Turkey’s Erdoğan must choose between losing Istanbul and losing legitimacy

When Turkey’s opposition won some of the biggest municipalities in local elections on March 31, many analysts proclaimed the triumph of Turkish democracy.

The elections featured a much better organised opposition than before, and a still highly engaged electorate. They also showed that major political positions can still be won by opposition parties through elections, though President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is trying to have the Istanbul results overturned.

But experts say elections alone do not equal democracy, and that Turkey has not been a true democracy for years. Most scholars agree that the country falls into a hybrid category between democracy and fully-fledged autocracy called competitive authoritarianism.

Unlike autocratic regimes such as China, Saudi Arabia or North Korea, competitive authoritarian regimes such as Serbia, Hungary or Singapore have independent opposition parties and elections that are generally free of mass fraud, but fought on an uneven playing field. 

“You have an authoritarian system. The state institutions are controlled by the ruling party, but elections are still somewhat competitive. The opposition still has a chance of winning races, both at the national and local level,” explained Berk Esen, of Bilkent University in Ankara who has written about competitive authoritarianism in Turkey.

Karabekir Akkoyunlu, a comparative politics scholar at São Paulo University, said Turkey has exited from democracy in 2015, when for the first time since the country’s first meaningful elections in 1950, the results of an election were essentially rejected. 

After the June parliamentary elections resulted in the AKP losing its majority and failing to form a coalition, Erdoğan refused to allow the opposition to form a government. Instead, he called a new election in November and whipped up a nationalistic fury to gain more votes.

Akkoyunlu told Ahval the process was not technically illegal, but, he said, “it was completely contrary to the spirit of democracy.”

But Turkey was a highly flawed democracy even before 2015.

The first democratically elected leader, huffy strongman Adnan Menderes, was a populist majoritarian who Erdoğan is fond of comparing himself to. Menderes, starting off as a democratic crusader challenging autocracy, never felt secure in his position, and within a few years of being elected, was shutting down newspapers, jailing journalists and cracking down on his political opponents. 

He was executed after being ousted in a military coup in 1960 that ushered in the age of what was called ‘tutelary democracy’, when democratically elected civilian governments were allowed to govern, but the military had the final say on many important issues.

The progressive constitution drafted after the coup was designed to protect against majoritarian excesses, creating a constitutional court and senate, and strengthening press freedom and civil rights. But it also created a National Security Council that institutionalised the military’s political influence and became more powerful with subsequent coups in 1971, 1980 and 1997.

Fast forward to 2002, when the popular AKP, with catch-all candidates and a pro-EU, reformist agenda, swept to power. Soon it began consolidating its control, and pushed the military almost fully out of civilian affairs by 2010. Thus began a new period of electoral civilian authoritarianism, referred to by some as “delegative democracy”. The AKP soon established control over institutions such as the judiciary and media.

Akkoyunlu said Erdoğan’s authoritarianism had continuities with the past, but also differences.

“The hegemony of the AKP, unlike the generals, depends on its continued electoral success. A lot of their discourse and legitimation has been based on the ballot box,” he said. “That’s good when you’re winning elections, but what happens when you start losing them?”

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (C) stands prior to cast his ballot at a polling station during the municipal elections in Istanbul.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (C) stands prior to cast his ballot at a polling station during the municipal elections in Istanbul. (Photo by BULENT KILIC / AFP)

Erdoğan, like Menderes in the 1950s, has never felt secure in his power, especially after three major events in 2013 – the massive anti-government Gezi protests in June, the military coup in Egypt in July and ensuing crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, and the nasty split with Erdoğan’s erstwhile partners in the Gülen movement that came to a head in December.

“These three challenges I think instilled a deep sense of existential insecurity and led [Erdoğan] and his entourage to believe any step backwards is the beginning of the end. So I think they’re unable to share or relinquish power in a meaningful way and that makes democracy untenable,” Akkoyunlu said.

He said Erdoğan and his colleagues were now afraid of major legal consequences for allegedly massive malfeasance if they are ever ousted.

“That creates a sort of vicious circle of existential insecurity, and politics becomes a zero-sum game. So it’s either you dominate or you’re destroyed,” Akkoyunlu said.

Akkoyunlu believes that when the party lost its majority in the June 2015 elections, it should have been the beginning of its decline, but Erdoğan refused to accept it, and started using more repression in order to hold on to power, moving from an authoritarian delegative democracy to a non-democratic competitive authoritarian regime.

Now, by seemingly not accepting the local election results in Istanbul, Erdoğan is going a step further than in 2015, “by actually manufacturing excuses to cancel the elections,” said Akkoyunlu

One of the most harmful legacies of the AKP period is that for the first time since 1950, Turks are beginning to lose trust in elections, after instances of major abnormalities, voter suppression, and even, as seen in the local election in Ankara in 2014, potential rigging.

The 2017 referendum on a presidential system, during which the Supreme Electoral Council made a last-minute decision to accept up to 2.5 million unstamped ballots, was the first time opposition parties refused to accept the legitimacy and results of a vote.

“That creeping sense of distrust in the electoral system has skyrocketed, and that’s a massive problem for a democracy,” Akkoyunlu said.

Esen said that if Erdoğan actually cancelled the election results in Istanbul, the competitive authoritarian regime could move a step further into a nearly fully authoritarian one.

“For Erdoğan to cancel elections in Istanbul would require him to go beyond this competitive authoritarianism to a more hegemonic authoritarianism, the sort we see in Venezuela or Russia. But that comes with a huge cost. He would lose the last of his legitimacy, which was that of the ballot box,” Esen said

He said this would likely result in even more volatility from financial markets, pushback from Western partners, and frustration from his own party and supporters.

This is why hegemonic authoritarianism tends to emerge in resource-rich states, not countries like Turkey that are wholly dependent upon international trade and investment, which itself depends upon stability and good foreign relations

Akkoyunlu was quick to point out that elections in Turkey are still by and large legitimate, and Turks have a very strong “democratic instinct”, which explains why turnout is one of the highest in the world.

“They may be aware of the fact that it’s an unfair competition, that there might be manipulation, but they still see the elections as a way through which they can voice their opinion. They can stand up against whoever’s in power. They did that during the tutelary period against the military, and they’re doing it again against the AKP.”

Akkoyunlu said the AKP now needed to ask itself a question: “Which is more damaging – to lose Istanbul or to lose electoral legitimacy?”

* The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.