by Steven A. Cook, Council of Foreign relations
It should not be a surprise except to the most hopeful that Recep Tayyip Erdogan is once again president of Turkey and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) will enjoy an effective parliamentary majority with its partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Erdogan supporters are rejoicing while his opposition, which many Turks believe was revitalized even in defeat, licks its wounds.
It is an outcome that sounds familiar and was likely never in doubt. President Erdogan has worked hard over seven long years to get to this point; he can now put what Turks refer to as the “executive presidency” into action. As a result, he will enjoy significant new powers with little oversight, allowing Erdogan to pursue the transformation of Turkey into a powerful, prosperous, and pious society unencumbered. The extraordinary aspect of Turkey’s elections was obviously not the outcome, but rather the way it was conducted. The entire process was somewhere on the spectrum between free and unfree and fair and unfair, bewildering participants and observers alike. The confusion helped Erdogan win with a veneer of democratic legitimacy. It seems to be the perfect template for future elections in Turkey and other countries with populist and authoritarian leaders.
When the polling stations closed and the ballots were counted, Erdogan won 52.5 percent of the vote, soundly defeating his closest competitor, Muharrem Ince of the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) who garnered 30.7 percent of the vote after a spirited campaign. In the parliamentary elections, the AKP lost 7 percent of its vote total from the controversial November 2015 election. Even though it can claim 42.5 percent electoral support, it lost its parliamentary majority. However, its partner, the MHP, won 11 percent of the vote, meaning that as long as the two parties stick together they will effectively control the parliament. The CHP won 22.6 percent of the vote while a new party called Iyi (Good) Party attracted 9.95 percent of Turkish voters. The Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP) won the requisite minimum 11.7 percent to earn mandates in the Grand National Assembly.
For Erdogan and the AKP there is no reason to question these results. Erdogan has a strong record of accomplishments and has remained popular; Ince drew huge crowds leading up to Sunday’s vote without interference from the government; the HDP, whose leader is in jail with most of the rest of the party’s senior officials, made it into parliament; and the AKP actually lost its parliamentary majority. This is all entirely accurate, but the opposition has many legitimate concerns about the government’s conduct prior to and during the elections. For example, like the 2017 constitutional referendum that paved the way for the executive presidency, Erdogan and the AKP dominated the media. According to Reuters, in May Erdogan enjoyed almost ten times as much airtime as Ince on TRT—Turkey’s state broadcaster. The Iyi Party’s presidential candidate, Meral Aksener, got a measly twelve minutes of airtime. These huge disparities are compounded by the fact that after fifteen long years of AKP rule most of Turkey’s privately held media outlets mindlessly recycle Erdogan talking point out of either ideological conviction or fear.
Then there is the question of the MHP’s results. This is a party that split in 2017, that had become a wholly owned subsidiary of the AKP, that never held a campaign rally, and in only one poll did it come close to the 10 percent threshold to enter parliament, but it nevertheless garnered 11 percent of the vote. How did this happen? One line of analysis suggests that Iyi, which Aksener carved out of the MHP, drew votes away from CHP, not her former party. It is a plausible scenario, but the result is so at variance with almost every poll that it deserves scrutiny, especially since the implications of an AKP-MHP majority in parliament for Turkish politics are so important. Under the new system, if the president is a member of the party that controls the Grand National Assembly, his or her powers are largely unchecked. The alliance gives Erdogan and AKP that effective majority. Their supporters argue that the difference between the MHP’s results and its poll numbers is the result of unprofessional pollsters rather than manipulation. In fairness, Turkey’s polling agencies do not have a sterling record.
After the polling stations closed, the state run news service, Anadolu Agency, behaved less like a news organization than an arm of the AKP. Anadolu’s early projections of an Erdogan win with support in the mid-50 percent range seemed intended only to sow confusion at a moment when there was a cascade of exit polls that are notoriously inaccurate. Ince intimated as much when he declared that Anadolu was projecting results based on a relatively small number of returns from smaller cities and towns that were known AKP strongholds. The Supreme Election Council (YSK) is supposed to have the first and final word on results, yet Erdogan declared victory before it was finished counting ballots from what the opposition believed were vote rich districts in Ankara and Istanbul. It turns out that Anadolu’s projections and the CHP’s own vote tracker eventually converged, but the aggressive and early call of the presidential election raises serious questions whether it was employed to establish a fait accompli.
Finally, there is the composition of the YSK, which is supposed to be an independent body, but its officials are all AKP appointees. It is the government’s prerogative to appoint to this agency whomever Turkey’s leaders would like. Yet given the way in which the AKP has politicized, manipulated, and hollowed out Turkey’s institutions, it seems unlikely that the YSK would defy Erdogan. Midway through the the 2017 constitutional referendum, its officials ruled that ballots without the required official seals would nevertheless be counted as valid, a decision that opponents believe lifted supporters of the executive presidency to victory. This is why Ince’s supporters were so fearful that once Anadolu declared Erdogan the victor, the YSK would just rubber stamp the result. Then again, there is no evidence that Erdogan’s victory is fraudulent.
Sunday’s Turkish election is a perfect example of post-truth politics. There are two competing narratives that partisans on both sides believe in fiercely. They respond ferociously to any effort to question their particular truth even if there are good reasons to do so. The unfortunate result is more anger, greater polarization, further instability, and a deepening of authoritarianism. This is Turkey’s present, but it is the wave of the future.