Turkey Votes on Sunday With Democracy and Stability at Stake

Voters in Turkey will elect mayors and local councils Sunday in an act that will resonate far beyond the local issues that typically dominate municipal elections. They will deliver a referendum on the 11-year rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. And the balloting will open a cycle of three elections in coming months that may determine how this regional power of 74 million people will be governed until 2023, and whether it still can be a rare model of democracy and stability in the Middle East and Eurasia.

Erdoğan’s responses to rising challenges to his rule – most recently to the prominent corruption charges issued in December that led to the resignation of three of his cabinet ministers – have damaged Turkey’s democracy. His government has imprisoned large numbers of journalists, undermined the independence of the judiciary, re-assigned thousands of police officers connected to the corruption investigation, and blocked access to Twitter and YouTube. Under the pressures, tear gas has become a weekly nuisance on Istanbul’s main shopping street and TV channels have stopped reporting breaking news.

The elections will be a test for Turkey’s role as a key European and US ally. Until recently Erdoğan’s government was seen as a potential model for political development in the Islamic and Turkic worlds, especially as a candidate for European Union membership since 1999. In the past two years Turkey’s democratic credentials have weakened, EU negotiations have stalled and interest among Turks in joining the European bloc has decreased. Erdoğan’s government has taken positions, especially vis-à-vis Israel and in Syria (where it has given free passage to jihadist groups), that have eroded US trust in Ankara. If there is fraud on election day, it will further undermine what has become a fragile alliance between Turkey and the transatlantic community.

Sunday’s local elections will be followed in August by Turkey’s first-ever direct election for the presidency and by parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for 2015 but could be held earlier. Whether these votes further inflame political tensions or help resolve them will depend largely on whether the voting is considered free and fair, and whether Turkey’s Supreme Board of Elections retains its image of impartiality.

The choice on Sunday will be mainly between Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), the secular-minded Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Nationalist Movement Party and the main pro-Kurdish group, the Peace and Democracy Party. The AKP won 51 percent of all municipalities with 38.8 % of the popular vote in 2009 and claims that it will have equal success this time. It is unlikely to win in areas where it lost before, especially in the Kurdish-majority southeast and on the western coast, around the country’s third-biggest city, Izmir (which is governed by the CHP). The race is likely to be very tight in the major cities of Ankara and Istanbul, where the CHP is backing well-known and popular candidates rather than its traditional party rank-and-file leaders.

Erdoğan has been extremely active on the campaign trail and his image adorns the posters of many local AKP candidates. The prime minister is using this election to determine whether he has enough popular support to comfortably gain the 50 percent of votes needed in August to win a presidential race without a runoff election. If not, he might try to stay on as prime minister beyond 2015 by changing AKP rules that prohibit a leader from seeking a fourth term. AKP insiders like President Abdullah Gul and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc probably also are waiting for the poll results to determine their future political moves, including whether to remain supportive of Erdoğan’s continued dominance of the party. Poor AKP results could encourage Gul to run for re-election as president.

The two most visible movements that have challenged the prime minister and his party in recent months – the protesters who rallied last summer against an economic development project that would have bulldozed Istanbul’s Gezi Park, and the Hizmet (Service) movement led by religious leader Fethullah Gulen – have no obvious political vehicle in Sunday’s vote. They have not clearly backed any of the opposition parties and, due to restrictive rules on establishing parties at the local level, have not created any new one.

Recent elections in Turkey have been judged to have been democratic, even when political tensions have run high. The Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded in 2007 that: “The overall conduct of the elections represents a notable achievement against a background of political tensions. […] The elections demonstrated the resilience of the election process in Turkey, characterized by pluralism and a high level of public confidence.”[1]

Campaigning has always been vibrant and free, even if also extremely negative and aggressive. This  campaign season has been no different. Every free public space is covered with party posters and flags and party vans blast slogans as they drive around. But there also has been violence and at least one election-related killing. All the main party headquarters have been attacked, with local offices of two pro-Kurdish parties particularly viciously targeted.

So far, the Supreme Board of Elections, which consists of seven members elected from among  jurists at the Supreme Court of Appeals and the Council of State, has been seen widely as professional and impartial. Recent governmental efforts to reduce the independence of a similar  body — the Council of State and Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors — have not yet apparently affected the election board. However, the board’s decisions, which tend to be wide ranging due to inadequacies and lack of clarity in existing legislation, have not been immune to criticism in the past.[2] Much of the elections’ success will again depend on the election board’s impartiality and professionalism.

Several signs point to a much less free and fair race this year. Public trust in the Turkish press has plummeted. The Committee to Protect Journalists calculated in December 2013 that forty journalists were in jail on various charges [3] and officials have filed lawsuits against critical journalists and writers, including for Twitter messages. In its 2013 Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 154th out of 179 countries for its press freedom. Over a 12-day period last month, Turkey’s state-run broadcaster gave the ruling AKP 13 hours of news coverage, but only 93 minutes for all opposition parties, according to an official report.

Neither the leading European election watchdog, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, nor almost any other international or domestic group is observing this election. Turkish law does not explicitly provide access for international and civil society observers. Aside from a handful of small observer groups like Ballot Watch (Sandik Basindayiz) observation is largely left to political parties. The parties are very active around polling stations, reviewing copies of precinct electoral protocols and sometimes organizing parallel vote tabulations. But full-scale monitoring and assessment of an election – including the campaign, voting day and post-election monitoring – is unheard of. 

There also is little monitoring of campaign spending or party donations. Political parties and independent candidates disclose their campaign-related income and expenditures but there are no limits on spending, and verification of documents is spotty. The use of state resources to support the ruling party has been rife, according to Turkish news reports. In one example, the AKP held a massive rally in the Yenikapi district of Istanbul to which it transported its supporters in city buses. When the AKP and Prime Minister Erdoğan came to power in 2002, they promised a new era of democratization centered on reducing corruption. Their initial positive steps helped kick-start Turkey’s European Union accession talks and secure Turkey’s position as a key US ally in the region but that now seems like a very long time ago. If the legitimacy of Sunday’s elections is questioned by large numbers, citizens are likely to pour into the streets. Popular unrest is a particular danger in Ankara and Istanbul, where the races are expected to be very tight, polarization is very high and trust in government amongst an important segment of the population is low. Until now Turkey has managed to carry out respectable elections even in times of intense political conflict, but Turkey’s future as a democracy, and even its near-term political stability, rely heavily on a clean vote on Sunday.

Sabine Freizer is a nonresident Senior Fellow with both the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and the Transatlantic Relations Program.

[1] Republic of Turkey: Early Parliamentary Elections (Warsaw: OSCE ODIHR, July 22, 2007),  p.1.
[2] OSCE ODIHR Election Assessment Mission Report 2011, p.3. The OSCE went so far as to recommend that YSK “should refrain from issuing decisions that conflict with the legislation,” p.5.
[3] Nina Ognianova, “Turkey – World’s Top Press Jailer Once More,” CPJ blog, December 18, 2013.

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Image: Supporters hold a portrait of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan while waving Turkish and AK Party flags during an election rally in Istanbul March 23, 2014. REUTERS/Murad Sezer