The June 24, elections in Turkey resulted in a clear win for the incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, according to unofficial results. He received nearly twenty-six million of about fifty million valid votes amounting to 52.5 percent of votes. His party, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) lost its parliamentary majority but remained as the largest party with 295 seats in a parliament with six hundred seats. Muharrem İnce, the leading opposition candidate against Erdoğan, received 30.7 percent of the votes while his Republican People’s Party (CHP) did poorly, receiving 22.6 percent of the votes with 146 seats in the parliament. The Nationalist Action Party (MHP) which had formed an electoral alliance with AK Party did exceptionally well by obtaining 11.1 percent of the votes and forty-nine seats. This is a performance that ups the 10 percent and forty-three seats of İyi (Good) Party which had been formed in 2017 after its leader Meral Akşener split from MHP and ran in the June election in alliance with CHP.
This is a picture considerably different from what was predicted by most polls and commentaries preceding the elections. Accordingly, the presidential election was going to go into a run-off with even a small likelihood of İnce as the winner. The absence of a level field during the campaign and possible electoral irregularities may partly explain this outcome. However, the fact that İnce and other opposition leaders have conceded their defeat also reveals that the Turkish electorate has decisively given its seal of approval to Erdoğan’s project of transitioning Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system. With this electoral constellation under the new presidential system, the MHP leadership is likely to seek leverage over Erdoğan and AK Party on a range of policy issues drawing Turkey to an even more nationalistic line domestically complicating prospects of democratization and externally concerning relations with the United States, the EU, Syria, and the larger Middle East.
Why snap elections?
In April 2017 in a referendum on constitutional amendments, Erdoğan succeeded in getting the project to have Turkey’s parliamentary political system transformed into a tightly centralized presidential one endorsed by a mere 51.4 percent of the votes with less than 1.4 million votes margin. The amendments were designed to replace Turkey’s more than seven decades old parliamentary political system with its traditional checks and balances with a system tailored for a one-man rule by the president. The new system abolishes the office of the prime minister and creates an executive president empowered to appoint a cabinet from outside the parliament. There would be no confirmation process for anyone of these presidential appointments, unlike those that are made in the United States. The president would also enjoy significant powers over the selection of members of the judiciary and the higher ranks of the bureaucracy. The new president will also enjoy the power to issue executive decrees on issues that are not regulated by existing laws. The parliament will see its powers significantly reduced though it will still be able to challenge presidential decrees with new legislation and retain the power to legislate laws and adopt the central government budget. However, in a major break from past practice, the amendments also enable the president to be the leader of a political party hence allow exercise of control over the legislative process. The transition was meant to occur with the elections scheduled for November 2019. However, Erdoğan took a gamble and called snap elections to mitigate the consequences of a rapidly deteriorating economy as well as the fear of loss of prestige that could have resulted if AK Party were to lose the metropolitan cities at the upcoming local elections in March 2019. His gamble paid off handsomely.
Absence of a Level Field
The opposition parties voiced serious concerns about holding elections under the emergency rule that is currently in effect since the failed coup attempt of July 2016. Large numbers of academics, journalists and university students have often been detained under spurious terrorism charges awaiting their indictments let alone court cases. One prominent name is actually Selahattin Demirtaş, former leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and also a candidate in the presidential elections. He has been held in detention since November 2016 when he was charged with supporting terrorism and has had to run his campaign from his prison cell. Similarly, many HDP elected officials were detained and trustees appointed into their positions by the government. The general climate of fear and government control over media has led to a situation where media outlets have been reluctant to cover or give airtime to opposition candidates. For example, from May 14–30, while the state television coverage of the President Erdoğan and the ruling AKP was over sixty-seven hours, the main opposition CHP and its presidential candidate Muharrem İnce got only six hours, the Good Party and candidate Meral Akşener twelve minutes. The other opposition parties received even less airtime, and the HDP and its presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş had no coverage at all. Impressive rallies organized by İnce in Izmir and Ankara involving millions of supporters were largely ignored by the state and private media outlets. The fact that pro-government outlets dominate the media and that one of the last relatively independent media group, the Doğan Media Company, was sold to a conglomerate widely considered affiliated with the governing party ahead of the snap elections left little room for open and free debate.
Not surprisingly, the OSCE election monitors, immediately after the snap elections observed that candidates lacked equal opportunities, freedom of expression and assembly were limited, media was skewed, and changes to the electoral law (e.g., relocating polling stations on security grounds, counting ballots without official seals) were problematic. There are also reports questioning whether the snap elections were “free,” amid accusations of ballot stuffing and voting fraud. İnce called on his supporters to remain vigilant at their designated ballot stations and at the headquarters of the Supreme Board of Elections where votes were tallied. However, eventually, he conceded fraud did not fully explain his loss of the election: “Did they steal votes? Yes, they did. But did they steal ten million votes? No.” He did recognize that the voting data reported by the board and monitored by his party were similar and that the victory margin was so wide that it “cannot be explained merely by election irregularities.” He nevertheless stressed that there were “some issues” with the election process that required an explanation. This inevitably leaves question marks about irregularities such as ballot boxes with more votes than registered voters or ballot boxes with support for only one party or candidate, or huge changes in support for parties or candidates within close geographic proximity concerning other candidates and political parties.
Cultural cleavages and influential narratives
Beyond the role of the absence of a level field, what also benefited Erdoğan is his success in appealing to the religious and conservative side of the cultural cleavage that characterizes a deeply polarized Turkish society. On the one side of this cleavage lies a sizeable group who valued a vision of the good society built around positive science and a secular understanding of society and nature. Historically this group comprised of military and civilian officials. Built around secularist education during the Republican era this group grew to include segments of Turkish society that are relatively more open to the global society and remained in control of the ruling circles until quite recently. On the other side of this cleavage, a dominant social coalition peripheral to the ruling circles was composed of the religious, traditional, and conservative masses and elites. The irreconcilable visions for the Turkish society, one based on science and secularism, and the other on tradition and religion, mold political socialization of the masses and their long-term ideological predispositions.
Despite tumultuous developments over more than seven decades of elections, the Turkish party system still continues to reflect the main tenets of this cleavage. The AK Party has its roots in the peripheral conservative movement of the late 1960s, which remained electorally marginal until mid-1990s when it first captured metropolitan municipalities and then became the largest party in a highly fractionalized party system. When the Turkish economy was hit by a debilitating financial crisis in 2001, the younger generation pro-Islamists under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan founded the AK Party. It attracted voters with a promise of EU membership, democratic reforms and economic growth and prosperity as well as respect for conservative pro-Islamist ideals. The electoral support behind the AK Party persistently grew until the June 2015 election by consolidating the peripheral party constituencies under its banner by a conservative social policy agenda that, for example, lifted a long-standing ban for public employment of conservative women wearing religiously meaningful headscarves. The stagnant economy before the June 2015 election eroded AK Party support by about 10 percentage points that rendered it’s forming a single party government impossible.
This was when Erdoğan changed his strategy by adopting a strikingly security focused nationalistic narrative and used rising terror attacks by the ISIS as well as Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to call for repeat elections in November 2015. His emphasis on security threats and adoption of a narrative that depicted Turkey under siege led the primacy of economic concerns on voters’ agenda to subside, and a growing proportion of the electorate started to see Erdoğan and his party more credible to deal with security issues. The heavy-handed crackdown on the PKK in southeastern Anatolia and successful reduction of the threats from the ISIS side shifted the electoral support of the nationalists and conservative Kurds in favor of the AK Party. This enabled the party to recover its losses from June to November 2015 when it obtained nearly 50 percent of the votes once again.