Turkey’s Election Is About Democracy Itself
Even before February’s earthquake claimed 50,000 lives, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had presided over many disasters in Turkey. Defeating him in this month’s election is essential if the country is going to turn away from permanent authoritarian rule.
More than at any point in the past two decades, Turkey is at a turning point. On May 14, the country will elect a new parliament and a new president. Autocratic incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has consolidated his increasingly authoritarian government over the past twenty-one years, is campaigning with the help of all the state institutions he controls. What remains to be seen is whether the Kurds and the opposition are able to make their voices heard, despite his efforts to cling to power and thwart a democratic transition.
“In these elections, it is not only [Turkish] alliances and candidates that are competing against each other,” Erdoğan claimed on April 13 at a rally in Malatya, following the deadly earthquake that official figures say cost over fifty thousand lives across the country: “the West is issuing instructions in these elections. There are also two different mentalities competing, two different goals for Turkey.” He continued, “These elections will not only determine the next five years, but also the next quarter century, the next half century of our country and our nation.”
Doubtless, only a small proportion of the crowd in this disaster-hit area was listening to Erdoğan: the majority were thinking about how to cope with the problems of finding shelter and securing a future after the February 6 earthquake. Not only in Malatya, but almost across Turkey, people are more concerned about their livelihoods than about the elections. Yet people also know that the vote is crucial for their future.
Erdoğan’s policies have nothing to offer Turkey. The hope he was able to rouse when he came to power in 2002, on the back of promises to put the country back on its feet after a previous devastating earthquake, has now been completely exhausted. Most of Turkey’s natural resources have been plundered over the past twenty-one years. All but the last remnants of its already weak democracy have been dismantled. The few rights that women enjoy have been severely curtailed, for example after Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on gendered violence, or the waves of arrests in recent years that have targeted women working in journalism, civil society, and politics (especially women from the Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP).
Nature has been monetized by the profiteers, while most people are on the brink of financial catastrophe. Accordingly, millions in today’s Turkey are acutely afraid for their future. In addition to high unemployment, the skyrocketing costs of food and rent are robbing people of the fundamentals of life. The real inflation rate is said to be more than double the official level of 50 percent, according to independent economic researchers at ENAG — largely as a result of chronic financial mismanagement by Erdoğan’s presidency.
Turkish society is on the brink, and faces a serious choice. People are profoundly discontented, just as they were prior to the seismic political shift two decades ago that swept Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power. The question, now, is whether it is possible to remove him from office.
War Abroad, Disaster at Home
Erdoğan announced his party’s election program in Ankara on April 11, promising to finally implement what he had failed to do for twenty-one years in areas such as education, health, technology, and the economy. Voters were painfully aware of the irony when he claimed “we will definitely rid our country of this problem by bringing inflation back down to single digits” — conveniently omitting his own role in driving this very crisis.
The truth is that Turkey’s foreign wars and its associated domestic authoritarianism do not come cheap. The underlying reason for the country’s severe problems can be traced back to Erdoğan’s — and thus the Turkish state’s — authoritarian policies against the Kurds. The Kurds’ demands for cultural and political rights are reduced to a “security” issue, targeting them as an enemy within. Existing antidemocratic measures are combined with an arbitrary anti-terror law that leads to massive human rights violations and breaches of international law. Moreover, all the country’s resources have been put at the service of the war against the Kurds, both in Turkey itself and in neighboring Syria and Iraq. On the international level, however, these repeated violations of international law have so far hardly attracted any serious political, diplomatic, or legal opposition.
On the contrary, at all levels of international politics, Erdoğan has been blackmailing other political actors to avoid criticism of his war against the Kurds. From the refugee agreement with which he exerted such pressure on the European Union, to the talks on Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO membership, where he wielded Turkey’s veto to secure concessions permitting his own assaults on the Kurds, he pursues ruthless coercion under the guise of diplomacy. Sadly, powers abroad have repeatedly crumbled before his demands.
We may venture an interim conclusion: an authoritarian government that has led the economy to the brink of collapse through willfully misguided policies, launched protracted assaults on democracy in its own country, pursued an anti-Kurdish policy through war and violence, and yet been tolerated by the international powers because of their political and economic interests, faces electoral defeat.
Erdoğan’s defeat could normalize Turkey’s international relations and open the door to a rebuilding of its democracy. But until election day, it is difficult to predict what he will do. One of his defining characteristics is his unpredictability. Hardly anyone currently believes that Erdoğan can be ousted through elections. Erdoğan has already fought time and again with all the state resources at his disposal to resist being removed from office. Most significantly, he has succeeded in all but eliminating one of his country’s important political players.
People’s Democratic Party
In the parliamentary elections in June 2015, the left-wing HDP increased its share of the vote to 13.1 percent with more than six million votes. At that time, it exceeded the 10 percent (also called “anti-Kurdish hurdle”) needed to enter the Turkish parliament and from then on contributed eighty members to parliament. This prevented Erdoğan’s AKP from gaining a parliamentary majority that would have allowed him to change the constitution in his favor. Erdoğan then declared the election results null and void, and simply called new elections for November 1, 2015.
In the five months leading up to the new elections, Erdoğan undertook a systematic campaign of revenge against the HDP and the Kurds. Kurdish towns in southeastern Turkey where HDP enjoyed a high share of the vote were besieged and bombed by the Turkish military and security forces, with hundreds of people losing their lives. Instead of democratizing the country — steps toward which end lay at the heart of the 2013–2015 peace process between Erdoğan and the Turkish state on the one hand and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its leader Abdullah Öcalan on the other — the Erdoğan government relied on war to achieve its political goals. Erdoğan had created space for the HDP to mediate between the two sides in the two-year dialogue process, but that all came to an end in 2015.
The systematic repression has since led to the imprisonment of more than fifteen thousand HDP members. More than four thousand of them are still in Turkish prisons. Thousands of other political prisoners are also imprisoned in Turkey today. The mayors in dozens of municipalities won by the HDP in two successive local elections have been summarily removed from office, jailed, and replaced by Erdoğan-appointed trustees.
But that is not all: parallel to the Kobani trial, which is intended to criminalize the HDP, Erdoğan has repeatedly, publicly declared his desire to see the HDP banned. Indeed, since March 2021, proceedings to ban the party have been underway before the Constitutional Court of Turkey. Such a measure would also impose a ban from participating in politics on 451 HDP politicians and lead to the confiscation of the party’s financial assets.
This arbitrary and politically motivated procedure is nothing less than an attempt to exclude the HDP completely from the elections and politics. The Erdoğan government is exerting enormous pressure on the Constitutional Court, which is why the HDP could well be banned before the elections take place. As such, the HDP is forced to maneuver through the political and related legal labyrinth of Erdoğan’s autocracy. Due to the threatened ban, the party decided to participate in the elections via the Green Left Party, a smaller party within its alliance, which should escape the ban on the HDP itself. The HDP will bring its political experience and organizational strength to the Green Left Party, and thus play a key role in the parliamentary elections.
Moreover, the HDP is the leading political force in the Alliance for Labor and Freedom. This alliance has decided not to field its own presidential candidate but to support Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu in his presidential bid. Kiliçdaroğlu, who has been the leader of the Kemalist and social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) since 2010, comes from a Kurdish-Alevi family and promises a return to a strengthened parliamentarianism. The promise of support from the electoral alliance in which the HDP finds itself considerably increases his chances of prevailing against Erdoğan in the elections.
It should not be forgotten that the two largest blocs in the elections, the People’s Alliance led by Erdoğan and the Nation Alliance led by Kiliçdaroğlu, are both essentially nationalist in character. HDP’s own alliance, the third largest, is likely to play a kingmaker role in determining who wins the popular vote for the presidency.
The Erdoğan-led People’s Alliance is supported by the two ultranationalist parties (the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, and the Great Unity Party, or BBP) as well as the paramilitary, Islamic Free Cause Party, or HÜDA PAR (directly linked with the Islamist group known as “Kurdish Hezbollah,” which acts in the service of the Turkish state). The Nation Alliance consists of a section of the opposition also known as the “Table of Six.” The Kiliçdaroğlu-led alliance includes the CHP (the largest opposition party), the national-conservative Iyi Party, and four smaller forces. According to the forecasts, the People’s Alliance and Nation Alliance will each get around 40 percent of the vote. The 13 to 14 percent vote share that the Green Left Party and the HDP Alliance for Labor and Freedom are expected to command could thus help Kiliçdaroğlu to be elected as Turkey’s new president.
The Alliance for Labor and Freedom does not want to elect a new “emperor” who will continue Erdoğan’s path of determining the country’s future by himself, but a president who will lead Turkey toward democratization. This makes it all the more important that neither of the two large, nationalist alliances achieve an absolute majority in parliament. If the Green Left Party and the Alliance for Labor and Freedom do manage to win up to eighty MPs, as projected, future legislation will need their support. The central expectations of the HDP and its allies are an end to the state policy of war and violence against the Kurds, the fresh implementation of basic democratic rights stolen from citizens of Turkey, the release of all political prisoners, and ultimately the establishment of a path to a common democratic future.
Erdoğan has nothing to offer the electorate, and no vision for the future. His only chance of political survival is to deploy the state apparatus — which has been brought under control by his authoritarian measures — against a possible democratic turn. It thus remains sadly difficult to predict what Erdoğan, who has an iron grip on the state’s resources, will do between now and May 14. The HDP, today threatened with outright suppression, and thus also the Green Left Party and the Kurdish people, will nevertheless play its role, using all resources at its disposal to move the country toward democracy in the face of heavy repression. What happens next depends on the will of the rest of the Turkish electorate — and whether it wants to continue living under authoritarianism, or give democracy a chance.