Turkey/Türkiye and the Dilemma of Electoral Legitimacy and Authoritarian Control
Hopes are high. The opposition may win. The authoritarian leader may lose. Change is in the air. Journalists from across the world arrive to write breathless reports on the momentous elections and the neck-to-neck race they are witnessing, to tell the story of change, the story of a new chapter.
But it won’t be the story. There will be no new chapter. The opposition achieves a respectable result, but loses the elections. The incumbent wins. The old chapter is far from closed, on the contrary it continues, with seemingly renewed force and democratic legitimacy. I am talking about Turkey/Türkiye, where the incumbent, President Erdoğan, prevailed in the first round of the presidential election held on 14 May and is expected to win the run-off vote on 28 May.
Political scientists characterise Turkey and others in similar situations as “competitive authoritarian” states. They have a strongman (almost always a man) and often a dominant party. The leader and the party control all levers of state power, directly or indirectly, and often parts of the economy as well, mostly in corrupt ways. But, they hold competitive elections.
In the past, Russia and Venezuela were seen as competitive authoritarian regimes, but both have turned into more traditional authoritarian regimes in which the opposition has no chance to win whatsoever. Elections have become a façade.
Belarus showed how a competitive authoritarian regime can quickly turn itself into a repressive dictatorship if the electoral gamble does not work out. When President Lukashenko was widely believed to have lost the presidential election in 2020 and mass protests broke out, the regime cracked down. Use of security forces to put down protests is always a fallback option for the strongman.
The opposition dilemma
Turkey knows extreme repression as well, as the large number of jailed journalists and activists testifies. But, in parallel, the government maintains space for political competition. Opposition parties are able to campaign,, generating significant support and pro-opposition media carries their message. The opposition creates hope and makes the elections interesting.
And in so doing, they provide something of great valuable to the authoritarian leader: legitimacy. If he is elected in competitive elections, he clearly enjoys real support and does not simply rely on brute force to stifle any opposition voice.
Read the international media since election day and you get the point: Erdoğan, the great campaigner, and his party, the AKP, still enjoy genuine and broad-based support. The opposition was disappointingly weak and picked the wrong presidential candidate in Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, who is an Alevi and belongs to a religious minority which most Turks do not trust . This is the gist of the reporting.
In the essential battle for national and international public opinion, these views and explanations are gold dust for perceptions of Erdogan’s legitimacy. They paint a picture of a normal election in which the results were not predetermined. A picture that overshadows the fact that conditions for an opposition defeat have been under preparation for more than a decade.
This is the dilemma for the political opposition in competitive authoritarian regimes: They have to create momentum for change. They must believe it is possible to win elections. If they don’t believe this, their voters won’t. If they don’t exude confidence, journalists won’t believe there is a possibility of change. So, the opposition cannot complain, all the time, about the unfair conditions in which they are competing. Otherwise, people will urge them to boycott the elections altogether.
Instead, the opposition must build the excitement of a horse-race. The dilemma continues beyond election day. If they only complain then about the unfair conditions, they look like bad losers. How unfair could the process have been if they seemed confident they could win? It is a dilemma in which an opposition can only lose, and which provides a win-win scenario for the regime.
Always stress the unfair conditions
It is difficult to avoid this dilemma, but there is something journalists, experts and officials from other countries can do: Always stress the unfairness of the conditions in which the elections are being held. Do not get a carried away by the excitement of the race, focus on the fact that the race is not being run on level ground.
A good example is the statement by the official observation mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Its first sentence reads: “(…) voters had a choice between genuine political alternatives and voter participation was high, but the incumbent president and the ruling parties enjoyed an unjustified advantage, including through biased media coverage.”
The organization then highlights numerous shortcomings, including the election administration’s lack of transparency; a legal framework that “does not fully provide a sound legal basis for the conduct of democratic elections”; “public broadcasters [that] clearly favoured the ruling parties and their candidates, despite constitutional guarantees of impartiality”; and participation by unauthorized persons in the vote count, “raising concerns about its integrity”. Regrettably, it holds off drawing the only logical conclusion, that the election fell short of OSCE obligations for democratic election and lacked credibility, as more courageous observer missions have done in the past.
And there is one more shortcoming, probably the most decisive one: The opposition did not nominate its most promising candidate – Istanbul’s mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu. The ruling party employed endless shenanigans to take his 2019 mayoral victory away from him, but failed.
Then the courts kicked in. He was charged, convicted and sentenced to more than two years in prison and given a ban on holding public office, for insulting members of the Supreme Electoral Council. While he is not in prison – the case is under appeal – the opposition did not risk nominating him with this sword of Damocles hanging above his head. This is the real story of the Turkish elections – an opposition set up to fail.
Same Problem in the EU: Hungary
This is not the first time the story of an election has unfolded in this way. It has been the story of many in the past, including Hungary last year. Its elections shared many characteristics with those in Turkey, though it is a less extreme case. In Hungary too the opposition united and had hopes of defeating the entrenched FIDESZ-elite. It also failed. In this case the OSCE observer mission concluded the elections were “well administered and professionally managed but marred by theabsence of a level playing field”, listing numerous flaws, including biased public media, courts which did not provide effective remedies and a pervasive overlap of state and party.
Yet here again, the election was largely reported as a political horse race, rather than a flawed vote. In the EU, the Hungarian government is treated as a fully legitimate government with the focus of concern placed on the rule of law – as if democracy was not an equally foundational EU value.
In most of such cases, boycott is not an option. Opposition parties must keep participating, as it is their only chance of keeping hope alive. Sometimes they prevail – as they did in the 2019 Istanbul mayoral election. But we should not allow authoritarian governments to generate public legitimacy from such flawed elections. Instead, we must keep the focus on the flawed conditions, regardless of the distance between the horses at the end of the race.
Meyer-Resende, Michael: A Flawed Vote, Not a Horse Race: Turkey/Türkiye and the Dilemma of Electoral Legitimacy and Authoritarian Control, VerfBlog, 2023/5/23, https://verfassungsblog.de/a-flawed-vote-not-a-horse-race/, DOI: 10.17176/20230523-140340-0.