove out the Kurdish fighters on March 18 and declared the capture of Afrin. This apparent victory is not likely to last, as it is unlikely that Russia, Iran and Syria’s President Assad would tolerate a long-term Turkish presence in Syria. The most probable scenario is that Turkey will withdraw and return these territories to Assad, mitigating the aforementioned boost in public morale.

Analysing the reasons behind the early election call, Tremblay refers to a recent opinion poll conducted by Metropoll Research, which recently published a survey on “Operation Olive Branch in Voters’ Eyes”. The report studied the potential and expected voter levels for the AKP, showing the influence of various factors over time, and the Afrin offensive inspired the poll participants and prompted an increase in the AKP’s expected vote share. The failed coup attempt of July 2016 had already increased public support for the AKP, raising the AKP’s voter support to its highest point. Moreover, in the past, spells of high tension and ultranationalist upsurges have boosted Erdoğan’s persona as a father figure and saviour, especially among ardent AKP supporters. Since the start of Afrin, Erdoğan for his part has been posing in front of cameras in military uniforms with soldiers and children dressed in military gear. Calling elections now allows Erdoğan and the AKP to capitalize on what remains of this support before it erodes any further.

Particularly, Erdoğan is racing ahead of the backlash to Turkey’s declining human rights situation. While Turkey’s military incursion in Afrin, presented to the Turks as a military victory, has fuelled a militant fever across the country – the country has slipped down in rankings of standards of human rights, press freedoms and democracy. A recent global right report by Freedom House has reduced the status of Turkey from “partly free” to “not free”. For the status change the report specifically cited “the deeply flawed constitutional referendum that centralized power in the presidency, the mass replacement of elected mayors with government appointees, arbitrary prosecutions of rights activists and other perceived enemies of the state, and continued purges of state employees, all of which have left citizens hesitant to express their views on sensitive topics”. This deterioration will doubtlessly have a negative impact on popular sentiments about the AKP.

In light of these dynamics both home and abroad, it is no wonder that Erdoğan seeks to seize his remaining advantage rather than risking an election during the coming decline in his and the AKP’s fortunes. 

Fragmented opposition?

It is well-known that Turkey’s opposition is deeply fragmented. In theory, the opposition enjoys enough votes and sufficient support among various segments of the population, such as the Kemalists, the leftist, middle-class secularists and the disgruntled Kurds, to mount a real challenge on the AKP-MHP coalition. Practically, however, they are ideologically fragmented, politically fractured and face serious legal challenges which makes it difficult to organise. While Erdoğan was already set with his election alliance for the parliamentary election, the call for early elections breathed a new life into Turkey’s opposition.

The CHP spearheaded the opposition efforts to stop Erdoğan at the ballot boxes from his determined march towards one-man rule and omnipotent presidency. In an unprecedented electoral manoeuvre, the party “loaned” fifteen of its lawmakers to their fellow opposition Good Party (İyi Parti), allowing the latter to meet certain eligibility requirements for participation in the June 24 snap election. This move has encouraged the opposition in the face of mounting doubts regarding the İyi Party’s participation. The CHP’s gesture ensured the party’s eligibility, as the İyi Party, now with 20 lawmakers, was able to form a parliamentary group to push the Supreme Board of Elections (Yüksek Seçim Kurulu – YSK) into formally confirming the party’s eligibility to run. This was a direct counter to what was, in Amberin Zaman s view, “another reason for Erdoğan’s decisions to bring the election forward was to exclude the newly formed right-wing İyi Party by denying it time to fulfil all the necessary conditions to qualify”. In a sign of protest, Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim left a parliamentary session convened on the occasion of the National Children’s Day when a Good Party lawmaker took the floor. Aksener responded in a tweet, “just wait, on June 24, the people will walk away from you”.

Moreover, CHP has teamed-up with the İyi Party, Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi - SP) and Democratic Party (Demokrat Parti - DP) and formed an alliance. Such a united front would help the opposition especially smaller parties (such as SP and DP) to bypass the prohibitive ten percent threshold and enter the parliament which would also contribute numbers towards denying the AKP a legislative majority. As for the presidency, all parties have now nominated their candidate to stand against Erdoğan. Of the five opposition candidates CHP’s Muharrem İnce and Meral Aksener are strong contenders. The opposition aims to push the vote to the second round by denying Erdoğan from obtaining more than fifty percent. İnce vows to be an impartial and “everyone’s president”, but remains vague on resolving the grievances with the Kurds. He had voted against removing impunity from the Kurdish lawmakers, a position that he could be rewarded for by the Kurdish voters if he makes it to the second round against. Aksener is unlikely to galvanise the Turkish conservative public. With her Turkish nationalist credentials, she will face difficulties attracting the ten to fifteen percent Kurdish vote, including the pious Kurdish vote which is traditionally inclined to vote for the AKP but now is disgruntled and looking for a new home. This Kurdish vote is deemed necessary for İnce and Aksener or any other candidate to defeat Erdoğan, presenting serious concerns for opposition candidate’s fortunes in the second round.

As for the largest pro-Kurdish party, the Peoples' Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi – HDP), while still polling ten to twelve percent it is facing enormous challenges and legal hurdles, after being targeted by the government as a “terrorist” outlet and an ally for the PKK. The party’s charismatic and former co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas, who helped the party to pass the ten percent threshold in 2015 elections, is still behind bars awaiting his fate along with thousands of other critics. In addition, the post-coup purge saw the imprisonment of thousands of HDP party officials, eleven elected lawmakers and eighty-five Kurdish mayors, further weakening the party.

Between now and the election, the AKP-MHP strategy will likely be to put further pressure on the pro-Kurdish party as part of their efforts to push it below the ten percent threshold and thus denying the HDP parliamentary representation. Thus, the AKP’s strategy to win the elections in large part rests on eliminating their opponents through political tactics, rather than by capturing more electoral support through straightforward campaigning.

 

In the run-up to the June 2015 parliamentary elections, Erdoğan came under fierce opposition criticism for failing to abide by the constitutional stipulations against partisan activity by a sitting president. Erdoğan, who had resigned from the AKP after he assumed the presidency in 2014 as per constitutional stipulations, still campaigned extensively for the party. The election also saw unequal access to state resources, particularly, the opposition protested, that they were given limited state media coverage amid growing media repression. 

The problems increased when the AKP failed to win enough votes to form a government on its own and called for repeat elections. The country saw an escalation of violence prior to the November re-elections as the ceasefire broke down between the government and the PKK. Opposition party members and activists, particularly those affiliated with the HDP, came under increasing attacks, and there were grave concerns over the safety of the party’s constituency. The outcome of the election was further questioned after the government decided to relocate polling stations away from these conflict-affected areas for security reasons. This move further complicated voting processes in the politically contentious Kurdish cities. 

Perhaps the most concerning precursor of the forthcoming elections is last year’s referendum on constitutional changes. The state of emergency imposed after the failed coup attempt in July 2016 limited press freedoms and expression of criticism towards the government. Perhaps the most egregious development was the vigorous campaigning by the president and the prime minister for “yes” votes, despite constitutional requirements that both elected officials remain non-partisan. The monopoly of state resources by the “yes” campaign prompted the OSCE to argue that it “blurred the line between party and state”. European observers noted explicitly that the referendum was “contested on an unlevel playing field as both sides were not provided with equal campaign opportunities”. Further developments render it unlikely that the Turkish opposition will regain this lost ground. 

Controlling the media 

The Turkish president has now either muted or silenced the major critical voices in Turkey. The media is now totally under control of the AKP, or its close confidants, the final blow to the country’s media landscape being delivered in two recent developments. First, the Dogan Media group, Turkey’s last nationally independent media group was last month bought by a pro-government conglomerate which already owns Demiroren Holding. The Dogan Media group notably owns the newspapers Hurriyet and Posta, and the country’s two main entertainment channels Kanal D and CNN Turk. The government had previously criticised Dogan Media for being biased against it and the ruling party. Their move is therefore widely seen as fresh blow to free speech and an attempt to further curtail the freedom of the Turkish press. 

Second, the government has issued a new regulation that further restricts domestic access to international publications and limits local independent broadcasters. The government can now control the distribution of independent papers, as well as block the internet sites whose views do not align with those of the government. As a result of these developments, the government and its ruling party has amassed enormous power – not just in advance control of the media during the electoral cycle but also in the reporting of the election results.  In short, Turkey’s current media landscape does not provide for impartial coverage and nor does it guarantee political parties equal access to public media. On the contrary, inequalities in press coverage of political campaign will remain and even be exacerbated.  

 The new Election Law

The AKP-dominated parliament has recently passed a new election law which would further tilt the balance in Erdoğan’s favour. The much-contested new law, Asli Aydıntaşbaş observes, allows security forces to be posted near polling stations, something which she believes could be a problem in Kurdish villages as a visual reminder of state power. Second, the local electoral board can engage in redistricting at their discretion, introducing the potential for significant gerrymandering of voting districts. 

As a less explicit hurdle to clear, while the YSK is expected to make the voter lists available soon, it is almost impossible for the opposition to verify the voter registry for so many voters in barely two months. This will be compounded by a provision in the aforementioned new law that allows for unstamped and unverified ballot papers to be counted as valid. This raises fears of ballot-stuffing among the opposition and it is worth recalling that permitting the counting of unstamped ballots was one of the issues that clouded the 2017 referendum result. The government has claimed these changes are necessary to secure the vote in Turkey’s southeast from the influence of the PKK, but the election law and the newly appointed YSK makes it difficult to provide adequate checks and monitoring which for Aydıntaşbaş has been the hallmark of Turkey’s election. Ultimately, it also suggests Erdoğan’s strong resolve to win the election by any means possible.   

The State of Emergency

Extending the state of emergency allows the government to retain considerable legislative powers to pass laws without the approval of the parliament. In other words, President Erdoğan can rule by decree during the campaign season. More fundamentally, the state of emergency restricts individuals’ rights to freedom of assembly, preventing the opposition from fully and actively campaigning – another point of contention over last year’s referendum. AKP opponents will face serious obstacles should they test the limits of this restriction, as opposition rallies are likely to be harassed. Many critics argue that the state of emergency has already allowed Erdoğan to target dissenters and adversaries alike. The state has already carried out an extensive purge that saw thousands sacked from both the military and the bureaucracy and, in some cases, imprisoned for suspected affiliation to the Gülen movement, accused by Turkey of plotting the failed putsch. 

Moreover, holding elections under emergency law are likely to worsen Turkey’s already dire relations with the West, and will not be welcomed by the European Union which Turkey ostensibly still hopes to join. Earlier this month, the European Commission expressed its dismay at the country’s recent political developments. The latest European Commission Progress Report on Turkey stated “fundamental rights have been considerably curtailed under the state of emergency and pursuant to the decrees issued under it”. Introducing the report, Johannes Hahn, the EU-Commissioner for European Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations, stated that "since the introduction of the state of emergency, more than 150,000 people have been taken into custody, and many are still detained." The key findings of the report state that "Turkey should lift the state of emergency without delay". 

Doubts about the fairness of June elections also promoted Germany, Netherlands and Austria to prohibit Turkish politicians from campaigning among Turks residing in their countries. The three countries together host over three million Turks living in Europe, who overwhelmingly voted in favour of the presidential system. Ankara’s relations with these countries deteriorated after they denied the AKP officials from campaigning in the run-up to last year’s constitutional referendum, and will likely deteriorate further in the wake of this latest decision.

Turkey’s tensions with the West are not limited to Europe. Earlier this month a spokesperson for the US State Department expressed the US government’s concerns regarding Turkey holding elections under the prevailing conditions. She told reporters that “it would be difficult to hold a completely free, fair and transparent election… during this type of state of emergency”. 

Recent elections saw a break in the AKP’s  electoral fortunes. First, when the AKP’s spell was broken during the 2015 legislative elections for the first time after thirteen years in power. Second, during the 2017’s narrowly passed constitutional referendum held under a state of emergency accompanied with disputes over ballots. The next election will be held under similar if not worse conditions, and within a political context that has created an unfair and uneven campaign season. Yet the AKP faces a rocky path towards victory, as the military intervention in Syria remains without an exit plan. Moreover, the economy is suffering from a growing financial crisis of Erdoğan’s making, which could become his Achilles heel going into elections.

About the author

Shivan Fazil is a Chevening Scholar, and graduate student of MSc. Middle East Politics, at the School of Oriental and African Studies SOAS, University of London. He is a leadership fellow alumni from the East-West Centre, USA. Follow him on @ShivanFazil


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