Erdoğan’s victory isn’t a win for Turkish democracy

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s gamble—holding what he called “a re-run election”—has paid off handsomely. His party received almost 50 percent of the popular vote yesterday, up from about 41 percent in the June 7 elections. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will have 317 seats in parliament, enabling it to form a one-party government. The main opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP), did marginally better than it had (with roughly 25 percent of the vote). Both the Turkish and Kurdish nationalist parties, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), lost vote shares: from 16 percent to 14 percent and from 13 percent to 11 percent, respectively. The AKP attracted more than two million disaffected votes from the MHP and over one million conservative Kurdish voters from the HDP.

Erdoğan hoped that an insecure domestic environment marked by violence and an economic downturn would bring voters back to the AKP. It did, with voters apparently perceiving his party as a stabilizer of sorts. 

How full is the glass?

There are two main views on the election results. One posits that a government under current Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s leadership, with a newly solidified majority, will now be able to decisively address Turkey’s economic, ethnic, social, and foreign policy challenges. The other is more pessimistic, emphasizing that the repression of free expression and the overall climate of fear prior to the election inhibited a fair vote. Proponents of the second view add that the results will further deepen the existing divide between the supporters of AKP and its opponents.

In his victory speech, Davutoğlu apparently recognized the polarization of the country, adopting a conciliatory tone and expressing affection for the whole country. He promised a government that would represent all Turkish citizens, not just his supporters. He promised a “new” Turkey that will ensure security, freedom, and prosperity for all. But will he be able to deliver? 

A model’s downfall

For those who worry about polarization in Turkey and the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of its government, the country is slipping deeper into trouble. Turkey is moving away from the principles and policies that, for a long time, had kept it on track towards achieving a fully democratic system of governance. Ironically, the goal of building a country that would one day meet those standards came closest to realization under an AKP government in the 2000s. At that point, Turkey “sufficiently” met the EU’s Copenhagen political criteria—including respect for freedom of expression and minority rights, as well as transparent and accountable government supported by the rule of law. This helped to start accession negotiations in 2005 for Turkey to become a member of the EU, a club of advanced democracies. When Turkey-EU relations began to cool in 2006 and resistance to Turkey’s eventual membership rose among some leading EU member countries, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan expressed his commitment to the same high standards, calling them the Ankara criteria

However, this resolve on the path to better democracy—which had earned Turkey the status of a model for the Middle East and many Muslim countries around the world—began to erode after the AKP’s resounding victory in the 2011 elections. Erdoğan became more authoritarian, particularly towards the opposition. He increasingly attributed Turkey’s growing internal and external challenges to the machinations of conspirators. The main tenets of democracy—the rule of law, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech, and accountability—were increasingly ignored, and Turkey’s model credentials eroded. Regional leaders like Tunisia’s Rached Ghannouchi, among others, stopped referring to Turkey as a model. Instead, Erdoğan’s style of governance increasingly came to resemble Vladimir Putin’s in Russia

Anxieties about the “new” Turkey

It is Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies that are making many in Turkey worried today. The election results will likely further embolden the party, and the prime minister and the president may seek to change the constitution in favor of a presidential system. Davutoğlu himself made that clear in his victory speech, arguing that the election results constituted a kind of referendum in support of a “new” Turkey that needed this new form of government. 

But in the absence of institutions that would ensure the checks and balances critical for running a presidential system, it makes sense to worry that Turkey may move in the direction of authoritarianism. Davutoğlu emphasized inclusiveness and democracy in his address, and such comments are naturally very welcome. But his references to freedom of expression were conspicuously brief. And nowhere in his speech was there mention of the importance of the institutions or consensus politics that are central to advanced democracies. 

Instead he emphasized promises of affection derived from the teachings of Rûmî, the medieval Islamic philosopher, whose tomb is in his home town of Konya. Davutoğlu called for mutual affection as a starting point in fixing the current woes. It’s not clear yet whether that will be enough to help Turkey join the ranks of advanced democracies. Its failure will mean more polarization, chaos, and instability that will instead make Turkey look increasingly like its unfortunate Middle Eastern neighbors.