Many Fear Authoritarian Turn as Turkish Elections Loom

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On June 7, Turkish voters will cast their ballots for their country’s parliamentary elections. But this election is about more than who controls the parliament. Many in Turkey and abroad expect a victory for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to clear the way for Turkish government to become a presidential system as opposed to a parliamentary one. This will have important implications not only for Turkish citizens but for Turkey’s neighbors and allies alike. Turkey’s current president — and former prime minister — Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to stay out of the political campaign as proscribed by the country’s constitution. But as the outcome will be seen as a referendum on his plans for vesting his office with unprecedented powers, he has hardly been a passive player in this latest twist of Turkish politics.

The importance of the June 7 elections has been a subject of discussion among Turkish and international observers for some time now. This is mostly due to the fact that, as Hurriyet Daily News’ Nuray Mert suggests, many in Turkey are fearing a seismic shift in politics which may produce an authoritarian presidential system: “[If the] governing party manages to get a majority, which would be enough to prepare for a transformation to a presidential system, the so-called ‘2002 Revolution’ will be completed. The 2002 Revolution is the name given by the supporters of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to define the period since the AKP came to power after the 2002 general elections. Nonetheless, there was no mention of a revolution at the time; instead it was naturally assumed to be a case of the democratic transformation of power after a regular parliamentary election… Long after the AKP turned to authoritarian politics, the governing party and its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to tell us the truth that Turkey was heading toward a radical change. The coming election is not an ordinary parliamentary election, but one to choose between parliamentarianism and a ‘Turkish Presidential System’ and between the new and old Turkeys.”

Turkish observers have been feverishly debating the merits of the parliamentary versus presidential systems, with many sharing Today Zaman’s Aydogan Vatandas’s view that, given Turkey’s social structure and political culture, presidentialism can quickly descend to authoritarianism: “While President Recep Tayyip Erdogan aims to create a stronger and more authoritarian presidential system, the relative virtues and vices of both presidentialism and parliamentarianism have been recently subject to a vigorous debate in Turkey. The pro-Erdogan media argues that the biggest problem caused by parliamentarianism is instability as a result of coalitions. On the other hand, the opponents of presidentialism suggest that Erdogan’s rule in the parliamentary system has already terminated checks and balances in the political system, and that presidentialism under his rule may even turn the country into a dictatorship. However, debates over presidentialism do not include issues such as whether it fits the Turkish social structure or political culture…. Coalitions are not always good and do not last long. However, presidentialism is not the cure for the problems of parliamentarianism. Turkish presidentialism under the rule of Erdogan would probably look Venezuelan, not American.”

Mr. Erdogan’s intent to amend the constitution, as this  op-ed for Yedioth Ahronoth suggests, is the reflection of an individual set on ridding himself of any opposition that might come from various quarters and amounts to a power grab: “With the support of such a majority, his party would then be able to amend Turkey’s constitution and thereby grant the president far-reaching powers. Erdogan’s rivals are not holding their punches…they are accusing him of trying to create a ‘constitutional dictatorship,’ of being powerdrunk, of megalomania and madness. Erdogan, for his part, couldn’t care less; his aggressive election campaign is breaking all the game rules….Erdogan got the better of the Turkish military establishment, which had been the de facto regime in the country prior to Erdogan’s rise to power. But the courts, the business community and the free press In Turkey are still putting up a fight. This is why he wants to change the constitution. He is talking, of course, about governance. But governance is simply a laundered term. Everyone talks about governance but actually means unlimited power. Until the mid-2000s, the democratic criteria of elections in Turkey were not subject to serious criticism, neither from inside nor outside.”

While not a problem in the past, voter fraud has recently become a concern, starting with last year’s elections. Now, with Turkey’s democratic future hanging on a wire, voter fraud may make the difference, but as Barcin Yinanc argues, any efforts to monitor elections may be a case of too little too late: “Every time Turkey stumbles on its path towards a fully functioning democracy, critical voices rising from Europe talk about suspending the country’s accession talks with the European Union. Turkey’s slide into an authoritarian regime under the governance of Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by the ambitions of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is no novelty to Europeans. Aside from certain irregularities that did not have the potential of radically changing the outcome, elections results have never faced serious challenges, until the local elections in 2014. A sizeable portion of the society feels concerned about possible election fraud. Past irregularities might not have been significant in terms of the final outcome, yet the June 7 general elections are critical as the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) will try to pass the 10 percent threshold. Even one vote has the potential to affect the parliamentary composition and thus, the fate of Turkey’s democratic near future.”

Interestingly, the only thing that may stand between Mr. Erdogan and his coveted new powers is the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which, though small, may win enough seats away from the AKP as to deny it of the necessary votes needed to amend the constitution. According to Today Zaman’s Muhammet Keles, that explains why Mr. Erdogan and the AKP have taken on a more nationalist stance during the campaign: “President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has always been particularly vocal about nationalism, stating that there are three red lines for the AKP: ethnic, regional and religious nationalism…he has been critical of the pro-Kurdish parties on the same grounds. He has not been hesitant to adopt a nationalist discourse when he sees it a viable strategy to garner more votes. Erdogan is perhaps an embodiment of the case where nationalism appears to be a ‘rational’ strategy for a political party so long as it produces the intended outcome. The AKP is so consumed by its own interests that it appears to have no boundaries of any sort in its desire to garner more power. Let’s hope that peace is not on its list of the ‘sacrificable,’ because its language towards the HDP is a prime example of hypocrisy and an early glimpse into the prospect of the AKP’s ‘New Turkey.’”

Mr. Erdogan is constitutionally bound to be above politics, but Semit Idiz believes it is clear the president is campaigning in favor of the AKP in order to garner the sufficient votes necessary for amending the constitution in favor of a presidential system: “Faced with increasing criticism that he is violating the constitution — which requires him to remain above party politics — and that he is actively campaigning on behalf of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is claiming now that he is neutral and remains at an equal distance toward all political parties. Erdogan argues in this context that as president, he is only supporting the interests of the people, not a particular party….One would have to be deaf and blind to claim that Erdogan’s public rallies these days, both in Turkey and abroad are anything but rallies for the AKP. He has started to claim that it does not matter for him which party gets at least 400 deputies. The important thing… is for these deputies to produce a new constitution for Turkey.”

A sign of the president’s increasing involvement in the political campaign is his participation in this week’s rallies. Meanwhile, as Murat Yetkin points out in a recent op-ed for Hurriyet Daily News, former president Abdullah Gul continues to keep his distance from his erstwhile political ally, while expressing his disapproval of the direction Mr. Erdogan has taken: “Turkey’s former President Abdullah Gul said…that he has turned down an invitation from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti)… of which he was a key founder. Gul had already announced his decision not to take part in active politics ‘under current circumstances’ before leaving the presidency last year, adding that there had been no change in his stance since then…. Over the last week, Erdogan has cared even less about criticisms and started to join Davutoglu in election rallies in the form of ‘openings’. Gul has also openly said that he is not in favor of switching to a presidential system with executive power and fewer checks and balances, which Erdogan has been promoting.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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