In Turkey, the Fight for Democracy Isn’t Over

Turkey’s elections on Sunday brought incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the cusp of another term in office. But he now faces a runoff vote, in which prodemocratic and Kurdish forces can still inflict a historic defeat upon the authoritarian president.

Supporters of the Green Left Party during an election campaign rally in Istanbul, Turkey, on Saturday, May 13, 2023. (Erhan Demirtas / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

People around the world are waking up to news that Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is nearly certain to spend another five years strengthening his grip on power. In Sunday’s first-round vote, Erdoğan took 49.5 percent support, while his challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu received 44.9 percent. Runoff elections have been announced for May 28.

The grim situation reminds us of Turkey’s weak democratic norms and the extent of nationalist, racist, hard-right sentiments. The glimmer of hope comes from the long-harassed Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), whose unyielding fight for progressive, democratic values has again shown its resilience.

The HDP and the associated Green Left Party joined the electoral process under extremely hostile conditions, with an autocratic regime controlling all state institutions and the press. These difficulties were well illustrated by a joint statement by election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe. It said that although the elections on May 14 were “well-organized” and for the most part peaceful, voters were limited in their political choices by the criminalization and imprisonment of HDP members.

The statement also pointed to the barriers imposed by Erdoğan, which massively restricted the opposition. The OSCE wrote: “Long-standing concerns about the respect of the fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression as well as independence of the judiciary, all key to a democratic process remained unaddressed in the election period.”

Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which controls all state institutions, used calculated strategies to exclude the HDP in particular from the electoral race. As a result of the ongoing process aimed at banning the party, the HDP did not run in its own right but had to participate via the Green Left. It did this to overcome the imminent risk of closure through a politically motivated court case — a fate that has already befallen eight of its predecessors.

The HDP’s party organization was already weakened by systematic repression, which has continued uninterrupted since 2016, with more than fifteen thousand party leaders and members arrested. Right now this party has more than four thousand members languishing in jail. As for the Green Left Party, it was admitted to the electoral process very late, only once the election date had already been announced. All this is part of Erdoğan’s sophisticated efforts to deny us fair participation in the political process.

As a political structure denied virtually all resources, the Green Left Party thus entered the elections on unequal terms. Left-wing voters were able to choose either of two options — the Green Left Party or the allied Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP), under the Alliance for Labor and Freedom. Even so, the results show that the HDP and the bloc surrounding it maintained the position they had conquered in the 2018 contest.

The HDP, through the Green Left, has once again maintained its position as the third-strongest force, both in parliament and in society. Millions of citizens in Turkey have put their trust in us to continue the struggle against autocracy and oppression and to demand a democratic and peaceful solution to Turkey’s problems. That is the work that must now be taken forward.

Systematic Offensive

If political conditions in Turkey were free and fair, the HDP would have participated with the support of more than four thousand imprisoned officials, former cochairs, deputies, co-mayors, and members. They would not have been excluded from the media in Turkey and would have been able to disseminate their ideas to society under equal conditions. This could have produced a quite different outcome, and indeed a nightmare scenario for Erdoğan.

The presidential elections themselves took place under remarkable conditions. Opposition candidate Kılıçdaroğlu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), who was excluded from all media and state platforms, was supported by the HDP and its bloc. With this help, Kılıçdaroğlu did at least manage to force a runoff against Erdoğan. In this sense, the president’s myth of invincibility really has suffered a blow. Indeed, these are his worst-ever results in an election.

Now, we can hope that despite the extent to which voters have been manipulated by nationalist and religious rhetoric, in the second round the Turkish people will not reelect a man who has done so much harm to their country. If he does indeed return to the presidency, the people will be punishing themselves even more, and guaranteeing an even less democratic future.

Turkey has experienced all kinds of rule in its hundred-year history: everything from the secular-nationalist Kemalism of the mainstream opposition CHP to Islamism, coups, military dictatorship, and finally Erdoğan’s particular brand of increasingly Islamist and nationalist authoritarianism. The only thing that has not been tried is a consistent democracy.

Now and in coming years, Turkey must overcome its fears and dare to be democratic. The most important sources of inspiration in this regard are the HDP and Green Left Party, and the broader political approach of the Kurdish freedom movement. Despite the struggle for power between Erdoğan’s Islamist-nationalist bloc and the secular-nationalist one opposed to him, we remain the most important force struggling for democracy and a true alternative in Turkey. This means an alternative in which women, different peoples and religious groups, and all citizens can live together in peace. Telling of these values, according to the preliminary results, there are thirty-one women among the sixty-three Green Left deputies elected to parliament.

Had the authoritarian, nationalist, and patriarchal Erdoğan not spent the past decade systematically liquidating the progressive opposition, the situation would be very different today. But the final outcome will be decided in the May 28 second round. Nothing is finished yet.