Democracy Lost the Turkish Elections

18 June 2023


By Hasret Dikici Bilgin


The Turkish voters went to the polls twice in the last month, first for the parliamentary elections and the first round of the presidential elections; and second for the presidential run-off. For European public opinion, the election results might not come as a surprise. But to the rest of us, both the parliamentary and the presidential outcomes are baffling.


The opposition are not alone in their confusion: there are enough signs that the pro-Erdogan voters and the ruling coalition were not also expecting this. Erdogan’s own party apparently did not take the victory for granted. Several leading ministers, including the controversial Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar – who was Chief-of-Staff during the July 15, 2016 putsch attempt –  and the Minister of Internal Affairs Suleyman Soylu – whom the opposition accused of being complicit in criminal activity – were nominated to the parliament in search of political immunity in case the opposition won the presidential elections. The junior coalition partner, the far-right Nationalist Action Party (Milliyetci Hareket Partisi, MHP), convinced Erdogan for electoral reform to decrease the 10% electoral threshold to 7%, in order not to be dependent on the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) to win parliamentary seats. None of the opinion polls, even those notorious for their relations with the government party, showed a comfortable victory for Erdogan in the presidential race, and all polls indicated that MHP’s electoral base was gradually drying out. 


The official election results released by the Supreme Election Council (Yüksek Seçim Kurulu, YSK), declared that Erdogan won the race in the run-off, taking nearly 52% of the total votes cast, while Kilicdaroglu remained at 48%. Out of 600 parliamentary seats, AKP got 268 falling short of parliamentary majority alone. AKP’s junior partner MHP won 50 seats though the party received more than 10%, in fact more than estimated by even the party itself. Main opposition party, the secular social democratic Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP) received a record low vote share in contradiction to all expectations, securing only 169 seats. CHP’s junior partner, the secular nationalist Good Party (İyi Parti, İYİP) got only 41 seats and barely 9% of the national votes. The Greens and Left Future Party (Yeşiller ve Sol Gelecek Partisi, YSP), through which the pro-Kurdish candidates entered the election, received a vote share below its previous election performance and won 61 seats. Another surprise concerns the Turkish Voters Party (Türkiye İşçi Partisi, TİP). TİP has become quite popular among the urban middle classes with its refreshing, European style democratic socialist issue platforms and its vigorous grassroots activity in disaster relief in the provinces devastated by the February 6 earthquake. The party won less than 2% of the votes and sent only 4 members to the parliament. 


Who won in the elections then? The short and ice-cold answer is: no one. The Turkish socialist left represented by TİP could have won at least 10 parliamentary seats, if the party had entered the race through joint candidate lists with YSP. The Kurdish left, represented by YSP, could not even convince its electoral base to actually cast their votes, with Kurdish majority provinces having lower turnout levels than the rest of the country. Obviously, this is not a failure on account of the party – rather, it is due to the systematic pressure endured by the party and its supporters for a long time. One of the most important lessons that we can draw from the last elections, then, is that unless the Turkish and the Kurdish left unites, the popular right-wing will continue to dominate the political landscape. 


Both CHP and İYİP underperformed, receiving votes and seats well under expectations. It seems that close to 20% of voters who voted for İYİP shied away casting their votes for Kilicdaroglu. CHP, on the other hand, once more disappointed its base with poor electoral monitoring in the first round of presidential elections. Despite warnings about possible irregularities regarding the first round of presidential elections, CHP leadership preferred not to pursue the allegations, giving the impression that its voters are more committed than the party administration. One such allegation is about the increase in the total number of voters. From 2007 to 2023, the total population increase is 14,6 million, while the total number of voters increased to 21.4 million. Even considering birth-death ratios and migration, this surplus of 6.7 million deserves scrutiny. Given that CHP did not even protest that Erdogan was running for a third time despite the Constitution clearly limiting the presidential term to two consecutive terms, this is not surprising. 


Did AKP win these elections? The party came first in the parliamentary elections; however, it could not reverse the downward trend. The party’s vote share regressed back to its 2002 level; and, has the lowest number of seats in its history except the defunct June 2015 elections. Its reliance on the ultra-nationalist MHP deepened. This means that the party cannot repair its relations with the Kurdish voters at all. It seems that the party’s electoral base is shrinking to Central Anatolia and maybe part of the Black Sea region. AKP won the presidency, but it is at best a Pyrrhic victory.  


This Pyrrhic victory came at the cost of Turkish democracy, or what was left of it. Turkey never had a consolidated democracy but the YSK was considered one of the rare trustworthy institutions until recently. The party’s focus on winning the presidency at all costs transformed it into an ideological state apparatus in the Althusserian sense. Leading Kurdish politicians remain in prison. A court banned Imamoglu, Istanbul mayor, from holding an elected political office barely 6 months before the elections on flimsy evidence. The opposition could have nominated him to the presidency if this legal move did not happen. 

While there are no winners of Turkey’s recent elections, it is women who lost the most. Turkey had already withdrawn from the Istanbul Convention, but now those who also want to annul the Law (no.6284) pertaining to gender-based crimes are becoming more vocal. The Radical Islamist Free Cause Party (Hür Dava Partisi, HÜDA PAR) now has four MPs elected from the alliance list led by the AKP. Under these circumstances, women will have to continue to lead the democratic struggle even if the opposition parties choose to cry behind closed doors.


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