A year and a half ago in Inroads, Ilter Turan asked whether Turkey is “moving toward electoral authoritarianism.”1 The answer came in the results of parliamentary and presidential elections held on June 24, 2018, which resulted in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s reelection as head of state, defeating four other candidates. The elections gave Erdoğan the powers of a much-strengthened executive presidency, and his Justice and Development Party (AKP, according to its Turkish acronym), combined with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a majority in parliament. In this article, I look at these developments and their implications in the context of a deteriorating economy and growing opposition.
The political and constitutional context
Support for the Erdoğan government has grown since it came into power in 2002 promising efficient economic management. In the following years, Erdoğan’s AKP consolidated its vote share and created a partisan base by resorting to increasingly polarizing rhetoric in a society largely divided between secularists and conservatives. Erdoğan portrayed secularists as seeking to undermine governments elected by the will of the people (milli irade2).
Following the failed coup attempt of July 2016, the government declared a state of emergency to restore security by arresting all those it accused of conspiring against the duly elected government. All opposition parties officially supported the government and condemned the coup attempt, which left more than 200 citizens dead and many more wounded. Nevertheless, by repeatedly labelling the secularists as coup supporters, Erdoğan succeeded in polarizing the population and consolidating his power base.
A first key development in this chain of events was the renewal of constitutional change as a priority. The AKP argued that even though the military’s influence had been gradually and systematically removed from Turkish politics, the failed coup attempt showed that since democracy could still be undermined by the military, it had to be protected by a more powerful executive presidency. This reframing of the change in the constitution gradually won the support of initially hesitant voters.3
The second important development was an informal alliance between the AKP and the ultranationalist MHP, which had previously criticized Erdoğan very harshly and even promised to take him to court once he lost power. Without the support of the MHP, the AKP could not have passed the bill proposing that the constitutional change be taken to the people in a referendum for ratification. MHP support for a presidential system led dissidents to try to unseat its leader, Devlet Bahçeli. When this failed, the dissidents split from the party and created the Good Party (İP) led by Meral Akşener in October 2017.
The April 24, 2017, referendum narrowly approved a structural constitutional change, which abolished the office of the prime minister and established a presidential system with wide executive powers. The referendum’s legitimacy was contested for a number of reasons. First, it was held under the state of emergency in effect since the coup, which constrained the No camp’s efforts to mount a comprehensive campaign. Second, all state institutions along with the media outlets campaigned for Yes and demonized No voters as collaborators with foreign powers and opponents of national unity.
The ruling party went further. In polarizing rhetoric, it portrayed No voters as traitors who supported terrorism via either the outlawed Gülenist movement (which the government refers to as FETÖ, the Gülenist Terror Organization) or the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party – Kurdish separatist militants behind an armed insurgency against the Turkish state since the 1980s). Last but not least, in addition to some election irregularities, the Supreme Election Board’s ruling on the day of the vote allowed ballots without an official stamp to nevertheless be counted. Despite all its advantages, the Yes just squeaked through, with 51.4 per cent of the vote.
Under the continuing state of emergency, the president has the right to bypass parliament and govern the country by decree. The determination of the ruling party to use all means at its disposal to take on every group accused of supporting terror (especially that of FETÖ and the PKK) brought criticism from abroad of violations of human rights. In response to attacks that Turkish democracy was under threat through Erdoğan’s manipulating the state of emergency to silence the opposition, his supporters replied that by defending the national interest he was in fact consolidating democracy.
Deteriorating Turkey-US relations: an axis Shift?
The relationship between the United States and Turkey, two major NATO allies, was dealt a blow following the failed coup led by followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen when the United States refused to extradite him to Turkey. The United States had been backing and arming the Kurdish PYD/YPG4 in northern Syria to combat the Islamic State even though Turkey listed the PYD/YPG as a terrorist organization with connections to the PKK and considered arming it a national security threat. In response, Turkey started ongoing military operations in northern Syria to secure its borders from the PYD/YPG despite the United States.
Turkey’s buying S-400 long-range air defence systems from Russia raised serious concerns for the Trump administration. The S-400 missile systems are not compatible with NATO’s collective defence system, and are designed to combat Western jets, which Turkey is also buying from the United States. The incompatibility of S-400 missiles with F35 jet fighters raised serious American concerns about the F35s’ vulnerabilities to a Russian system. Congress recently blocked the transfer of the F35s, since Turkey remains determined to buy the S-400s.
Relations worsened in 2017 when, in response to Turkey’s arrest of local U.S. embassy workers, the United States suspended visa services in Turkey, followed by a quid pro quo by Turkey. Even though both camps resumed the service after two months, this constituted a major diplomatic break between the two. The relationship worsened further with the court decision to continue the detention of İzmir-based American pastor Andrew Brunson, who had been arrested on charges of aiding the coup in 2016 and having connections to the PKK. While the Trump administration repeatedly demanded his release, Turkey has consistently denied it, using it as leverage for the extradition of Gülen. As a response, the United States imposed political sanctions on the Turkish Interior Minister and Justice Minister, as well as economic sanctions, doubling the steel tariffs on Turkey. This has contributed considerably to the ongoing depreciation of the Turkish lira against the U.S. dollar. A further escalation was Turkey’s decision not to participate in the renewed economic sanctions against Iran led by the United States.
Turkey and the EU
Both Turkey’s authoritarian turn and its foreign policy confrontations with European Union members have affected relations with Brussels. Before the referendum, the Netherlands refused to allow Turkish officials to campaign on its soil, which resulted in the Dutch government declaring one Turkish minister persona non grata. (It took a year for both countries to decide to reinstate their ambassadors.) Similar restrictions came from other European countries as well, especially Germany. Relations hit a new low when the Turkish president publicly likened these restrictions to what the Nazis had done. In addition to the repressive use of the state of emergency, the EU has been critical of Erdoğan’s repeated call for parliament to reinstate the death penalty and weaken checks and balances in the amended constitution. All this led the European Parliament to adopt a resolution in July 2017 halting Turkey’s accession talks.
However, despite the worsening relations and concerns about Erdoğan’s democratic credentials, the interconnectedness of the EU and Turkey when it comes to security and commerce means that they will maintain ongoing collaboration. Turkey plays a major role in dealing with the refugee crises – one of the most salient issues for the EU – carrying out the agreement signed in March 2016. Moreover, Germany is Turkey’s biggest trading partner, something Chancellor Angela Merkel recognized in stating that Germany would collaborate with Turkey to help stabilize its deteriorating economy.
The Currency Crisis
Contrary to empirical evidence, Erdoğan belongs to a school of thought that claims that low interest rates bring low inflation. In the context of the weakening of the Turkish lira combined with rising inflation, he pressured the Central Bank (TCMB) not to raise interest rates. The influence of the President on the TCMB, his unstable foreign policy, the erosion of the separation of powers and an alarmingly growing current account deficit – one of the highest in the world – made Turkey less attractive for foreign investors. The AKP’s preference for investing in construction to boost short-term economic growth rather than productive long-term investments made the economy increasingly dependent on foreign investment. The inflow of dollars into the country kept the Turkish currency stable. However, as the U.S. dollar inflow declined, a currency meltdown became inevitable. From two to the dollar at the beginning of 2013, the Turkish lira dropped to 4.70 to the dollar at the time of the June 2018 election, and dropped even further to 6.60 in September.5
The June 2018 election
When MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli demanded early elections, the AKP rejected the idea. But then, in April, Erdoğan changed his mind and an early election was called for June 24, a year and a half earlier than scheduled. In response to the contention that it was done to blindside the opposition, Erdoğan argued that the instability caused by the Syrian conflict and the worsening economic situation required a faster transition to a more powerful executive able to take the needed decisive measures. Despite the fractured opposition being caught off guard, they were able, for the first time, to put aside their differences and unite to shield Turkey from one-man rule (see table 1 for a brief description of the parties).
Meral Akşener, leader of the newly formed İP, proclaimed her new party the alternative for centre and centre-right voters, ending the AKP’s monopoly of the centre-right. This presented a major threat for the AKP, which had been gradually moving to the right, converging with the MHP and creating space on the centre-right. The AKP realized that calling an early election would not give the İP enough time to organize to effectively attract voters from the AKP and the MHP.
A problem arose when the electoral board refused to recognize the İP list on the ballot. However, given the importance of the June election for the opposition, 15 legislators left the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), to join the newly formed İP, thus giving it sufficient numbers to ensure its participation in the election as a parliamentary group.
After the dissidents split from the MHP to form the İP, the polls consistently showed MHP support at around 7 per cent – below the national threshold for obtaining seats in parliament. However, the ruling AKP passed a bill allowing electoral alliances that removed the 10 per cent threshold for all parties in an alliance as long as one of them won more than 10 per cent of the votes. Thus the AKP safeguarded the MHP’s seats in joining with it to form the People’s Alliance. For its part, the CHP joined with the İP as well as the small Felicity Party (SP) to form the National Alliance. Now only the Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which was left out of the alliances, risked falling under the 10 per cent threshold. Because of this, some CHP voters voted for the HDP to ensure that it would exceed the threshold and weaken the AKP in the parliament. Results of the election are displayed in figures 1, 2 and 3.
The election campaign saw the emergence of a nationalistic anti-American discourse. On the government side, the People’s Alliance stressed that with Turkey under attack politically and economically, anyone who wanted Erdoğan gone was an internal enemy ready to put the nation’s security at risk. On the opposition side, the National Alliance contended that the AKP had been ruling the country since 2002, and if things were going bad, it was nobody’s fault but the incumbent’s. The opposition attributed the deteriorating situation to the AKP’s inconsistent policies and drift toward a personalized authoritarian state served by incompetent loyalists. Moreover, it maintained that the President had been using the state of emergency to target and weaken his opponents and threaten the independence of the judiciary – under Erdoğan, Turkey was drifting toward one-man rule.
The importance of the ultranationalist MHP in the People’s Alliance meant that a key component of its campaign was an attack on the HDP. The MHP considers the HDP a political branch of the PKK; supporters of the party were labelled as traitors, and the HDP’s presidential candidate had to run his campaign from behind bars.
Unlike in the 2017 referendum, there were no allegations of major election irregularities. The main opposition candidate, Muharrem İnce, who as we can see in figure 2 gained 30.64 per cent, admitted that the incidents that did occur did not change the outcome.
Nevertheless, this was not a fair and just election. It took place under the state of emergency that limited individual freedoms and rights and allowed the President to silence and intimidate the opposition. Many journalists were arrested on terrorism-related grounds, with the last remaining independent media company, Doğan Medya, having been sold to an AKP loyalist. Government control of the media gave the People’s Alliance a great advantage over the opposition parties and candidates. Following the lead of the ruling party, which deemed the İP a project party established by external powers, the media ignored the İP and its claim to be the centre-right alternative for the electorate being abandoned by the AKP. The media’s treatment of the HDP was even worse.
Turkish politics is highly partisan: almost 80 per cent of the electorate identify with a political party. Partisanship – an enduring psychological attachment to a political party – mounts a perceptual screen over the way voters perceive and interpret political issues. Even the interpretation of objective facts such as inflation is affected by partisan bias.6
A complementary stream of research shows that when parties differ in their policy positions, party differences become more visible and citizens are more likely to be partisans.7 Thus, since polarization intensifies partisan bias, partisans are less concerned with holding incumbents accountable. Before 2002, Turkish electoral politics was very volatile with a highly fragmented parliament. Under the AKP since 2002, there has been a gradual political stabilization, a framework within which partisan attachments were able to expand. The main catalyst of this growing partisanship was Erdoğan’s polarizing rhetoric, which gradually transformed AKP voters into loyal partisans, who believed his assertion that the worsening economy resulted from its being under attack from external forces seeking to cripple Turkey’s development.
Polarizing partisanship also explains the MHP’s success despite the split. While ideological polarization had a negative impact on vote switching between the opposition CHP and the AKP, it had a positive impact on the MHP once it started to collaborate with the AKP in 2016: the ideological distance between the two narrowed as the AKP moved in a nationalist direction.8
Erdoğan’s polarizing rhetoric has been mostly targeted at the opposition CHP, and especially its current leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who has lost nine elections. The CHP’s presidential candidate, Muharrem İnce, has twice unsuccessfully tried to unseat Kılıçdaroğlu. However, he won 8 per cent more votes than his party, and he could be the charismatic leader to take on Erdoğan and overcome the negative partisanship keeping his badly split party from power in the foreseeable future.
For now, the AKP and MHP’s framing political differences as forces for national unity versus forces that promote terror both domestically (FETÖ and PKK) and internationally (the Syrian conflict) seems to be succeeding. The increase in votes for nationalist parties, the MHP but also the İP (since its leaders were formerly members of the MHP), can be interpreted as a response to such polarization.
The opposition was clearly unprepared for Erdoğan’s victory. The National Alliance has already broken up, leaving a fractured opposition to face the People’s Alliance in local elections to be held in March 2019, which the People’s Alliance can be expected to win unless the economy worsens significantly.
The question that remains, now that Erdoğan has been reelected for a five-year term with sweeping powers, is whether the polarizing rhetoric will continue. It is possible that ongoing military operations in northern Syria, tensions with the United States and a deteriorating economy will pressure him to tone down the divisive rhetoric. At the same time, his parliamentary majority depends on the MHP, self-appointed guardian of national unity, which ensures continued polarization with regard to the HDP. Unless Erdoğan finds another ally in parliament, a very unlikely occurrence, the MHP will be able to continue using its parliamentary leverage to influence his policies both domestically and internationally.
All in all, prospects are dim for those of us who would like to see Turkey develop as a modern pluralist democracy.
1 Ilter Turan, “Turkey: Moving Toward Electoral Authoritarianism?”, Inroads, Summer/Fall 2017, pp. 104–13.
2 Milli irade is a term often used by Erdoğan to consolidate his party’s democratic legitimacy since its electoral success in 2002.
3 This change was the main focus of the ruling party during the campaign for the June 2015 elections. The AKP ended up losing almost 9 per cent (from 49.83 per cent in 2011 to 40.87 per cent in June 2015, though it recovered and obtained 49.5 per cent of the vote in the November 2015 repeat elections).
4 The PYD (Democratic Union Party), founded in 2003, wants to establish an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria. The YPG is the military branch of the PYD.
5 Even though the TCMB raised one-week repo interest rates from 8 to 16.50 per cent on June 1, 2018, and then to 17.75 per cent on June 8 and 24 per cent on September 14, it was already too late to control inflation and maintain currency stability because of pressure from the President.
6 Larry M. Bartels, “Beyond the Running Tally: Partisan Bias in Political Perceptions,” Political Behavior, Vol. 24, No. 2 (2002), pp. 117–50.
7 See Noam Lupu, “Party Brands and Partisanship: Theory with Evidence from a Survey Expermient in Argentina,” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 57, No. 1 (2013), pp. 49–64. See also Noam Lupu, “Party Polarization and Mass Partisanship: A Comparative Perspective,” Political Behavior, Vol. 37 (2015), pp. 331–56.
8 According to the data from the Comparative Study of the Electoral Systems project, the ideological distance between partisans of the AKP and the MHP decreased from 0.37 in 2011 to 0.16 in 2015. The distance between partisans of the CHP and the HDP decreased from 1.1 in 2011 to 0.5 in 2015.