On June 24, Turkish citizens voted in presidential and parliamentary snap elections, with a huge turnout. As expected, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected president while his Islamo-nationalist bloc allies – the Justice and Development Party and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – obtained a parliamentary majority.
While both victories were won by narrow margins, Erdoğan took 52.5% of the vote, coming out well ahead of his opponents. The main opposition candidate, Muharrem İnce, obtained 31%, followed by the leader of new centrist party, Meral Akşener, with 7.3%, and pro-Kurdish leftist leader Selahattin Demirtaş, who received 8.4%. Erdoğan thus consolidated his rule further and now stands a better chance to implement his vision of a conservative Turkish state and society. In this regard one might argue that the Turkish state and society will be more nationalistic and Islamist.
Erdoğan: from appraisal to criticism
Enjoying the Western support for his first two terms, Erdoğan has been criticised by western scholars for its frequent use of less-than-democratic socio-political practices since 2011 and especially after the Gezi Protests. The state of emergency declared after the aborted coup attempt of July 2016 has been particularly under the spotlight.
Last year’s referendum also moved Turkey from a parliamentary to presidential system, marking Erdoğan’s determination to concentrate the various spheres of power around him. Another frequent criticism concerns the country’s long retreat from civic rights and basic freedom.
The election process also reflected such tendencies.
Even if voters had a genuine choice in Turkey’s most recent elections, the preliminary report from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) indicated that they weren’t entirely fair:
“Incumbent president and ruling party enjoying an undue advantage, including in excessive coverage by government-affiliated public and private media outlets.”
Interestingly, Muharrem İnce, the main opponent of Erdoğan, was given relatively more opportunities while Meral Akşener was deprived of media visibility. Perhaps, it had to do with İnce’s being a more fitting opponent for the leadership style of President Erdoğan who likes to play into social fault lines.
The leaders of the opposition parties declared no significant objection about the freedom of election. However, OCSE observers remarked that the incumbent president and the AKP members used
“pressure on and intimidation of contestants and supporters [which] contributed to an atmosphere of fear and raise concerns about their equality of opportunity and ability to campaign in a fair and free atmosphere”.
One candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş, campaigned from prison, where he has been held for almost 20 months for alleged terrorist activities.
Some OSCE observers indicated that they were concerned about their personal well-being and felt threatened from time to time. Furthermore, a delegation from the French Communist Party, including a senator, was arrested while trying to observe parliamentary and presidential polls on Sunday. While they were released shortly after, the incident is reflective of the AKP’s deep scepticism about western organisations.
Erdoğan has persuaded half of Turkey that it needs him
While such incidents have marked the elections, Erdoğan had also done his homework. His discourse spoke to the conservative-nationalist feelings of his support base and convinced more than 25 million voters that Turkey faces existential threats without his leadership.
One such threat is the country’s economic deterioration, which was the opposition’s biggest political card. Yet Erdoğan convinced his electoral base that the looming economic crisis had nothing to do with the performance of the government and it was plotted by global (Western) powers.
The limited presence of free media or opportunities to opposition parties to contradict Erdoğan on these points helped him built and sustain such narrative throughout his campaign. He also made substantial populist promises, including opening “gardens of the nation” in the country and state-run “cafes of the nation”, with free cake and tea and they sold well.
A new order for the “new Turkey”
Turkey’s new political regime centres around a strong president who can pick his vice-president and cabinet members from outside the Parliament. He will be able to decide on major issues such as the budgets of state institutions, foreign policy and security matters, all without having to consult with the Parliament.
However, the current configuration of seats in the Parliament indicates that Erdoğan will enjoy this new authority only as long as he remains within the political framework set by his major ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), since Erdoğan’s own (AKP) failed to obtain a parliamentary majority on its own. This alliance turns Erdoğan into a political giant that needs a cane to walk.
An election of multiple winners
So is Erdoğan really the winner here? The surprising success of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which took home 11% of the votes tells another story. Led by Devlet Bahçeli, the MHP will have a huge leverage on major decisions and force the AKP to lean toward a less Islamist and more nationalist direction.
On the other side of the political spectrum, 30% of the Turkish votes trusted the populist social-democrat Muharrem İnce. The nominee of the main opposition party (CHP), İnce succeeded in bringing millions together in three major cities; İstanbul, İzmir and Ankara.
İnce ran his campaign as the “people’s candidate” and managed to get 5% more vote than the established base of CHP. He has now inspired the opposition with hope and the party could attract new supporters.
Meral Akşener, leader of Good Party (İP) and the only woman candidate, obtained 43 seats in the Parliament with 10% of the votes, establishing herself in a good position. Akşener picked up a significant number of her supporters from Erdoğan’s AKP, indicating the possibility further success. Finally, Selahattin Demirtaş, the imprisoned leader of pro-Kurdish and leftist Peoples’ Democracy Party, maintained a moderate discourse and won 67 seats in the Parliament. This increase of seats marked a threshold not only for Kurds but also for left-leaning liberals.
Overall, this election indicated that democracy in its procedural sense is established in Turkey with all its deficits. How it plays out in terms of basic rights and freedoms in the coming period has yet to be seen. The Achilles’ heel for Erdoğan, however, is going to be the economy.