The vote and some counter-factuals
With 52.6% of the vote, on 24 June President Erdogan was re-elected without needing a second round run-off. His chief rival, Muharrem Ince of the social democratic wing of the CHP, polled just 30.6%. Ince quickly conceded defeat, noting that even if there had been some irregularities they would not account for the chasm between his vote and Erdogan’s. This is worth thinking about. If Erdogan’s vote had fallen below 50% – which for those who suspect irregularities did occur might well have been the ‘true’ outcome – there would have been a run-off. But from where would Ince have found the extra votes to mount a more serious challenge?
The HDP’s Selahattin Demirtas, campaigning from a prison cell, received 8.4% of the vote, less than his party’s 11%. Passing the 10% threshold ensures the HDP’s representation in the National Assembly, which in itself raises doubts about the extent of any vote rigging. It is not easy to say where these Kurdish votes would have gone in the event of an Erdogan-Ince run-off. During his campaign Ince had made overtures to Demirtas and had addressed Kurdish grievances, but mistrust of the CHP’s legacy of Kemalist nationalism runs deep in the Kurdish southeast of the country. A good number of voters in HDP strongholds supported increased presidential powers in the 2017 referendum, Erdogan’s personal vote in such districts was higher in 2018 than in 2014, and some Kurdish voters have a track record of switching between the AKP and the HDP. Ince would not be able to count on the southeast.
Meral Aksener received a disappointing (as measured against initial hopes for her) 7.3% of the vote, less than her new Iyi Party’s almost 10%. She and her party sucked most of their votes from the CHP, but Ince’s soft social democracy might be part of the explanation for this shift. Again, it isn’t clear that the Iyi Party’s votes would have automatically transferred to Ince. A run-off between Ince and Erdogan might well have been close, but Erdogan’s supporters, the nationalist votes of the MHP and even some of the Iyi Party’s voters would likely have been sufficient to ensure an Erdogan victory.
There is evidence that incidents of ballot-box stuffing and ballot shredding took place, although it is highly unlikely that a clear picture of its scale will ever emerge. The decision that was taken in early 2018 to allow unstamped ballot papers would have eased fraudulent behaviour. The OSCE stated that ballots were not stamped in 10% of the cases its monitors observed. Two OSCE Parliamentary Assembly observers were denied entry to Turkey altogether. The fact that some poll-watchers were arrested, especially in the southeast, also raises concerns. What many would now regard as government control over the electoral process, again most notably in the southeast where much of the local administration has been taken over by government-appointed trustees, is also bound to arouse suspicion. On the other hand, the AKP vote for the National Assembly elections declined from 49.5% in November 2015 to 42.5% this time around. Combined with the HDP’s success, this suggests that such tampering as may have taken place was neither systematic nor universal.
Another ‘surprise’ outcome that some have drawn attention to is the ‘healthy’ vote for the MHP, which fought the elections in alliance with the AKP and which was rewarded with over 11%. In fact, this is a little under its November 2015 share of the vote, which in turn represented a significantly lower vote share than it had achieved in June 2015. Despite this slight drop in its electoral support, it now has nine more parliamentary seats. Interestingly, although the MHP lost votes in Turkey’s west – as did the AKP – its vote increased in the east and southeast. Some have drawn attention to its improved performance in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, and have wondered whether this hints at a degree of vote rigging. In fact, the MHP vote in the southeast, although improved on its November 2015 performance, remains lower than the levels attained in June 2015 and earlier. In any case the MHP does not harvest a high percentage vote in the southeast region, which is primarily a battleground between the HDP and the AKP. Thus, the MHP’s electoral showing represents a recovery from its previous low point, and perhaps is surprising only when measured against a lucklustre election campaign. Where it met with some success this time around, it seems to have been at the expense of the AKP.
Some have expressed surprise at the outcome of these elections. Ince fought an energetic and charismatic campaign, and many Turks seemed caught up in the enthusiasm he generated. For a while this was true for Aksener too, although her efforts ultimately failed to make much impact. Many observers, inside Turkey and beyond, also convinced themselves that Erdogan had been damaged by the autocratic nature of his rule, by the allegations of corruption that surrounded him, and by the worsening economic indicators that formed the backdrop to the election campaign. Erdogan was at times even presented as a desperate figure, sending forces against the PKK in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains and against the PYD enclave of Afrin in northern Syria for little more than tactical electoral reasons, and suppressing the media and all forms of opposition out of fear. In light of the outcome, these assumptions that Erdogan was about to suffer a defeat or at least a severe embarrassment now look like a triumph of hope over analysis. Ince did well to take his vote over 30%, as his party never attracts that level of support. And the AKP vote did fall. Indeed, the combined AKP and MHP vote, at 53.6%, was not only less than the 61.4% they managed between them in November 2015, when the AKP so successfully restored its electoral fortunes, but less too than the 57.2% of votes cast for them in June 2015. Evidently this time around some AKP votes shifted to the MHP, which is where many of them had come from in the first place.
Turkey’s political geography and sociology
All this suggests that one of the real lessons to be learned from this election, at least for those who didn’t already know it, is that Turkish society is polarised, and quite rigidly so. In Anatolia, Islamist and nationalist sentiment predominates. Parties reflecting these perspectives might compete for support among some sections of the population but their combined vote will invariably win out. Erdogan appeals across Islamist and nationalist ‘divides’. The CHP is stuck in a ghetto on Turkey’s western edge, comprising of secular locations such as Izmir and Edirne. The CHP will always retain support there, but even Ince’s inspirational campaign barely transcended this geographical boundary, nor did it venture too far beyond the CHP’s core base of secularist sympathisers. For this section of the population, Aksener-style ‘modernised’ secular nationalism appears to be the only viable alternative, which accounts for drop in the CHP’s vote share to 22.6%. In the Kurdish southeast, Kurdish parties retain the lead, but are obliged to share the affections of Kurdish voters with Islamist parties – in today’s Turkey, that means the AKP. The June 2018 election largely confirmed rather than challenged this pre-existing geographical and sociological distribution of Turkish political preferences.
Many observers were also guilty of underestimating Erdogan himself, and the support he can call on. Turkish political culture has long been characterised by a weakness for strong leaders, leaders who soar above even the parties they nominally represent. In any case, that certainly appears true where Erdogan is concerned. He is now bigger than the AKP that he has so effectively subordinated to his leadership, and on which under the new presidential system he is now less reliant anyway. He is surrounded by an entourage, including family members and business associates, whose fortunes rely on him and his grip on power and who will do his bidding, whatever that might be. For all his opportunism, ideologically, he has both exploited and disseminated a narrative in which Turks – his Turks – are beset by internal traitors and external enemies against which only he can offer protection. Such paranoia can be found across the Turkish political spectrum, but Erdogan alone has succeeded in galvanising a popular majority that are happy to follow him, regardless of the corruption and – so far at least – despite economic difficulties he might land them in. In fact, these economic difficulties are yet to fully bite, and for the time being Turkey’s Anatolians are content to credit him with the substantial improvement in their living standards. Nor do his supporters worry about his autocratic methods or his repression of opposition, because such measures are directed at his enemies, and theirs.
This is majoritarian democracy in its most perfected form. There will be no magnanimity in victory. In the immediate wake of the election, Erdogan sharply attacked the ‘traitors’ who had opposed him. An AKP mayor has threatened that municipal services will be allocated according to the electoral preferences of its recipients. And Erdogan’s ally, MHP leader Devlet Bahceli, has published a list of journalists and others who ‘slandered’ him and his party during the election campaign.
In its preliminary report on the elections, the OSCE noted that Erdogan and his party enjoyed excessive and largely favourable coverage in the (90% government-controlled) media, that provincial governors frequently used state of emergency provisions to limit freedom of assembly, that ballot box committees were manned by specifically selected civil servants rather than party representatives, that the ruling party was able to deploy state resources in the service of its campaign and deny them to opposing parties, and that the work of observers was often obstructed by police and local officials. Demirtas campaigned from a prison cell, and over 1000 polling booths in the southeast were moved to usually more distant locations on ‘security’ grounds. As the report notes, the contestants did not compete on an ‘equal basis’.
We cannot know what the results might have been had the conditions under which the elections were held been more to the west’s liking. But maybe this is to miss the drift of what is happening – has already happened – in Turkey. Turkey is not a democracy along the lines of those found in western Europe. But nor is Erdogan allocated 99.9% of the vote as is often the case in more seasoned autocracies. According to these categorisations Turkey is neither fish nor fowl. Rather, it is the ‘new Turkey’, Erdogan’s Turkey, a majoritarian democracy in which the government is required to protect the interests and reflect the perspectives of its voter base – which it also helps shape. The rights and freedoms of others is of little concern, and may even require restricting. The potentially severe economic downturn that now beckons might shake this majority and erode its attachment to Erdogan, yet to where they would then turn? The political sociology of Turkey is highly inflexible, and Erdogan’s presidential powers – approved in a referendum – are formidable. Even if Erdogan is one day forced out, whoever replaces him will rely on the same electoral base, ideological predispositions, and access to the levers of power. Berat Albayrak, anyone?
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