31st May 2023


Turkey at crossroads: return to democracy or more repression

  • Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's allies already setting the scene for an attack on unfavourable election outcome (Photo: Reuters)
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Turkey will head to polls to elect its president and members of the parliament on 14 May in an election deemed fateful by most observers.

Turkish people will elect either the incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is in power since 2003, or the leader of the main opposition party, the CHP (Republican People's Party), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who is running as the joint candidate of a six-party opposition bloc.

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Erdoğan represents an increasingly authoritarian and populist Islamist strain, while Kılıçdaroğlu stands for a Western-oriented, modernist and a pluralist democratic parliamentary system.

For the first time in 20 years, Erdoğan appears vulnerable and faces his toughest challenge ever.

According to all credible opinion polls, Kılıçdaroğlu seems to be leading and the once invincible Erdoğan is trailing behind.

The economy is doing badly, with a staggering inflation of over 100 percent.

The devastating earthquake which killed more than 50,000 and exposed the weakness of the presidential system, has also eroded support for Erdoğan and his one-man, Islamist authoritarian rule.

Any candidate that can secure more than half the presidential vote on 14 May is the outright winner. Failing that, the race will go to a run-off two weeks later.

However, there are already concerns on whether the elections will be held safely and whether Erdoğan will be willing to cede power to Kılıçdaroğlu peacefully after more than 20 years in office.

There are some signs that show Erdoğan could drag his feet to transfer his powers if he loses elections and the European Union should be vigilant as Turkey plays a pivotal role in its region.

'Political coup'

Addressing crowds last week, the controversial interior minister Süleyman Soylu already called the elections an 'attempted political coup' by the West against the elected government of president Erdoğan.

Right after his remarks, the chief advisor to the president, Mehmet Uçum, also said that a change of government on 14 May would mean a "coup" against "the full independence of Turkey".

Meanwhile, speaking to jubilant crowds in Ankara, Erdoğan accused the main opposition party, CHP, of seeking the support of "terrorists".

"He will be elected president with the support of Kandil. My people will never give this country to a man that will be elected with the support of Kandil," said Erdoğan.

('Kandil' is a mountain in Northern Iraq where the Kurdish PKK group, recognised as a terrorist organisation by the EU, USA and UN, as its headquarters).

By 'Kandil and terrorists', Erdoğan was referring to HDP (the Peoples' Democratic Party), the pro-Kurdish Party which, in a show of support to Kılıçdaroğlu and CHP, did not field its own candidate for presidential elections.

These remarks are seen as signals that Erdoğan will find an excuse not to turn over his immense powers in his self-styled one-man regime.

And as regards the safety of the ballot boxes, CHP has bad memories.

Back in 2019, when the CHP's candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu won the municipal elections in Istanbul by a narrow margin, the Supreme Election Council (YSK), whose members are all appointed by Erdoğan, cancelled the elections citing fraud claims which were never corroborated.

Municipal elections were rerun and İmamoğlu, this time around, won by a landslide.

Islamist populism

In the wake of the botched coup attempt in July 2016, (whose details are still murky), Erdoğan took the country to a referendum to decide on a unique presidential system.

The referendum, which was carried out under state of emergency rules, voted 'yes', but with a razor-thin majority.

Also, the YSK announced that it would count as valid 2.5 million votes that did not have an official stamp on them.

While the CHP rejected the outcome and took the results to court, the Council of Europe (CoE) and Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) hinted that those 2.5 million votes might have been manipulated in Erdoğan's favour.

But despite the objections and strong evidence that the vote could have been rigged, the YSK announced that the result of the referendum was valid.

Since 2017, under the presidential system, Erdoğan has wielded enormous powers and become increasingly divisive and authoritarian.

According to the NGO the Stockholm Center for Freedom, a total of 1,768,000 investigations were launched in Turkey on allegations of membership in an armed terrorist organisation between 2016 and 2021.

Freedom House announced Turkey remained "not free" with a score of 32/100 in 2022.

The group's yearly report noted that internet freedom continued to decline for the fourth year in a row and thousands of online users, including members of the political opposition, faced criminal charges for their social media activities.

The European Court of Human Rights declared that Turkey topped the list of countries with cases awaiting judgment, with nearly 20,100 applications in 2022 corresponding to 26.9 percent of the total.

According to World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Wednesday, Turkey together with Tajikistan and India dropped from being in a 'problematic situation' into the lowest category and now ranks 165 out of 180.

RSF found that Erdoğan's rule stepped up persecution of journalists in the run-up to elections scheduled for 14 May. "Turkey jails more journalists than any other democracy", said RSF.

On 14 May, Turkey will either choose democracy or more repression under Erdoğan's populist-Islamist authoritarian rule.

European institutions, namely the EU, CoE and OSCE, should do their utmost for a free and fair election and warn Erdoğan that there will be serious consequences if votes are rigged and the legitimacy of elections put in question.

Otherwise, Europe should brace for another five years of Erdoğan's rule, which is likely to be even more repressive, divisive and authoritarian than before.

Author bio

Selçuk Gültaşlı is a board member of the European Center for Populism Studies, an NGO based in Brussels.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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