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Friday, April 12, 2024

COLUMN: Democracy’s Dawn: Turkiye’s Election and the Quest for Renewal

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s electoral victory in May 2023 elevated him to the league of enduring authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Xi Jinping of China, who have ruled their nations for over two decades. The emergence of authoritarian regimes challenges United States (US) interests overseas, leading the Biden administration to prioritize the global promotion of democracy. 

President Erdogan’s triumph last year dashed hopes for democracy in Turkiye, but recent municipal elections on March 31, 2024, have reignited optimism. The Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi – AKP), led by Erdogan, suffered a significant setback, experiencing a dramatic decline in voter support. Conversely, the main opposition party, the People’s Republican Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi – CHP), secured a victory over Turkiye’s longstanding leader of two decades.  

Democracy’s Erosion: The Path to Authoritarian Rule 

Since Turkiye acceded to NATO in 1952, there has been a notable inclination among Turkish people towards Western values. The recurring coups, commencing in 1960 and repeating every decade until the late 1990s, have severely undermined Turkish democracy. However, its fragility was exacerbated under the AKP government, which assumed power in 2002. Despite initially embracing policies aligned with the European Union and Western values during its early years, the AKP gradually drifted towards authoritarian inclinations following its re-elections. 

The corruption scandals of December 17 and 25, 2013, implicating four cabinet ministers and President Erdogan’s family, prompted the AKP government to clamp down on the opposition. Government officials who were seen as dissenting voices were dismissed from their positions in 2014 and 2015. The suspicious coup attempt on July 15, 2016, led to the imprisonment of tens of thousands of state officials with scant evidence, enabling the AKP government to consolidate constitutional power and transition to a presidential system reminiscent of those in the Middle East and Central Asia. During this new era, the governmental system shifted towards a kleptocratic regime, with analysts estimating that approximately one-third of funds from government contracts are siphoned into the pockets of corrupt officials. Thus, Turkiye’s ranking in the Corruption Perception Index plummeted, dropping to 115 in 2023 from its position at 52 a decade earlier. Moreover, Turkiye’s evolving landscape illustrates how the country has emerged as a hotspot for international money launderers, corrupt Russian oligarchs, and even cocaine cartels with ties to Latin America. 

The shift from a fragile democracy to authoritarianism in Turkey has also presented challenges for the Western world. Turkiye has leveraged its position with Syrian refugees to exert pressure on EU countries. During periods of strained relations with the EU, the Turkish president has issued threats, suggesting that he could open Turkish borders, allowing Syrian refugees to flood into EU countries. Turkiye’s fluctuating foreign policy has also caused issues for the US. The government’s threats to intervene in northern Syria and target Kurdish groups, who are allies of US forces against ISIS and Al Qaeda in the region, have jeopardized US interests. Furthermore, the Turkish President’s efforts to convey a solid message to the US government, suggesting that Turkey might pivot away from the Western world, have resulted in significant financial expenditures from the Turkish budget. This includes the acquisition of S-400 missiles from Russia, which Turkey is unlikely to deploy and may ultimately choose to discard. 

The political transition to authoritarianism in Turkiye has instilled a pervasive sense of paranoia, where anyone perceived as a threat to the established regime is swiftly labeled as a terrorist. Turkiye currently holds the unfortunate distinction of having the highest number of journalists incarcerated with terrorism charges, surpassing even China and Russia. Moreover, it leads in terms of terrorism investigations and charges against its own citizens. Since the dubious coup attempt in 2016, Turkiye has initiated a staggering 2.2 million terrorism investigations, yet the actual number of terrorist incidents during the same period stood at 434 in global terrorism databases. The government’s expansive terrorist watchlist encompasses individuals ranging from students who protested college Presidents to courageous officers who dared to investigate corruption cases involving government officials. The AKP government went as far as including Sweden on the list of states sponsoring terrorism. 

The March 31 Municipality Elections    

Turkiye observed the March 31 municipal elections amidst debates surrounding authoritarianism. Since its establishment, the AKP has significantly emphasized winning municipal elections for various reasons. These include the opportunity they offer for accessing profitable government contracts, which can be manipulated through illicit bidding practices favoring party-linked business people, as well as their function as a platform to directly connect with and influence the public through the distribution of social welfare programs. Consequently, it was widely expected that the AKP government would emerge triumphant in the elections, anticipating that they would employ all means necessary to ensure their victory, as they have done in the past. However, according to the Map below, the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi – CHP) won the majority of provinces in red color, followed by the AKP and the Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM).  

Figure 1 Provincial Municipalities Won by Political Parties in the March 31 2024 Elections

As indicated in Table 1 below, the CHP achieved its highest vote count since the 1977 elections, securing victory in 35 provincial municipalities. The AKP followed closely behind, with victories in 24 municipalities, followed by DEM, a Kurdish political party that claimed ten provinces. Notably, DEM, led by the prominent figure Selahattin Demirtas, has encountered significant challenges, including the imprisonment of its leader since 2017, as well as facing party closures and frequent name changes. 

Table 1: The Percentage of Votes and Provincial Municipalities Won in the March 31, 2024 Elections 

   The Percentage of Votes Secured by Political Parties   The Number of Provincial Municipalities Won 
CHP (Republican People’s Party)  37.77  35 
AKP (Justice and Development Party)  35.49  24 
DEM (Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party)  5.7  10 
MHP (Nationalist Movement Party)  4.99 
YRP (New Welfare Party)  6.19 
IYI (Good Party)  3.77 
BBP (The Great Unity Party)  0.43 

 

The AKP’s electoral defeat can be attributed to several factors: Firstly, the intimidating approach of the AKP has alienated voters. President Erdogan has often conveyed a forceful message to voters, implying that failure to support the AKP would result in governmental neglect, and local administrations would receive no backing. Secondly, and most significantly, persistent economic challenges and soaring inflation have exacerbated people’s financial circumstances. A considerable portion of the Turkish populace now grapples with poverty. The AKP’s austerity measures following last year’s elections have further exacerbated the economic plight of the populace. 

Typically, the CHP secures around 25 percent of the votes in Turkiye, but in the recent election, it saw almost a 13 percent increase in its vote share. The CHP apparently gained five percent of its support from Kurdish voters and the other five percent from the AKP, IYI, and MHP Parties. Experts suggest the CHP strategically deployed strong candidates in various provinces to address public grievances against the AKP. In particular, their popular candidates, Ekrem Imamoglu in Istanbul and Mansur Yavas in Ankara, secured significant victories, with Imamoglu winning by a margin of more than 10 percent and Yavas doubling the votes of his AKP rival. Kurdish voters in metropolitan areas strategically backed the CHP, recognizing the unlikelihood of their candidates winning and aiming to avoid wasting their votes. However, the CHP appears to be lacking in effectively addressing the concerns of the Kurdish community and countering the AKP government’s discriminatory rhetoric against opposition groups. Nevertheless, the CHP has seized the opportunity to embrace discriminated groups and position itself as a champion of democracy in Turkiye. This strategy may sustain its success, provided that the CHP continues to espouse Western values, oppose human rights violations, and strive for justice in the country.     

High-ranking politicians from the AKP government, including President Erdogan, have emphasized in their initial statements that they will scrutinize the election outcomes and draw lessons from them. While it is conceivable that President Erdogan might moderate his confrontational rhetoric towards the populace in future elections, it seems improbable to reverse the country’s economic downturn and mitigate inflation, given the prevailing budget deficits and escalating foreign debts compounded by higher interest rates. It is important to note that widespread corruption depletes government resources, while authoritarianism deters Western investors. Addressing these issues and inviting Western investment to a country with poor governance seems challenging in the short term. 

It is crucial to recognize that the AKP is not inclined to relinquish power to any other political party. Many of its senior officials are implicated in numerous corrupt and illicit activities and are well aware of the consequences awaiting them if they lose governmental authority. Hence, one potential response from the AKP could involve fostering fear within the country and resorting to increasingly authoritarian measures to maintain control. 

The AKP government has already taken steps to undermine the rights of elected candidates in Kurdish provinces. The High Election Board has stated that an elected candidate from the DEM party in the Van province is deemed ineligible for election. This action goes against earlier government declarations, and the shift of elected officials’ rights to the AKP candidate in Van generates unrest, revealing the AKP government’s approach to managing the aftermath of a defeated election. The outcomes of the municipality elections demonstrate that Turkish people remain hopeful for a positive change in Turkey’s future, but the road ahead will undoubtedly be challenging for all involved. 

author avatar
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.
Mahmut Cengiz
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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