Hopes for renewal dashed in Turkey
Hopes of change in Turkey’s presidential election have come to nothing. Authoritarian incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won a narrow but decisive runoff victory, defeating a united opposition that aimed to restore a pluralist parliamentary democracy. The result comes after a deeply polarising campaign in which Erdoğan mobilised anti-LGBTQI+ culture war politics and both sides appealed to nationalist, anti-migrant sentiment. Predictably, Erdoğan shows no sign of taking on board the views of the 25.5 million people who voted against him, and as the economy further deteriorates can only be expected to intensify his attacks on independent media and civil society.
Turkey’s election hasn’t produced the change many thought could be on the cards. Now women’s groups, LGBTQI+ people and independent journalists are among those fearing the worse.
Incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has led the country for two decades, first as prime minister and then as president, prevailed in the 28 May runoff poll, taking around 52.2 per cent of the vote compared to the 47.8 per cent secured by his opponent, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
The election represented Erdoğan’s biggest-ever electoral test. The run-up to voting was dominated by a cost-of-living crisis, with soaring inflation and a plummeting exchange rate. Many pointed the finger at highly unorthodox economic policies insisted on by Erdoğan – of lowering rather than raising interest rates in response to inflation – for making them worse off.
Anger was also sparked by devastating earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria in February, leaving over 50,000 people dead and an estimated 1.5 million people homeless in Turkey. The government was accused of being slow to respond and of overlooking building regulations for economic advantage.
Erdoğan has overcome these hurdles, albeit with a narrow victory. In the first runoff he’s ever had to face, he won a share of the vote similar to the 52.6 per cent he obtained in 2018 – but that time he finished more than 20 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival.
The close vote shows that many Turks wanted change. But after a deeply polarised election, there’s no hint Erdoğan plans to take that on board and moderate the way he governs.
Media dominance tells
Erdoğan prevailed despite facing a united opposition: six parties put aside their differences to get behind Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy. Their aim was to defeat Erdoğan, bring to an end his hyper-presidential form of government and turn Turkey back into a pluralist democracy where parliament can act as a check on excessive presidential power.
A similar approach was tried in Hungary last year, when parties came together to try to oust authoritarian hardman Viktor Orbán, and also failed. Some of their challenges were similar. In both cases, opposition alliances were accused of being coalitions of convenience, united by what they opposed rather than what they stood for. Both faced the criticism of fielding candidates lacking charisma, unable to compete with the pull of the incumbent.
The ruling party monopolises a large part of the media and used it exclusively on its own behalf. The elections were therefore held under extremely unequal conditions.
And both were forced to work in a severely unequal media landscape where media – state media and private media owned by business leaders closely connected to the government – focused almost entirely on the current leader and starved the challenger of airtime. Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe concluded that while the election was competitive, the playing field wasn’t level, with freedom of expression restrictions and media bias giving Erdoğan ‘an unjustified advantage’. Some opposition supporters also experienced harassment and intimidation, with instances of violence, such as rocks being thrown, against opposition rallies.
Over his 20 years at the top, Erdoğan has concentrated power on himself and moved to suppress dissent, an approach that intensified after a section of the military unsuccessfully attempted a coup in 2016. In 2017, Erdoğan pushed through changes that turned a parliamentary system into an intensely presidential one and reset term limits, placing virtually unlimited powers in his hands.
And he’s used those powers. Turkey is now the world’s fourth-largest jailer of journalists, behind only Iran, China and Myanmar, with terrorism charges commonly applied, and the number of trials and length of sentences increasing. A law passed last year, supposedly to combat disinformation, has given the state a further tool to criminalise journalists.
The deteriorating climate for dissent could be seen in the wake of the earthquakes, when people were detained for criticising the government’s response, social media were restricted and civil society organisations offering emergency help were vilified. There were several reports of attacks on and obstruction of journalists during the runoff campaign, while the authorities reported that they were investigating seven outlets that had broadcast critical views.
Voices from the frontline
Eren Keskin is chair of the Human Rights Association, one of Turkey’s oldest and largest human rights civil society organisations.
Society has become extremely polarised, especially as a result of Erdoğan’s rhetoric of fear, hatred and violence. We also witnessed many practices that violated the constitution and electoral laws, such as government ministers becoming parliamentary candidates without resigning and therefore using state resources for campaigning. The ruling party monopolises a large part of the media and used it exclusively on its own behalf. The elections were therefore held under extremely unequal conditions.
Because it does not tolerate any kind of diverging opinion, the government is extremely aggressive towards independent media and the free press, the majority of which are Kurdish media outlets.
Dissident journalists are commonly charged with making propaganda for an illegal organisation. Particularly with news reports on the Kurdish war, most lawsuits are filed on charges of making propaganda for the Kurdish political movement or Kurdish armed forces. Apart from this, a large number of cases are filed on charges of insulting the president, insulting the forces of the state and inciting the public to hatred and enmity.
Many journalists are under arrest or subject to international travel bans merely for expressing their thoughts in writing. There is almost no journalist who is not being subjected to judicial control.
I was once the volunteer editor-in-chief of the daily Özgür Gündem, one of the newspapers that has faced the most repression, and have stood trial in 143 cases just because my name appeared on the newspaper as volunteer editor-in-chief.
I’ve been sentenced to a total of 26 years and nine months in prison for alleged crimes such as membership of an illegal organisation, making propaganda for an illegal organisation and insulting the president, even for articles I did not write. These sentences are pending a decision of the Court of Cassation. As soon as they are final, I may go to prison. I have also been unable to travel abroad for six years now because of an international travel ban.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Eren. Read the full interview here.
A race to the bottom
In past elections, Erdoğan had campaigned on his economic record, taking the credit for a boom in construction and infrastructure development. But this time, with the economic crisis and earthquake destruction leaving him unable to press those points, he fell back on another part of his arsenal, deploying a tactic nationalists and populists are using the world over: culture war rhetoric.
The opposition was consistently smeared for allegedly supporting LGBTQI+ rights, with Erdoğan positioning himself in contrast as the staunch defender of the traditional family. This messaging persisted even though the opposition had little to say on reversing Erdoğan’s attacks on women’s and LGBTQI+ people’s rights, which have included withdrawal from the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on protecting women from violence and the repression of Pride and International Women’s Day marches.
The culture war strategy was blended with a strongly nationalist appeal. Political opponents were portrayed as extremists and allies of terrorists, a threat not only to Turkish culture but also to national security.
Kılıçdaroğlu, for example, had promised to free a jailed leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, held in pretrial detention since 2016 despite a European Court of Human Rights ruling that he should be released. This enabled Erdoğan to accuse the opposition of supporting terrorists, reinforced by fake campaign videos – one of many examples of campaign disinformation – that claimed to show members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a banned terrorist organisation, supporting Kılıçdaroğlu.
This nationalist appeal paid off. Going into the second round, Erdoğan won the backing of the third-placed candidate, nationalist Sinan Oğan, who’d been nominated by the ATA Alliance, a far-right, anti-migrant coalition. Those extra votes appear to have been crucial.
Syrian refugees were also targeted. There are 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, the largest number in the world. They’ve crossed the border to escape the brutal, 12-year civil war and grotesque human rights abuses being committed by the state. Those who return are at risk of arrest and detention, with numerous documented abuses of the rights of returnees. But Turkey’s economic decline has seen growing xenophobia, which has at times turned into violence, inflamed by political rhetoric.
Whoever won the election promised to be bad news for refugees. The opposition reacted to Erdoğan’s attacks by pledging to be even tougher. In the last leg of the campaign, both sides hurled discriminatory and inflammatory language at each other. Kılıçdaroğlu vastly overstated the numbers of migrants, claiming there were 10 million in Turkey, and promising to send them all home. As the runoff vote neared, both camps appealed to nationalism and accused the other of supporting terrorists. This strategy may have cost the opposition the support of some Kurdish voters.
Erdoğan’s more authentic appeal to nationalism and socially conservative values, and promises to quickly rebuild earthquake-ravaged zones, ultimately won the day. Erdoğan seems to have convinced enough people that he’s the only person who can navigate the current crisis. He won even in areas worst hit by the earthquakes. As in several other countries, including Hungary and El Salvador, a majority of voters embraced authoritarianism.
Undoubtedly Turkey’s heavily restricted civic space and deeply skewed media landscape played a major role. Kılıçdaroğlu alleged Russian interference and there were likely some voting and ballot-counting discrepancies in both rounds, albeit not enough to account for Erdoğan’s two million-vote winning margin.
Even acknowledging these barriers, the opposition will need to do some soul searching ahead of municipal elections next year if they hope to retain control of major city governments. They will need to figure out how to build a majority to revive pluralist democracy. The strategy of imitating Erdoğan’s rhetoric on migrants and terrorism having failed, they must find a way to connect with voters with a more positive message.
There are immediate challenges ahead for Erdoğan too, not least the state of the economy and still rampant inflation. Erdoğan was able to offer some pre-election enticements such as a minimum wage increases, temporary free gas supplies and the cancellation of student loan interest, buttressed by support from non-democratic states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, with which he has developed warmer relations. The government has also significantly depleted its foreign currency and gold reserves to try to prop up the Turkish lira – which still hit a record low after Erdoğan’s victory was confirmed.
Erdoğan can be expected to react to further economic difficulty by deepening his authoritarianism to try to silence critics. Those already targeted – refugees, LGBTQI+ people, women, Kurdish activists and the civil society that defends their rights and independent journalists who report their stories – will remain in the firing line.
In celebrating his victory, Erdoğan has shown no signs of changing tack. He talked of unity but used the occasion to mock his defeated challenger and continue to vilify the opposition as pro-LGBTQI+.
But the 25.5 million people who voted against him deserve a voice. Erdoğan needs to change the habits of a lifetime, show some willingness to listen and build consensus. Turkey’s democratic allies must encourage him to see it’s in his best interest to do so.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Turkey’s democratic allies must urge the government to respect freedom of expression and media freedoms and release jailed journalists.
Opposition forces should learn the lessons of their defeat and mount a positive campaign to defend democracy ahead of municipal elections.
The opposition should work to maintain a united front to try to defend democracy from the further damage likely to result from five more years of Erdoğan rule.
Cover photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images