Lab Report

The Height of Hubris

Why an Erdogan victory in Turkey's presidential election is likely to trigger the biggest opposition backlash yet. The first in our series of Lab Reports on Turkey.

Top Image: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
Top Image: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Turkish citizens are preparing to vote in an epochal Aug. 10 election that could see Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan assume the presidency — a hitherto largely ceremonial office that he and his supporters now aim to transform into a new power center. (If he doesn’t win outright with at least 50 percent of the vote, he’ll face his next challenger in a runoff on Aug. 24.) Erdogan is betting that a victory at the polls will ensure his dominance over his country’s political scene for years to come. The government and sympathetic media are already touting the likelihood of a landslide victory for the prime minister, clearly keen to ensure just such an outcome.

Democracy Lab’s In-Depth Reports on Turkey

  • LAB REPORT 1: The Height of Hubris, by Cenk Sidar
  • LAB REPORT 2: Turkey’s Economy: Now for the Hard Part, by Murat Ucer
  • LAB REPORT 3: Either With Us or Against Us, by Vanessa H. Larson

Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian behavior in recent years already has many Turks concerned about the fate of their hard-won democratic achievements. Lately, Erdogan has shown little interest in preserving a system based on checks and balances and the separation of powers. The prime minister’s harsh crackdown on his political opponents and his combative rhetoric strongly suggest that he would like to see Turkey become a decidedly illiberal democracy, one in which he and his party can use the mandate of the ballot box to rule as they please, with little or no consideration of dissenting views. So it’s easy to understand why Erdogan’s critics are viewing this election as a virtual referendum on the future of Turkey’s democratic institutions.

They are right to worry. Even so, Turkey’s democracy is proving more resilient than many of its defenders give it credit for, and there is good reason to believe that genuine democracy will prevail regardless of the outcome of this election. As the past year’s nationwide protests have shown, a large number of Turks are determined to reject Erdogan’s autocratic ambitions. Their supporters in the media, civil society, the justice system, and the bureaucracy are coming together, laying the groundwork for a democratic bloc that is determined to prevent a majoritarian takeover by Erdogan and his allies.

That effort will have consequences, for the presidential vote is merely the prelude to an equally important parliamentary election scheduled for June next year — one that will offer a long-awaited opportunity for Erdogan’s critics to give concrete political form to their dissatisfaction (which is likely to have intensified by then, given Turkey’s dimming economic prospects). The opposition will do everything that it can — within the democratic framework — to block Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) from gaining the parliamentary majority that he needs in order to realize his plan for vastly expanding the executive powers of the presidency.

As a result, even if Erdogan wins a landslide victory in the presidential election, the resistance to him is only likely to deepen. His two main rivals at the polls offer clearly competing visions of Turkey’s future. Elder statesman Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu is the former head of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the joint candidate of the two main opposition parties. Selahattin Demirtas, 41, was formerly the co-leader of Turkey’s major pro-Kurdish party and now co-chairs an alliance of left-leaning parties.

As leading Turkish political strategist Necati Ozkan stated in a recent commentary, the three candidates represent the main visions for Turkey. Erdogan’s polarizing and authoritarian political style, Ozkan notes, offers Turkey a Vladimir Putin-style approach to governance in which elections merely serve to legitimize strong, one-man rule. Ihsanoglu represents a model where the presidency stands above the fray of party politics, acting as an important check on the power of other elements within the country’s democratic system. Demirtas, as a representative of Turkey’s sizable Kurdish minority, necessarily favors a federalist system with more rights for the Kurdish population. Demirtas, however, has also been very successful in reaching a wider audience during his political campaign by focusing on civil liberties, democracy, and the rule of law. Neither of these two men is likely to win the presidency. Yet the political alternatives they stand for are likely to assume considerable importance in the months to come.

This year’s presidential election marks the first time that Turks are directly electing their president in a popular vote. (Previously the president was selected by parliament.) Erdogan has long pushed for direct election of the president as part of his broader plan to refashion Turkey’s political institutions. He wants to do away with the checks and balances of the current democratic system and to replace them with a parliamentary system with broad presidential authority. He has made no secret about his scorn for the current limits on executive power. In December 2012, he described the separation of powers as his government’s main obstacle to effective action.

Such thinking is part and parcel of Erdogan’s concept of electoral democracy. He is a strong believer in unfettered majoritarian rule; the candidate who receives the most votes should be allowed to govern essentially at will. The distinctly illiberal aspect of this worldview has become increasingly apparent over time — and especially since the start of the Gezi Park protests a little more than a year ago. The protests, which began in opposition to an unpopular Istanbul urban development project, soon widened to encompass a wide range of discontent with Erdogan’s administration. Rather than acknowledging the demonstrators’ concerns, the government responded with a violent crackdown. At various turns, Erdogan has denounced the protests as a foreign plot, banned social media and imposed censorship on the press, and ordered financial investigations against those who have sponsored the demonstrations.

Last year, leaked tapes showed Erdogan making direct calls to media group owners to give instructions and complain about negative publicity. After a major corruption scandal involving senior government officials surfaced last December, government officials failed to address the allegations and even covered up the ongoing parliamentary investigation of the three ministers who resigned after revelations about their alleged malfeasance. All of this has eroded Turkish citizens’ trust in their institutions, including the court system and the news media, which are increasingly viewed as subject to the prime minister’s whims.

Laws recently passed by parliament, which is dominated by the AKP, are part of the same trend. The laws, which tighten government control over the judiciary and the Internet while expanding the remit of the intelligence agencies, are all clearly designed to strengthen the AKP’s grip on various aspects of daily life. In addition to these bureaucratic measures, however, Erdogan has also inflicted serious damage to Turkish democracy with his use of discriminatory rhetoric. In order to consolidate his voter base, he willingly inflames religious, sectarian, and ethnic divides. (“I was called a Georgian,” Erdogan noted in an interview earlier this month. “I apologize for this, but they even said [something] worse: They called me an Armenian.”) This is a particularly dangerous game at a moment when the Middle East is already gripped by sectarian conflict. 

So far, of course, Erdogan has succeeded in riding the support of his core constituency — conservative Sunni Muslims — to the heights of political power. Yet he now faces several big obstacles on the road ahead. The first is short term. After August, the president-elect will find himself governing within a system that still places serious constraints on the power of presidency: It is the prime minister, not the president, who bears responsibility for the implementation of policy. Erdogan and his party were able to marshal enough support to push through direct election of the president through parliament back in 2007, but they did not manage to change the current powers of the presidency.

If Erdogan decides to transform the presidency from the figurehead position it is now, he may run up against the constitution, which prohibits the president from interfering in the purview of the prime minister. The system as it currently exists requires a certain degree of harmony between the president and government since the president has the authority to approve or reject the laws passed by the parliament. If they disagree, political deadlock may result. Erdogan may be able to get around this, to some extent, through his choice of an interim prime minister to replace him when he leaves office. But there are some indications that his selection for the post may create dissatisfaction within his party and outside. (So far no one outside the ruling circle seems to have any idea who will replace Erdogan as the prime minister.)

By far the biggest roadblock on Erdogan’s path toward the accumulation of greater power, however, is the parliamentary election next summer. In order to give the new presidential office the broad powers he wants, Erdogan will need to change the constitution — and that requires a clear majority for his coalition in parliament. The governing coalition will be able to amend the constitution outright if it has two-thirds of the seats in parliament (367); a three-fifths majority (330) will be enough to pass amendments that must then be approved in a national referendum. In Turkey’s last parliamentary election in 2011, the AKP fell just short of the two-thirds threshold. But this time, post-Gezi Park, Erdogan and his allies will be facing the legacy of an unprecedented year-long wave of national discontent. Turkish civil society has been galvanized by Erdogan’s power grab, and the effects are likely to have a discernible effect on the elections.

Erdogan is very clear about his ambitions. He recently said that a “president elected by the people and not by parliament … is a turning point for democracy,” while a “popular election will invest the presidency with strong legitimacy and real meaning.” That is why the opposition will have a perfect opportunity to challenge this popularity and legitimacy in next June’s vote — and “opposition” refers here not just to the formal political opposition but also to the broad array of critical media voices, civil society groups, and others who have contributed to Turkey’s political debates of late. A weak showing for the AKP in the parliamentary elections will almost certainly interrupt Turkey’s progress down the authoritarian path that Erdogan has prescribed for it.

At the same time, if the AKP fails to gain enough votes to establish a government, the prime minister and president will represent divergent political interests — even though both will have been elected by direct vote. This is a recipe for chaos. The question of which party, and which vision, truly represents the national interest will present a fundamental dilemma. Though optimists might invoke the relatively benign experience of cohabitation in France, the model has only limited applicability to present-day Turkey. Erdogan’s version of majoritarian governance lacks the checks and balances that could be relied upon to support the survival of French democratic institutions.

All these personal and institutional circumstances are likely to promote instability. Yet the most decisive factor will probably be the economy. There has been a strong correlation between the AKP’s popular support and the country’s economic growth rates after 2007. Lately, however, that growth has been slowing perceptibly. The economy is unsustainably dependent on capital inflows. Rising inflation, high government spending, and overall debt levels also pose risks.

Turkey’s foundational values are being sorely tested. Erdogan’s misuse of his executive power, the judicial system, and the bureaucracy has stoked the fears of secularists and Islamists alike. Even if Erdogan wins the presidency this Sunday, his effort to expand the powers of the office will fuel a backlash that could potentially cost his party its dominant role. In any event, Turkey faces profound uncertainty for the next few years to come. The country’s democrats can only hope that the two elections, presidential and parliamentary, will ultimately result in a return to the country’s liberal ideals. Turks have grown accustomed to strong democratic institutions, independent media, and a strong, pluralistic civil society. They deserve nothing less.

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