May 14 will determine the future of Turkey

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This year marks the 100th year since the founding of the Republic of Turkey. May 14 of this year will also mark Turkey's highly-anticipated general election. Pundits who have been watching the country's political turmoil brought by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) describe the upcoming May vote as crucial — or as Bobby Ghosh described in his recent Bloomberg piece, “the most important election of 2023.” It is a choice between democracy, equality, the rule of law, and secularism and everything that stands against these values — authoritarian policies, lack of freedoms, and a growing influence of religion over the state.

The candidates

Opposition politicians and civil society groups have been demanding an early election for nearly two years, in part due to controversy over current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's presidential eligibility. “One of the reasons we have been talking about early election are the legal discussions about the President's candidacy. The People's Alliance [coalition of the ruling AKP and the nationalist MHP] argue this is not the third term. But that is not what 99 percent of constitutional lawyers are saying. This [would be] a third term and under current constitution it is by no means possible,” explains Edgar Şar, an analyst at Medyascope.

According to the constitution, the president can only run for two terms. But there is a catch — a third term is technically possible depending on who calls for renewed election during the second term of the presidency:

The Grand National Assembly of Türkiye may decide to renew the elections by three-fifth majority of the total number of its members. In this case, the general election of the Grand National Assembly of Türkiye and the presidential election shall be held together.

If the President of the Republic decides to renew the elections, the general election of the Turkish Grand National Assembly and the presidential election shall be held together.

If the Assembly decides to renew the elections during the second term of the President of the Republic, he/she may once again be a candidate.

These paragraphs, explained journalist Michael Sercan Daventry, in his analysis, mean that if the decision to call for an early election comes from Erdoğan himself, he cannot run for another term, but “if parliament — the Grand National Assembly of Turkey — were to call the election, Erdoğan can be a candidate.”

The Grand National Assembly of Turkey consists of 600 members. The ruling AKP and its ally, the Nationalist Movement (MH) Party, representing the People's Alliance, control 335 seats. The president needs 360 votes from the members of the parliament to call for an early election. “This means that Erdoğan would have to find 25 votes among the opposition, which may be difficult as most parties would not support him. Or, more likely, he would dissolve the parliament, call for elections and still present himself, which is a constitutionally dubious move. Yet Erdoğan and his legal team are apt at finding ways around the rules, such as arguing that his first term was before the 2017 constitutional changes and did not count,” wrote journalist Nazli Ertan for the Turkish news site AlMonitor.

This effectively means that the chances for the ruling People's Alliance securing the needed 25 votes were slim, explains Şar.

In addition to the parliamentary approval, the country's election council also holds weight in the decision-making process. “At the end of the day, it will be up to the Supreme Electoral Board [YSK], to decide on [early election and President Erdoğan candidacy],” added Şar, which is even more problematic given its lack of independence. During the mayoral election in 2019, the board canceled election results in Istanbul a month after the opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu secured a victory. The decision was largely seen as a move dictated by the People's Alliance which repeatedly called to annul the election on the grounds of “irregularities.”

In addition to the legality of the decision and the candidacy, the election day itself — May 14 — is also significant. In 1950, a center-right Democrat Party led by then prime minister of Turkey, Adnan Menders, won a landslide victory against the opposition Republican People's (CH) Party. The victory ended CHP's 22-year rule.

During his address to the party's members on January 18, President Erdoğan did not shy away from referring to this event: “On the same day 73 years later [a reference to the May 14, 1950 election] our nation will say ‘enough’ to these coup pranksters and incompetent aspirants that face us. I call on our parliament to do what is necessary.”

Who are the “coup pranksters and incompetent aspirants”? The first group that comes to mind is the Table of Six, a coalition of six opposition parties that came together last year to challenge the ruling government in the upcoming election. They have promised to bolster Turkey's parliamentary system, establish limits on presidential powers, and plan to address economic and societal grievances.

But while the coalition has been praised for showcasing its unity by bringing together diverse political ideologies represented by six parties, they are facing criticism over their failure to nominate a single candidate to run in the election.

One journalist helps to understand who are the potential candidates to face the president in the polls.

Others, like academic Soli Ozel, criticize the coalition's lack of convictions. Speaking to The Economist, Ozel said, “Either they don’t have the courage of their convictions, or they don’t have convictions.”

The Kurdish minority in the crosshairs

The Kurds have also been caught in Erdoğan's political crosshairs.

In a letter-turn-article from a jailed politician and former co-chair of the People's Democratic (HD) Party, Selahattin Demirtas urged the leaders of the Table of Six to set aside their differences. The letter was published by the news site T24, reading, “Whatever the government does, no matter what tricks it uses, the people have made their decision. What falls to the opposition is to turn this decision of the people into a power of change with unity and determination. History will not look back fondly on an opposition that fails in this duty.” The party itself is facing closure over its alleged links to Kurdish militants, which the party has denied repeatedly, its state financing was frozen by the Constitutional Court, and its bank accounts frozen, while a solution to the country's Kurdish issue and rights is nowhere in sight.

HD members have vowed that even if the party does shut down, they will either “form a new bloc” or “participate in the elections independently,” according to reporting by Turkey Recap. The party also announced its decision to name its own presidential candidate in the May vote.

The party's voter base, which makes up some 10–13 percent of the total vote count, is significant as it can determine whether the May vote will go into a re-run. A presidential candidate needs to secure more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid entering a second round of elections.

An economic downturn and Erdoğanomics

The election outcome will also significantly impact Turkey's economy, which has been marred by soaring inflation, double-digit unemployment, currency crisis, and rising living costs. Ahead of the elections and in an attempt to gather popular support, the ruling party “has rolled out record social aid spending worth some 1.4 percent of the annual budget, including energy subsidies, doubling the minimum wage, and allowing more than 2 million Turks to retire immediately,” reported Reuters. But just as with President Erdoğan's unorthodox view of interest rates, such mass subsidies would only pressure state coffers and are temporary solutions. According to FT reporting, Turkey's sky-high inflation “will eat into the pay rises by summer.” A local fact-checking platform Dogruluk Payi shared this reel analyzing the data from the last six years of raises made to the minimum wage, which shows that the minimum wage in 2022 was only TRY 74 (USD 3.9) higher than the minimum wage in 2017 as a result of inflation.

Rights and Freedoms

In Human Rights Watch 2023 report, released on January 12, 2023, the authors wrote, “Turkey's government has increased its censorship powers and targeted perceived critics and opponents with bogus criminal proceedings and prison sentences in advance of 2023 presidential and parliamentary election.” The most brazen and recent example of such censorship and targeting evolves around Istanbul's elected mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, who is facing a politically-motivated prison sentence and a ban from politics.

Last year, in what critics have described as a boost to systematic censorship and a threat to freedom of speech, Turkish lawmakers approved a law on disinformation. On December 15, 2022, Sinan Aygül became the first journalist to be prosecuted under the new law.

Arts and culture have also come under the ruling party's ire. The most recent example includes a Turkish film, “Burning Days” [Kurak Gunler], which has won accolades globally since its premiere. The film was censored by Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Numerous music events were also canceled last year. Attempts to censor Spotify may have failed, but bans on music videos and arrests of musicians continued. The hateful narrative targeting women and the LGBTQ+ community has also reached new lows.

Turkey's renowned philanthropist Osman Kavala was sentenced to life in prison after having spent four and a half years behind bars already. The ruling went against the European Court of Human Rights’ 2019 calls to release Kavala due to “insufficient evidence,” and the Council of Europe statement from last year that said it would start infringement proceedings against Turkey at the end of November [2021] if Kavala were not released. In addition to Kavala, seven co-defendants were remanded to prison. Their charges included espionage and attempting to overthrow the government, among others.

The same courts that have sent Kavala and scores of civil society activists behind bars failed to punish the perpetrators of child abuse and pedophiliasupporters of hate and violence, and culprits behind the death of a young university student. No measures were taken against police officers who used violence, tear gas, and rubber bullets against protesters who took to the streets for various causes, including the annual night march organized by women, the PRIDE march, and a demonstration calling for an end to violence against women to name a few.

The ruling government also failed to address the rights and demands of the country's medical practitioners, who have been on strike since 2021, demanding better working conditions and protection from violence. The Turkish Medical Association (TBB) has been a strong advocate for better conditions but recently came under heavy criticism by the state and was accused of spreading propaganda. The association's president Dr. Sebnem Korur Fincanci, was arrested on bogus charges. On January 11, 2023, the İstanbul 24th High Criminal Court sentenced Fincancı to over two years and eight months in prison but released her pending appeal.

Post-election scenarios

The storming of the US Capitol two years ago and a similar insurrection in Brazil this month begs the question — can a similar scenario take place in Turkey in case incumbent President Erdoğan loses the election? Analysts interviewed by Global Voices say this scenario is highly unlikely, but dismissing it all together would also be short-sighted.

“I am a little cautious of that scenario,” said Ziya Meral, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies. “If the opposition manages to catch the political momentum by identifying the right single candidate, they can win by a margin. If this happens, perhaps not Brazil or US, but more of what we have seen already in the previous municipal election in 2019 here — [the ruling government] refusing to accept the election results and demanding a recount. They [the ruling government] won't need a physical storming/people uprising. Erdoğan's power and his reach are different from [former US President] Trump and [former president of Brazil] Bolsonaro in that it is very much identity politics driven,” Meral told Global Voices.

Another Turkey expert, who spoke to Global Voices on condition of anonymity, said, “overruling [US or Brazil] scenarios would be native. But the risks are important.” Citing the mayoral election in 2019, the expert said this was a good example for understanding internal political dynamics in Turkey today. “If the race is close like it was in Brazil, we can expect serious consequences in case AKP loses. Cancellation, recount are possible. No institution can withstand these demands.” The election board will decide, and given the government's influence over the board, any of AKP's demands will likely be carried through. “What sets Turkey and US apart is the institutional capacity. In America, recount was refused, braving potential intervention,” the expert explained. The expert also said, the transition of power will be smoother if the margin is large. But for this to happen, the opposition must establish election security, and consolidate Kurdish votes.

Political analyst Selim Koru, on the other hand, does not think the events in the US and Brazil were likely to take place in Turkey, given the difference in leaders. “In both [US and Brazil] ultra-right-wing leaders lost the power and played their card. In Turkey, the leader has been in power for the last twenty years, so the situation is different,” explained Koru. There will be protests if the ruling government secures victory, but it will be more like what we have seen in the past, like marches, and the banging of pots and pans like in brazil, but Turkey has its own unique way of protests, like the banging of pots and pans.”

While much of the country's institutions have been co-opted by the ruling party and have become state mouthpieces, elections still play a dominant role and remain among the few bastions of democracy. The mayoral elections in 2019 are a testament to that. Perhaps the general election on May 14 will follow suit.

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