The Overreach of the China Hawks
Aggression Is the Wrong Response to Beijing
On June 23, Istanbul will hold new mayoral elections. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost the original election on March 31, appealed to overturn the results on a technicality, and won. The ruling was only the latest and most striking turn in Turkey’s decadelong period of autocratization, which has seen the imprisonment of a popular opposition leader, closure of over 1,400 civil society organizations and some 175 media outlets, dismissal of 130,000 civil servants, and constitutional transformation from a parliamentary to a superpresidential system lacking checks and balances.
The mayoral vote was plainly canceled because its results were unacceptable to the ruling party, but that doesn’t mean that the AKP can dispense with the trappings of democratic practice altogether. There has been a new campaign, and voters will return to the polls.
The dynamics of this unfair, unfree election illuminate the nature of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s unstable authoritarianism and its precarious future. For all of the consolidation of recent years, Turkey is still in transition, stumbling from a flawed but pluralistic democracy to a topheavy authoritarian system at a time of self-made economic and foreign policy crises. The AKP still relies on the legitimizing effect of winning elections even after it has run roughshod over them. It needs to convince Turkey’s citizens that it embodies the will of the people even as it destroys the instruments for revealing that will. The result is a deeply unstable authoritarian regime that seems destined to drive the country further into crisis, no matter the results in Sunday’s rerun.
In electoral terms, the AKP’s task on Sunday is to close a gap of 13,730 votes. Those votes were all that separated the Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem Imamoglu and the AKP’s Binali Yildirim after the AKP had forced every possible recount in its favor, and before the Turkish Supreme Electoral Council canceled the results. Yet closing that gap will be no easy feat, even for the country’s ruling party. Politically, Imamoglu has the upper hand, having already won the first time and being able to claim with justification that the victory was illegally stolen from his supporters. His constituency will be completely mobilized.
Imamoglu is the scion of a center-right family from the Black Sea region. He sent his own roots deep into one of Istanbul’s distant suburban districts, where he served as the local mayor, and he ran a bread-and-butter campaign with a unifying message that successfully defused the AKP’s culture war politics. The AKP has seemed flummoxed by Imamoglu’s success in the first round, and has veered between contradictory responses in the campaign for the rerun.
In the first weeks of the rerun campaign, the AKP tried to mimic the opposition’s positive tactics. Yildirim has promised extravagant subsidies and perks to Istanbul residents, from ten gigabytes of phone data to cheaper transport cards to cuts in fees for water, gas, and schools. He has promised to ease the city’s economic malaise by creating jobs for 100,000 people per year. The AKP-run city council reinforced these pledges by passing an initial round of subsidies based on Imamoglu’s promises. Erdogan was relatively quiet during the Ramadan holiday that occupied the first several weeks, perhaps recognizing that to make the vote a referendum on his person could mobilize the opposition more than his supporters.
But in the last two weeks of the campaign, the AKP and Erdogan have gone back into traditional attack mode, leaning on a host of unimaginative smears: accusing Imamoglu of being Greek; of stealing the first vote in an “election coup”; of connection to the U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen; and of ties to the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The latter is especially contradictory for the AKP. In March, Imamoglu enjoyed the support of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a left-wing party that promotes the rights of minorities, including Kurds. The AKP now sees that getting some HDP voters to stay home, or even to switch sides, could help clear its path to victory. And so the AKP is wavering between the hard-line nationalist messaging it has embraced since 2015 and a possible rapprochement with Kurdish voters, the latest in a cycle of appealing to Kurdish voters and then discarding them when convenient. The day the Supreme Electoral Council announced its decision to overturn the Istanbul result, lawyers for Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, said that they had been allowed to visit him for the first time since 2011. In permitting the visit, the Turkish government abruptly acceded to a principal demand of Kurdish activists and politicians. Journalists have reported that the AKP has brought delegations of Kurdish elders from the southeast to Istanbul in order to persuade Kurdish voters to vote for the AKP. Yildirim has campaigned in Diyarbakir, the largest city in largely Kurdish southeastern Turkey, in an attempt to appeal to Kurdish voters in Istanbul from Diyarbakir.
The AKP’s pivot to Kurdish voters, however, may be too little, too late. Since 2014, the party has crept and then run toward the ultranationalist position in Turkish politics, discarding negotiations with the PKK in 2015, intervening in northern Syria to weaken the PKK’s affiliate there, and allying with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) to maintain a majority in parliament in 2018. Erdogan’s speeches in the last week of the campaign have underscored this contradiction, as he complains of the ingratitude of Kurds who have been granted greater rights by the AKP but still vote against it. The AKP cannot appeal both to nationalist and to Kurdish movement voters, just as it cannot convince the public that it is above the fray it has created.
To secure a victory in Istanbul, the AKP will likely draw on the advantages of office. Over the course of 15 years in power, the AKP has made much of the state an arm of the party, and few legal or normative obstacles now prevent using it as such.
The AKP completely dominates Turkey’s media in both the public and the private sectors. Imamoglu’s rallies are barely aired or covered in the Turkish news media, while Yildirim’s and Erdogan’s are ubiquitous. And yet Imamoglu has forced the AKP to engage with him, forcing a debate with Yildirim on national TV and a (hostile) interview on state-run TRT. Meanwhile, the AKP’s own messaging is floundering despite its advantages. Pro-government media cannot paper over the gap between a deteriorating economy and a government constantly proclaiming its imminent recovery. Nor can airbrushed coverage fully supplant the information that flows in the digital age, or assuage the resentment that Turkish citizens feel toward untrammeled authority. Surveys find consistently high levels of distrust in the news media in Turkey, a problem that already panicked pro-government commentators prior to the Istanbul results. Meanwhile, Imamoglu’s deft touch with social media plays up his everyman image, in marked contrast with the AKP’s emerging reputation as the party of a new, unaccountable elite.
The AKP has more than the media at its disposal. Both parties are currently wooing the 1.7 million eligible voters who stayed home in March, when turnout topped 84 percent. But the AKP has the advantage of access to voter information, gleaned not only from the official voter list but also from other sources available through the ministries it controls, such as interior, justice, and health. The opposition accused the AKP of using personal information harvested from these agencies to bolster its case during the appeals process.
Decades of control of Istanbul have secured the AKP still more resources, including a web of companies that depend on city contracts. When Imamoglu was briefly seated as mayor, he began investigating the city’s procurement processes, underscoring for the AKP’s patronage network the personal stakes of this election. Last week, city employees staged an unusual protest complaining of Imamoglu’s characterization of the municipality as wasteful. Municipal institutions and affiliated companies could enhance turnout by distributing money or other inducements to voters, or using resources such as transportation and door-knockers to make sure that AKP voters get to the polls and Imamoglu voters do not. For example, the city’s privatized ferry company has canceled its weekend ferries from the city of Bursa—where many pro-opposition Istanbulites vacation—to Istanbul.
For all its administrative advantages, however—and the AKP will surely use them this time— the ruling party faces considerable headwinds. The economy is deteriorating, the opposition is unified, and Imamoglu proved an effective candidate in March. Polling in the days before the vote has put Imamoglu ahead, in some cases considerably widening his advantage from March 31. The AKP may require still more extreme measures to ensure victory.
Another alternative is that the AKP could resort to outright voter manipulation come Sunday. Indeed, a number of quantitative and forensic analyses over the last five years have identified suspicious patterns benefiting the AKP in a series of nationwide elections, like non-random distributions of last digits in ballot box totals, smaller ballot stations showing disproportionately better results for the AKP, and the share of invalid votes going in the AKP’s favor. These patterns are enough to establish significant questions about fraud, but not enough to prove its existence (which requires the impartial investigation of prosecutors and judges).
The 2019 local elections raised such questions as well, but mostly in remote ballot stations that come under comparatively little local and international scrutiny. Sunday’s election will take place in the country’s largest city, where at least half the population supports the opposition, and where opposition party members, monitors, and media are on high alert. These circumstances lower the odds of outright ballot stuffing or vote-rigging. The voting may still not be fair or even free—but the ballots themselves will probably not be the means of manipulation.
The AKP could more plausibly resort to a fix that it has already frequently used: namely, it could exploit its dominance of the electoral apparatus. The Supreme Electoral Council, for example, has made a pattern of deferring to the party during the period of authoritarian consolidation. Appointed from the ranks of Turkey’s top courts, the council’s members have grown more beholden to the AKP as the party has cemented its control over judicial institutions. The council still shows some discomfort with its subservient role—four out of 11 members voted against cancelling the first Istanbul vote—but has consistently rolled over when it counts.
In March 2014, when the Ankara mayoral election appeared to swing against the AKP, the council’s official vote-counting stopped. When the counting resumed, the AKP suddenly regained ground and was able to hold on to the seat. In that case, the electoral council declined the opposition’s appeal for a recount. In 2017, the council ruled on the day of voting that unstamped ballots—those lacking the seal marking them as officially recorded—could be counted in the referendum that changed Turkey’s constitution to a superpresidential system. The referendum passed by a narrow margin after an unknown number of unstamped ballots entered the count.
The AKP’s extreme backlash against the Istanbul results has placed the Supreme Electoral Council and electoral personnel on particular notice this time around. After the March election, pro-government media outlets threatened electoral personnel, some of whom came under criminal investigation from the AKP’s Ministry of Interior. The result has been an atmosphere of intimidation. The Istanbul District Elections Board chair resigned in April after pro-government media falsely accused her husband of being a member of the Gulen movement, and the Supreme Electoral Council has relocated thirteen of Istanbul’s 39 district election chairs. An unknown number of election chairs have been referred for disciplinary action to the Judges and Prosecutors Council, a completely AKP-dominated body that supervises the Supreme Electoral Council. The AKP’s domination of the judicial and thus the electoral apparatus remains its trump card if the outcome goes against it on June 23.
For all of these advantages, you cannot truly win an election you’ve already lost: such is the paradox the AKP has created for itself. Even if the ruling party comes out on top on June 23, it will have done so at the cost of becoming the party that discarded elections in order to remain in power, and street protests will almost certainly follow. With its control of the interior ministry and the military, the party will likely be able to face down those protests, but its legitimacy will continue to crumble. Even authoritarian regimes need legitimacy. Those watching from outside will see the result as further proof that Turkey does not have the independent institutions necessary to undergird a reliable international partner with reasonable economic policies.
You cannot truly win an election you’ve already lost: such is the paradox the AKP has created for itself.
On the other hand, if the AKP loses, it will have shown that it is no longer powerful enough to dictate the country’s future. An empowered opposition would seize such an opening to expose the municipal corruption schemes tied to the party and the president. The wave of scandals sure to emerge from opposition-controlled Istanbul at a time of urgent economic crisis will only feed discontent against the party. Centralized, pyramidal systems such as Turkey’s are vulnerable to just this sort of challenge—which is one reason the election result was canceled in the first place. This week the AKP and Erdogan have seemed to be preparing for the possibility of pressing charges against Imamoglu should he win, based on spurious scandals and flimsy allegations of affiliation with the PKK or Gulen movement. But persecuting Imamoglu in this way will only elevate his victim status.
Erdogan and the AKP have cast their political struggle in existential terms, suggesting that the fate of the president, the party, and the country are one. This framing precludes a stable outcome. No matter the result on June 23, Erdogan and the AKP will have driven the country further into crisis.
For Turkey’s traditional transatlantic allies, the country’s continuing descent into an unstable form of authoritarianism is a horror. The United States and Europe may observe it with empathy for the Turkish people and with grave concern for their strategic interests. But they cannot rescue Erdogan from his mistakes. The regime treats the basic conditions its allies require for security cooperation as infringements on Turkey’s sovereignty. It believes it can defy economic gravity, and it sees conspiracies behind any support for free media, civil society, or rule of law. Turkey’s allies can only remain committed to the possibility of better days—even while building up hedges against the much worse ones soon to come.