Post-Election Turkey Is More Divided Than Ever
Showing up at a polling station, as one of the two presidential candidates, in a country-wide election with a pocket full of cash may not occur to leaders of democratic countries, but in Turkey, that is what the newly re-elected President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did on May 28. The incumbent president was seen handing out TRY 200 banknotes (USD 10) to his supporters amid cheering and blessings.
In Turkey, campaigning on an election day is prohibited, but given the unequal playing field in the run-up to both elections on May 14 and May 28, it is unlikely that President Erdoğan will face any repercussions. The same applies to countless violations documented by the Turkey-based Human Rights Association (İHD). According to their report, there was violence and vote rigging observed across Turkey on May 28. In Hatay, observers documented mass voting, while in other provinces, representatives of the main opposition CHP faced violence. According to the association, there were also instances in provinces where men voted on behalf of women or pre-stamped ballots were brought from outside. The association said:
In the light of the initial data Human Rights Association (İHD) has received and those reported in the press, it has been determined that violations including mass and open voting, obstruction of observers and party representatives, and physical violence took place in the presidential election runoff. İHD calls on all public authorities, especially the Supreme Electoral Board, to fulfill their duties in accordance with human rights standards in order to ensure fair elections.
On June 1, the Supreme Electoral Board announced the official results of the second round of presidential elections. According to the results, President Erdoğan received 52.18 percent of the votes while his opponent, Kılıçdaroğlu received 47.82 percent.
Already, a day after the election on May 29, the country witnessed a price hike on gas and alcoholic beverages as well as reports of medical professionals looking to leave the country. According to the Turkish Medical Association (TBB), an independent medical and health professional association, data from March 2022, some 4,000 doctors have left the country in the last ten years. The new data shared by the association showed the number of medical professionals wanting to leave in the first five months of 2023 reached 1,025. But it won’t be just the doctors leaving. According to a survey by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung conducted among Turkish youth to evaluate their social and political opinions, “a significant proportion, 63 percent of young people, expressed a desire to live in another country if given the opportunity,” citing worsening living conditions and declining freedom in Turkey as main reasons for this decision.
Already, there are signs that Turks, from all walks of life—especially those with little children—intend to seek opportunities abroad. Among those wanting to leave are those fearing persecution by the new leadership.
There is also the economy and the slumping of the national currency, the Turkish Lira, against the dollar. According to Morgan Stanley analysts, lest President Erdoğan reverses his policy of low-interest rates, the lira could face a 29 percent slump by the end of 2023. On June 3, Erdoğan is set to announce the new cabinet. Among them, is former Minister of Finance, Mehmet Simsek, who is expected to take over all of Turkey’s economic policies, according to reporting by Bloomberg. Pundits say Simsek’s inclusion within the new cabinet is a move that could help prop up Turkey’s struggling economy:
The economy is not the only area where Turkey is likely to see further problems, according to Daron Acemoğlu, a faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In a detailed thread on Twitter, Acemoğlu noted judicial independence “was very bad and probably cannot get much worse.” There is also the media environment. According to Acemoğlu while he does not anticipate “a complete ban on all dissident voices,” the conditions may worsen if the state anticipates introducing further “controls on social media.” Acemoğlu also anticipates further erosion of “autonomy and impartiality of bureaucracy and security services,” as well as challenges imposed against civil society and freedoms more broadly.
Some of the restrictions on media were quick to follow. On May 30, The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) also known as the chief censor in Turkey, launched an investigation against six opposition television channels over their coverage of the elections.
After securing another victory, President Erdoğan delivered a divisive election speech. Speaking to his supporters who gathered at the presidential palace in Ankara, he called the jailed leader of the Kurdish HDP party a terrorist and promised to keep Demirtaş behind bars. During the speech, his supporters began calling for Demirtaş’s execution. In December 2020, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkey must immediately release the Kurdish politician. The politician was placed behind bars in November 2016, and if convicted, could face 142 years in prison. The charges leveled against him are being a leader of a terrorist organization, an accusation Demirtaş has denied.
There is also the case of Can Atalay, the newly elected member of parliament, representing the Workers Party, who remains behind bars, despite Atalay’s lawyers’ attempts to free him. All newly elected parliament members are expected to attend the swearing-in ceremony on June 2.
Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS) President Gökhan Durmuş was closely watching the President’s victory speech and released a statement expressing his concern about the divisive nature of the next government and the implications on press freedom in the country.
However, in an atmosphere where the society is divided exactly in two, it will only be possible to continue to be in power by continuing the oppressive policies. And President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has already signaled to the whole society in his balcony speech that this will be their choice.
While at first, it was unclear what will happen to the opposition alliance, also known as the Table of Six, the past few days indicate divisions within the group. Uğur Poyraz, the Secretary General of the IYI Party and one of the members of the Table of Six said on June 1, “The name of this alliance is the electoral alliance; when the election is over, the alliance will also disappear. As of May 28, the electoral alliance ended.” But not all members of the alliance share the same sentiments. In a video address shared via Twitter, the leader of Gelecek Party Ahmet Davutoğlu encouraged supporters of the alliance “not to fall into despair or possible provocations,” adding, that those who supported the ruling government and its alliance did so not because they accepted the status quo but due to an environment of fear.
Other members of the alliance, such as the leader of the Felicity party Temel Karamollaoğlu took it to Twitter, where he criticized the ruling government for the polarization, asking whether it was all worth it. “Was it really worth it, declaring half of our nation ‘terrorists, enemies of religion, traitors,’ in return for this result you have achieved? Was it worth all the lies, slander, and insults,” wrote Karamollaoğlu.
The latter was also reflected in a joint statement issued by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) observers:
The second round of Türkiye’s presidential election was characterized by increasingly inflammatory and discriminatory language during the campaign period. Media bias and ongoing restrictions to freedom of expression created an unlevel playing field, and contributed to an unjustified advantage of the incumbent.
Many blamed the opposition alliance and its leader for failing to secure victory in these elections but according to Gönül Tol, the founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey program and a senior fellow with the Black Sea Program it is not as simple as that and that fear factor played a significant role. In a Twitter thread, Tol alluded to a handful of complexities that determined the outcomes of these elections. From elections being unfree and unfair, to both pro-democracy and President Erdoğan’s alliance having “existential anxieties,” with both sides seeing the elections “as a war of survival.” Tol explained:
In such polarized contexts, people do not change their voting behavior easily based on policy preferences, incumbent’s performance or opposition’s promises. Going for the other guy rather than sticking with the devil you know is too big of a risk to take, especially in the face of such dramatic uncertainty. That is why Erdoğan continues to polarize the country.
As for the fear factor, Tol noted that President Erdoğan’s victory speech, was “the most aggressive” to date, “because that is how autocrats cling to power against unfavorable odds. They stoke fear and frame elections as a war for survival. That is how they prevent defections. That is how they can still muster majorities even when they fail to deliver.”
Writing for T24, academic and journalist Haluk Şahin explained that the outcomes of these elections were “determined not by economics and sociology, but by social psychology. In other words, a choice driven by subconscious and subconscious fears, identities, denials, jealousies, desires for worship, and ambitions to dominate.”
Others like political scientist Umut Özkırımlı explained that in order to “to topple an authoritarian regime at the ballot box” two things are needed, “sizeable electoral majorities” and “populist and ethnonationalist strategies” referring to an essay by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way’s The New Competitive Authoritarianism. In the essay, the authors argue:
Tilting the playing field in countries such as Hungary, the Philippines, Turkey, and Venezuela requires greater skill, more sophisticated strategies, and far more extensive popular mobilization … Prospective autocrats must first command sizeable electoral majorities, and then deploy plebiscitarian or hypermajoritarian strategies to change the constitutional and electoral rules of the game so as to weaken opponents. This is often achieved via polarizing populist or ethnonationalist strategies.
With local elections months away (Turkey is to hold mayoral elections in March 2024) academic Orçun Selçuk said the opposition should stick to “playing the long game”:
On the night of election, as Erdoğan supporters, roamed the streets of Turkey, celebrating into the early hours of the morning, the other half of the country, did not hesitate in shaking off the outcome and calling to keep on fighting.
Acclaimed musician, Fazil Say, tweeted on May 29, “No demoralizing, friends, let’s embrace life. Keep up the goodness. Life goes on, music goes on, the world goes on, endless continuation to create and produce beauty.”
Well-known entrepreneur Selçuk Gerger, posted on his Instagram, that despite all the struggle, things did not change. “As of today, I will continue to live as I was living in Istanbul in the previous months and years, without regrets or stepping aside. I will not give up even for a moment. We won’t hide. The majority of people born and who grew up in this country are on our side. And yes, today we are really just starting our fight. Let’s not get hide!”Wait, before you go…
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