The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Three Scenarios to Expect From Turkey’s Upcoming Elections
On June 24, Turkey will face a historic moment: snap elections at both the presidential and parliamentary levels. It is not mere hyperbole to reflect on the historic nature of the elections, the first since the constitutional change of 2017, which transformed an 80-year-old parliamentarian system into a presidential one. Furthermore, the elections will be held in the presence of the emergency rule that followed the failed coup attempt of July 2016. It also unfolds during an economic downturn and with conflicts with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey and Iraq, and with the PKK’s sibling People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria looming in the background.
To be clear, these elections are the first of their kind. Last year’s amendments introduced the executive presidency, but Turkey still has a prime minister, whose cabinet technically required the approval of the parliament. From this summer onward, the president will form the government all by himself/herself, and there will be no prime minister. Combined with the fact that parliamentary elections are also being held on the same day, these dynamics have raised the stakes to unprecedented levels. Add to the mix the newfound energy among the opposition, which owes a lot to two new leaders that will be facing off against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) charismatic Muharem Ince and the right-leaning Good Party’s (IYI) Meral Aksener have attracted a great deal of energy and support. For the first time in a long time, Erdogan faces the real risk of being decisively defeated at the ballot box.
It is true that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered a major electoral downturn in June 2015. However, at the time, Turkey was a parliamentary regime and Erdogan, in theory if not in practice, was the nonpartisan president. He made it extremely difficult for the opposition parties to form a government, paving the way for snap elections in November 2015. Leading up to those elections, Erdogan played an even more active role in campaigning for AKP, which scored a big win by re-gaining roughly the 50 percent of the votes. This was enough for a party that has a majoritarian view of democracy.
Now, things have changed. With the introduction of Turkey’s new presidential system, Erdogan runs both as a presidential candidate and the leader of the AKP, which is competing for seats in the parliament. It is possible, if not very likely, that he may lose on both accounts, or at least in the parliamentarian race. Recent polls also point in that direction: Even if Erdogan wins (an outcome that would owe a lot to his tight control of state institutions and media), it will likely be a close call.
What should spectators expect from the upcoming twin elections? There are three possible scenarios: the good, the bad, and the ugly. In the “good” scenario, Erdogan and his AKP are finally “balanced” by an opposition victory in either the presidential or parliamentarian races (or both), an outcome that may stop Turkish democracy’s slide from majoritarianism to outright authoritarianism. The “bad” scenario involves Erdogan scoring victories in both races. Under such circumstances, he and the AKP will further tighten their grip on Turkish political and social life, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the opposition to have any chance of victory in elections down the road. Such an outcome would accelerate Turkey’s move toward an increasingly authoritarian regime that legitimizes its existence through a majoritarian understanding of democracy that passes the votes of the majority as the “will of the people,” without acknowledging that the AKP closely controls much of the media and harshly silences opposing voices. The “ugly” scenario entails either Erdogan or the opposition refusing to agree to the election results. In this scenario, Turkey will likely undergo either large-scale protests and instability, likely met by an authoritarian crackdown that would make the emergency rule of the last two years look like a day at the beach.
There is little reason to be optimistic about Turkish democracy’s health leading up to the vote. The most likely scenario is the “bad” one, with the “ugly” a close second. Furthermore, the “good” scenario is not only the least likely one, but it is also not as good as one might think: Even if the opposition scores a major victory, its divided nature can pave the way for either domestic instability, or reinstatement of Erdogan and the AKP in the long run. As I wrote as early as 2013, Turkey is passing through an episode that can be referred to as “Turkish Winter,” in which the country’s century-long “deep” political crisis is culminating to a point of no return as far as its democracy is concerned. The June 24 elections stand a chance to freeze and even reverse the process, but do not offer much hope in the way of delivering.
Analyzing these three scenarios requires two preliminary tasks: laying out the basics of the election mechanisms and identifying the underlying “problem” that is bedeviling Turkish democracy.
The Day After: Two Votes, Six Possibilities
As a result of the controversial referendum of April 2017, where Erdogan barely secured a “yes” vote, Turkey’s constitution has been amended to grant near-exclusive executive rights to the office of the president, which in the past had little direct influence over the executive branch. Under these circumstances the presidential race matters much more than the parliamentarian one. One key difference is the number of potential rounds: While parliamentary elections will be held once, with the assumption that results are conclusive, the presidential elections may require a second round to be held on July 8, that is, unless Erdogan secures majority of the votes on June 24.
Recall that the constitutional amendments give the right to form the government exclusively to the president. This change renders the parliamentary elections something of an afterthought. However, securing a parliamentary majority is still important for Erdogan for two reasons. First, if AKP ends up with a significant loss of parliamentary seats, the opposition will likely be revitalized and Erdogan’s success in the presidential race will be tainted by a confirmed and deep dissatisfaction with his party.
Second, the constitutional amendments of 2017 make the control of majority of the parliamentary seats an important, if not essential, component of the new regime, in at least two ways. First, the changes stipulate that if the president rejects a bill from the parliament, s/he will have to accept it “as is” if the majority of the parliament decides to re-vote in favor of the rejected bill. While it would not be a decisive blow to Erdogan, the AKP losing its majority of in parliament will limit, if not cripple, his control of the legislature. Second, the amendments make it possible for a parliamentary majority to introduce a bill to open a criminal investigation into the president. While such a bill would require the approval of 60 percent of the parliamentary votes to pave the for an actual investigation, a significant blow to AKP in the parliament would open the path for the opposition to propose a criminal investigation about Erdogan (though securing a 60 percent vote to actually initiate the investigation might still be out of the opposition’s reach). These are challenges that Erdogan could deal with if he secures the presidency, but they would still be nuisances. Under such circumstances, the ideal outcome for Erdogan is to win at both electoral races, and, if possible, in the first round of the presidential elections.
Assuming Erdogan will make it to the second round even if he cannot win in the first, there are six possible outcomes, defined in terms of two factors: in which round Erdogan will win or lose, and whether the AKP will succeed or fail in the parliamentary elections. Ranking these outcomes vis-a-vis Erdogan’s preferences, the first involves him winning in the first round, with an AKP success, defined in term of AKP and its ultra-nationalist right-wing junior coalition partner Nationalist Action Party (MHP) securing at least the majority of the parliamentary seats. Second, he can win the second round, accompanied with an AKP success in parliament. Third, Erdogan can win in the first round, but the AKP may suffer a blow in parliament. The fourth outcome is one where Erdogan wins in the second round, and the AKP performs poorly. In the fifth outcome, Erdogan loses in the second round, but the AKP performs well in the parliamentary elections. The sixth and worst outcome is where Erdogan loses in the second round, in the presence of an AKP setback in the parliament.
These six possibilities, however, do not tell us all that much about the long-term implications of the elections on the trajectory of Turkish politics. The three scenarios outlined above — the “good,” the “bad,” and the “ugly,” offer some context regarding how the narrow results might impact Turkish democracy more generally.
Framing these scenarios in terms of “goodness,” “badness,” and “ugliness” may, of course, invoke questions about how these adjectives are defined. For example, why is one scenario worse than the other? The criteria for defining these scenarios, in this context, directly involves the core problem that has lay at the heart of Turkish politics for almost a century: the politics of domination.
The Problem: The Strong Do What They Can, The Weak Suffer What They Must
It is now commonplace to blame all the ailments of Turkish democracy on the person of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Indulging in what can be called “Reductio Ad Erdoganum,” many spectators assume that if the problem, defined as Erdogan, goes away, Turkish democracy will flourish. However, Turkish democracy’s core problem is not “Erdogan is such a bad person.” In fact, Erdogan is not the cause, but the consequence of Turkish politics’ core chronic problem: politics of domination, a vicious cycle in which those who hold power use it to “silence” others through oppression, criminalization, and “voice suppression,” while imposing their own vision for Turkey on the entire country. Politics of domination has become a vicious cycle because Turkey’s political system and discourse have chronically and structurally lacked mechanisms for balancing between competing political factions and views.
Turkey’s problem can be traced to an observation attributed to Thucydides: “the strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must.” Political discourse is exceptionally dominated by multiple claims to moral high ground, but politics itself is Hobbesian: fear of other factions feeds paranoia and revanchism, and the powerful oppress the weak, seeking to remake the society in their own image.
The cycle can be traced to the early decades of modern Turkey. Ruling the country with a single-party system (either de jure or de facto), Turkey’s founding fathers monopolized political power until 1950. The founding fathers aimed to create a secular nation-state over the ashes of a multi-ethnic empire where the majority of the population was conservative Muslims. To do this, they went to great lengths to “secularize” and “nationalize” the entire society with a top-down approach that suppressed the voices of conservatives while also trying to assimilate non-Turkish ethnic groups (most notably, Kurds) into a common notion of “Turkishness.”
The 1950s witnessed the rise of Adnan Menderes and his Democrat Party. He challenged the vision of the founding fathers over extreme secularization of the society. Similar to Erdogan, Menderes built on the power of populism, and increasingly silenced opposition to his rule. Menderes was finally ousted by a military coup in 1960 and hanged immediately afterward. Between 1960 and 2002, the Turkish military took on the secularizing-nationalizing mission and exerted considerable influence in the country. This ensured that conservative Muslims remained a minor force in politics. Ever since he was able to cripple Turkish military’s political prowess as a result of mass trials, epitomized by the Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledgehammer) trials around 2009 to 2011, Erdogan has been playing the same game of politics of domination, but he has been more effective than any actor who preceded him.
Herein lies Erdogan’s uniqueness: the extent and scope of “power” he’s been able to accumulate far exceeds his predecessors. In this interpretation, Erdogan is the result of Turkish politics’ century-long Hobbesian evolution: Driven by fear of others, one has to gain absolute power, which requires rendering others weak and pacified. The forthcoming elections are historic exactly for this reason: They might trigger a process where the vicious cycle is finally broken, or they could pave the way for the rise of a full-blown dictatorship, with the risk of domestic instability lurking in the background.
The Good: Bringing Balance to Democracy
The “good” scenario is not one where Erdogan is necessarily decisively “defeated.” The Turkish opposition is blinded and obsessed with such a possibility. Aside from the fact that it is unlikely, it would not solve Turkish democracy’s core problem. These elections can be good for Turkish democracy only if they bring some element of “balance” to politics, which requires the opposition to sort out their own differences. This is a major challenge, since Turkish opposition’s biggest enemy is not Erdogan — it is the opposition itself, which remains divided.
In the past, Erdogan successfully played to this divisiveness, and effectively established a “political unipolarity” in Turkey. The AKP has emerged as the unipole and “mini-poles” remain divided and antagonistic toward each other. Erdogan doesn’t even need divide to conquer.
In this positive scenario, the opposition would work out some arrangement that will lead to a tangible coalition between three major parties — the secular and mildly left-leaning CHP, the nationalist IYI, and the pro-Kurdish left-leaning Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) — and end up winning in either presidential or parliamentary elections (or both). Assuming Erdogan agrees to the results, this may trigger a long-term shift in which the opposition eventually coalesces into a single party, creating a two-party system akin to the United States. Alternatively a coalitional arrangement might emerge that would serve a similar purpose of bringing much-needed balance to Turkish politics.
As unimaginable as it is to many Turkey-watchers, a two-party system (or a similar arrangement) that would transform the country’s political unipolarity to “bipolarity” is the only “good” way out of Turkey’s century-long Hobbesian politics. Such system would limit radicalism on both the left and the right help to close the secular-Islamist divide, and motivate political actors to bring Kurds fully to the fold.
However, the “good” scenario is the least likely one. The opposition parties seem to be driven more by anti-Erdoganism than by a collective strategy to bring balance to politics. Ergo, even if the opposition can score a tactical win in parliamentary and/or presidential elections, each party will likely claim victory through “if not for us, Erdogan would win” discourses, and start fighting amongst themselves. In that case, Erdogan can strategically stay on the sidelines, wait for the already-struggling economy to tank amid opposition infighting , and hang onto power, now as a savior, most likely through yet another snap election.
The only thing that holds the opposition together is going after Erdogan, whom all blame for multiple misdeeds and even crimes. Such a tendency will likely re-trigger the politics of domination for a simple reason: Erdogan remains the single most popular political leader in Turkey with a loyal base and, as the July 2016 coup attempt clearly showed, he has a tendency to call out to his supporters when his political and physical survival is at stake. Under such circumstances, the supposedly “good” result will evolve into an “ugly” one, in which risk of domestic instability and even civil war will sky-rocket.
Overall, the positive scenario is not the most likely one, and even if it becomes a reality, it would take considerable effort and common sense from all political actors including Erdogan to make it stick.
The Bad: More of the Same
The “bad” scenario is the most likely one and the easiest to visualize: Erdogan and the AKP emerge victorious yet again and continue to play the game of politics of domination. Erdogan will likely win the presidential elections, even if it takes two rounds. Of the two opposing candidates who may make it to the second round, CHP’s Ince and IYI’s Aksener, the former stands the higher chance. Ince has performed unexpectedly well when it comes to galvanizing CHP voters, but, unlike Aksener, does not have any footholds in the right-wing and conservative base of the AKP, or its minor right-wing ultra-nationalist coalition partner, MHP. So, facing off against Erdogan in the second round, Ince cannot expect to gain a significant number of voters from the AKP and MHP, which will probably guarantee Erdogan’s victory.
Even if the AKP-MHP coalition loses a majority in the parliament, if Erdogan wins the presidential election, he can either ignore any nuisances emanating from the parliament (which he can easily do now thanks to constitutional reforms), or call for another snap parliamentary election while further marginalizing and weakening the opposition through his control of the state and media. The only way out of this scenario would entail a last-minute arrangement in which the HDP throws its entire weight behind Ince in the second round, which may give him a fighting chance and pave the way for the “good” outcome described above.
Absent that, however, Erdogan will keep playing the game of politics of domination, tightening his grip on all aspects of social, economic, and political life. This scenario can be called bad not only because it would make balance in Turkish politics near-impossible for the foreseeable future, but also because it will formalize what can be called “Erdoganocracy,” a political system in which an entire political system and the nerve centers of the state institutions are tied to a single person.
Erdoganocracy would be durable in the short term, but is not sustainable without the presence of Erdogan himself in the long term. It is built not on an elaborate ideological system with strong institutions (for example, as it is the case in post-revolution Iran), but on the personality and power of Erdogan himself.
Ever-concerned about the rise of a challenger from within the conservative camp, Erdogan refrained from grooming a successor in the AKP and either co-opted or marginalized potential rivals from other conservative parties. He has strong incentives to remain in power as long as he can (and the constitutional amendments allow him to do so for 15 years, or until he is 80 years old). Erdogan has made countless enemies who are driven by a strong sense of revanchism and will be waiting in the wings to see the day he is no longer in power.
When he eventually retires due to age or health issues, Erdogan, as things stand, will not have a successor with comparable popularity and political acumen to keep the AKP and his voter base together. One alternative would be to groom a successor he can trust, possibly from his immediate family. The most likely candidate so far is Erdogan’s son-in-law and minister of energy and natural resources, Berat Albayrak. However, it remains to be seen if Erdogan will opt for Albayrak in the future, or whether Albayrak can fill the shoes of his father-in-law with respect to popularity and political acumen.
In sum, in this bad scenario, Erdoganocracy will take Turkey farther away a balanced democracy, and can last only as far as Erdogan himself is at the helm of absolute power. Even if he successfully grooms Albayrak (or another family member), the successor will either fail to match Erdogan’s performance, or, if s/he succeeds in doing so, Turkey will evolve into a dynasty driven by an exclusively majoritarian understanding of democracy that borders full-blown authoritarianism.
The Ugly: When Worlds Collide
In the worst-case scenario, either Erdogan or the opposition challenges the election results and reaches out to the masses to contest them. If Erdogan loses the presidential race, he will face two options: either stand down peacefully and risk the wrath of the enemies he has made on his way to the top, or refuse to recognize the election results and — perhaps citing national security concerns emanating from “foreign dark powers” or imminent revanchism from secularists — suspend the democratic process altogether. To display his popularity among his followers, Erdogan may call on them to hit the streets en masse.
The opposition parties, in turn, would have incentives to reach out to their base to contest the elections either if they believe that the AKP tampered with the results, or if Erdogan, faced with an AKP defeat in the parliament, decides to renew the parliamentary elections. Narratives of the AKP manipulating the electoral ballot have long been popular among the opposition, and allegations about AKP electoral misconduct peaked during the referendum of April 2017. Furthermore, Erdogan may renew the parliamentary elections if the AKP and its junior partner, the MHP, fail to secure a majority, a possibility raised by his chief advisor (he retracted the statement afterwards) and more notably by MHP’s leader, Devlet Bahceli. If the opposition suspects that AKP rigged the ballot box, or if Erdogan decides to reverse an opposition victory in the parliament by calling for new elections, mass protests may arise. If such protests reach to the level of the Gezi Park protests of 2013, or even if Erdogan believes they may escalate to those levels, the AKP will likely respond harshly, with an accompanying risk of intra-communal violence.
Where would this ugly scenario take Turkey? One of three non-exclusive end-states: full-blown dictatorship, widespread domestic instability, or either civil war to be followed by a military coup, or vice versa. The most likely end-state is full-blown dictatorship. The AKP controls state institutions and media, and Erdogan still has strong support from his own large base. Regardless of who initiates mass protests (which may arise spontaneously and not due to political parties calling for it), Erdogan would have the upper hand in putting them down, and would have to do it harshly. He would also have incentives to make sure such protests are not repeated, which leaves only one option: absolute authoritarianism.
A second “ugly” end-state would entail widespread domestic instability, in which Turkey’s Hobbesian politics spread to the communal level. In this scenario, pro- and anti-AKP groups may find themselves in widespread but low-level conflict reminiscent of Turkey’s turbulent 1970s, when left-wing and right-wing groups targeted each other in the streets, while also attacking and being attacked by the state.
A third unpleasant end-state would take Turkey to two interdependent outcomes: a civil war or a military coup. A military coup can trigger a civil war, while the early signs of a civil war could prompt a military coup that would likely come from outside the chain of command. The risk of civil war is very low at the moment, but tensions between pro- and anti-AKP groups are running high, making it possible in the long-run, if not probable. The increasing number of references to the likelihood of civil war by AKP members and backers, including Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak and a number of pro-AKP columnists, suggest that the party itself is concerned with this possibility
Regardless of which end-state it leads to, the “ugly” scenario will doom Turkish democracy for the foreseeable future.
The results of the June 24 elections may or may not lead to immediate changes in Turkish politics. If the most likely scenario comes to pass — that is Erdogan wins and continues to play the game of domination — little will change on the ground. However, the elections are still historic in the context of the long-term trajectory of Turkish democracy. What kind of scenario follows from June 24 will be the most significant indicator of whether Turkey can break off from its vicious cycle of politics of domination, or will succumb to it, perhaps irreversibly.
Burak Kadercan is an Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College and Inaugural Resident Fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Image: Anadolu Agency