Transatlantic Take

Upcoming Elections in Turkey: Unfair but Real and Competitive

Photo Credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock - A Turkish man walks as he wears the Turkish national flag in Istanbul.
ANKARA — The June 24 snap presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey will be highly unfair, but real and still competitive.

ANKARA — The June 24 snap presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey will be highly unfair, but real and still competitive. President Erdoğan has the odds in his favor, but no outcome is impossible given the recent dynamism among the opposition parties.

If none of the presidential candidates win a majority in the first round, a second round will take place on July 8 between the two candidates who received the most votes. As a result of recent changes in Turkish election law, alliances in the parliamentary elections are now possible. Two new alliances will compete in the parliamentary elections: the People’s Alliance, formed by the governing Justice and Development Party (AKParty) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), and the Nation Alliance, formed by the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP), the newly founded moderate nationalist Good Party (İYİParty), the Islamist Felicity Party (SP), and the center-right Democrat Party. The Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), excluded from either alliance, will run alone.

Many international observers and Turkish commentators argue that the elections are a done deal and that there is no way President Erdoğan will lose either the presidential election or a majority in the parliament. Some argue that as an experienced politician he would not have called for early elections if he was not sure he would win. Others argue that the elections will take place on such an uneven playing field that opposition voices will not even be heard. Some even argue that what comes out of the ballot box will be very different from what goes in, or that President Erdoğan will not leave office even if he loses.

Regardless of the outcome of these elections, the Turkish political class and Turkish society have already demonstrated  resilience.

Some of these arguments have merit, but not all. Yes, President Erdoğan is an experienced politician, but some of the assumptions  he made when calling for snap elections have already proven wrong. He calculated that İYİParty could not fulfill all of the legal requirements to run in the parliamentary elections, but CHP loaned İYİParty 15 deputies so they could run. President Erdoğan probably thought that the alliance law would only benefit him as the opposition parties — separated by huge ideological differences — could never come together to form an alliance. Well, they did. President Erdoğan probably expected that the CHP would nominate a low profile candidate and he would run in the second round against either a low profile CHP candidate or the leader of İYİParty, who would not get the Kurdish vote. Well, not only did CHP nominate a high profile candidate, but all opposition parties, including the pro-Kurdish HDP, have committed to supporting him in the second round.

President Erdoğan and his AKParty do have clear advantages. The election campaigns are taking place on a highly uneven playing field. Public broadcasting is almost completely monopolized by President Erdoğan, and a large majority of the media is also controlled by businessmen close to the president. Erdoğan campaigns in his capacity as President of the Republic and therefore has access to public resources. The recent amendments to the election law have also made election monitoring more difficult for the opposition. On top of the unfairness of the elections, President Erdoğan also has the advantage of a consolidated voter base and a disciplined party organization, while the other candidates will need to bring together ideologically diverse voters to succeed. Lastly, President Erdoğan has a proven track record of governing; opposition candidates do not.

Under these circumstances, the likeliest scenario is President Erdoğan winning the presidency. However, there is less clarity regarding the parliamentary elections and a divided parliament is quite possible. While the authorities of the parliament have been crippled by last year’s constitutional referendum, which gave the president the upper hand on most issues, the parliament has a very important symbolic and moral authority in Turkey. It was the Grand National Assembly of Turkey that commanded the war of independence under the leadership of Atatürk, founded modern Turkey in 1920, and turned Turkey into a republic in 1923. Therefore even in the absence of formal powers, and it still has some, the parliament will continue to carry weight in Turkish politics. In the case of a divided parliament, the president — whoever is elected — will need to accommodate parliamentary will. If the president fails to do this, he will have to govern under immense political and societal tension.

Regardless of the outcome of these elections, the Turkish political class and Turkish society have already demonstrated  resilience. One of the criticisms toward the opposition parties in Turkey as well as in other comparable settings has been that they are fragmented and cannot come together around a common agenda. This is not the case in Turkey anymore. While polarization paves the way for populism in Turkey and elsewhere, Turkish opposition parties are now very careful to use  conciliatory and cohesive language — something never seen before. These efforts may or may not bear fruit in the upcoming elections, but they are certainly steps in the right direction. Many people in the West have already written Turkish democracy off or are preparing to do so. These hopeful signs from Turkish society suggest that this may be premature.