Erdogan Will Win by Any Means Necessary

Turkey’s president has plenty of experience stealing elections — and Sunday’s vote is one he can’t afford to lose.

An election poster showing the portrait of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on June 19 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
An election poster showing the portrait of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on June 19 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

If you want a preview of what could happen to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his family, and the edifice to cronyism he has built after Turkey’s national parliamentary and presidential elections Sunday, just look to the recent Malaysian elections. Not only was Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose party had been in power for 61 years, defeated, but also corruption investigations were launched almost immediately.

Losing the June 24 contest, in other words, is not an option for Erdogan — which is another way of saying he will win by any means necessary.

When he originally called these early elections, Erdogan intended them to represent the final stage in Turkey’s transformation from a parliamentary to a presidential system, with a disproportionate share of power transferred to the president. The current Council of Ministers, all members of parliament, will cease to exist and the president will appoint advisors and deputies to run the country. Parliament, especially if it remains in the hands of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), will be nothing but a rubber stamp. Erdogan over the years has amassed an enormous amount of power by molding state institutions to his liking and by eliminating anyone from his entourage who can even minimally challenge him. Every single member of the party owes his or her position directly to Erdogan. This patronage system permeates all levels of the bureaucracy, which has lost its independence.

Erdogan, the consummate politician, is not leaving anything about this election to chance; no detail has been too small to escape his attention. He has engineered several changes to the electoral law, two of which could be game-changers. The first is the elimination of the requirement that all ballots be stamped by officials. This practice will open up the system to abuse in obvious ways — it was precisely such a last-minute change that allowed the government to claim victory in 2017 during the constitutional referendum.

Erdogan’s second change to the electoral law concerns the ballot box overseers: Whereas in the past political parties nominated candidates who were chosen by a draw, under the new rules overseers are to be chosen among local officials whose jobs are ultimately determined by the government and the state. The system, therefore, is primed for manipulation on a much larger scale than in 2017.

If this was not enough, the government has begun to play with ballot locations. Recently, they moved the ballot locations for some 140,000 Kurdish voters, making it more difficult for them to vote. Suppressing the Kurdish vote is critical for the government — the popular Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas, who is also a presidential candidate, has been in jail for more than a year on trumped-up charges. In the run-up to the elections, one can expect more shenanigans in Kurdish-majority areas, because Erdogan needs to push the Peoples’ Democratic Party below the 10 percent threshold to ensure that his party wins a majority of seats in parliament. The math is simple: If the pro-Kurdish party crosses the 10 percent threshold, then the ruling AKP has absolutely no chance of winning a majority in parliament.

The Supreme Electoral Council, the judicial system, and the military — until recently Erdogan’s most dedicated nemesis — are all now under Erdogan’s control. The military was completely denuded of its higher ranks following the July 2016 failed coup attempt. Elections will also take place under state of emergency conditions that have invited state officials to interfere with any opposition rally or event at their whim. Moreover, last-minute changes to the electoral law have empowered state bureaucrats to monitor the election at the expense of local party officials. Erdogan has thus succeeded at politicizing the electoral system, which had previously been the one institution in Turkey that remained above the fray with its adherence to impartiality.

The national press, meanwhile, is completely dominated by Erdogan’s acolytes. The results are unsurprising: In the last two weeks of May, a study demonstrated that the president and his party received far more coverage on three government-owned television stations, including a Kurdish-language one. The stations allocated 68 hours for the governing alliance and eight hours for opposition candidate Muharrem Ince, while the breakaway right-wing nationalist Iyi Party and two other parties received a total of 45 minutes. Demirtas was completely ignored. In addition to state-owned media, newspapers often carry the same pro-government headlines, with the requisite ubiquitous picture of the president with his right hand covering his heart. The last of the media conglomerates, the minimally independent Dogan Media, was sold in advance of the elections to a trusted Erdogan crony.

Yet, despite all these advantages, Erdogan is running scared. He commands a solid base of approximately 40 percent of the electorate. These are his die-hard fans who have benefited from his rule. Turkish voters also know that, were Erdogan to win these elections, chances are he will remain in power for another 10 or possibly 15 more years. The main opposition Republican People’s Party and the Iyi Party have, in Ince and Meral Aksener, new, charismatic faces as their leaders — complicating AKP’s traditional reliance on lackluster opposition leaders.

The economic situation also complicates Erdogan’s outlook. He called for the early elections at a moment when the economy was rapidly growing. In the interim, the economy has started to rapidly deteriorate: The Turkish lira has lost some 17 percent of its value since the beginning of the year. The reported high GDP growth rates, far from assuaging investors, have alarmed them about a potentially overheating economy.

That Erdogan is showing signs of struggle, despite all the state resources mobilized to support him, suggests that Turkey is starting to tire of him. Still, it is quite doubtful that he will allow anything but a total victory for himself — one should expect a great deal of shenanigans on the part of the ruling party in the final run-up to the June 24 vote. Barring some calamity, the presidential poll — unlike its parliamentary counterpart — is headed for a second round of voting, when the likely binary choice between Erdogan and Ince will draw the attention of all Turkish voters. This is Erdogan’s dilemma: Ince has proved to be a far more effective competitor, even if his party’s organizational capabilities are dismally poor.

That matchup — or any attempt to avoid it — may force Erdogan to cheat on a massive scale. But any attempt by the president to retain complete power over the country would abdicate all plausible deniability about his corrupted victory, thus risking a far more severe backlash from the population that would undermine economic and political stability. That’s why the most likely outcome might be an Erdogan victory in the presidential poll, but not the parliamentary one.

In the resulting divided government, one could expect outright war between the two sides. But Erdogan would have the upper hand, given that all state institutions and the most important civil society ones remain under his personal control. This wouldn’t be a cakewalk for Erdogan, but he would still have enough power to impose his preferred policies on all Turks, including those in parliament.

Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Twitter: @hbarkey