University of Chicago

Erdogan Persists, With Turkey’s Blessing, by Ronen Schatsky

When Turkey’s voters upended expectations and favored the opposition in the March 31 municipal elections, the question was not how they pulled it off, but how long it would take President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to overturn the results. Just over a month later, he has succeeded, and though his maneuver is typical of an authoritarian ruler, his maneuver relies on his continued support among the Turkish public.

As President Erdogan has consolidated his power since becoming president in 2014, he has relied on a foundation of popular support. His popularity originates from his promises of economic growth paired with a restoration of traditional Islamic values, which he tied to his Justice and Development Party (AKP). After serving as prime minister for 12 years, he became the first popularly elected president in 2014. In his first major power grab, he used a failed 2016 coup against him as a pretext to fire thousands of dissidents from the government and schools; many were even imprisoned. In April 2017, he successfully passed a series of constitutional amendments through a referendum, which gave him major new powers. His new executive privileges included the effective ability to govern by decree, and appoint key officers in his government and on Turkey’s courts. Throughout, Erdogan gained a reputation as a popular authoritarian with an iron grip on power—enough so that a victory for his opponents, even at the municipal level, had seemed unthinkable.

Thus Erdogan was no doubt shocked, as was the world, when the opposition party (CHP) prevailed in several cities this March. The CHP even won the mayor’s race in Istanbul, where Erdogan himself had once been mayor. AKP has thus considered Istanbul one of its strongholds, and losing it could mean the beginning of a decline in AKP’s power. Erdogan could not tolerate such a signal. As it turns out, he would not have to.

Erdogan has found a way to reverse the results of the elections. On Monday, Turkey’s High Election Council formally demanded a revote for Istanbul’s mayor, responding to Erdogan’s allegations that the Istanbul elections were not held entirely fairly. The Council had initially dismissed many of Erdogan’s claims, but it eventually acceded to his objection that certain polling places were improperly staffed. The Council’s reversal only after pressure from Erdogan is certainly suspect. The CHP has criticized the decision, as have leaders across the EU. The critics are not only concerned about what seems to be corruption of the Election Council—the election was initially so close that a revote could hand the mayor’s office back to Erdogan’s party.

Erdogan is using the mechanisms of existing Turkish law to disempower the opposition, a tactic described as “stealth authoritarianism” by Ozan Varol in his Iowa Law Review piece by the same name^1. Stealth authoritarians consolidate power within the framework of the law, pushing it to its limits with the goal of choking out free press and opposition parties. These rulers behave ‘stealthily’ to comply with international expectation of democratic practices. In this case, Erdogan is using election laws meant to curb abuses as his channel for suppressing the opposition. All he must do is lean on the Election Council to force their interpretation of election laws, and the internationally valued notion of ‘free and fair elections’ can provide cover for his power grab.

Erdogan’s ploy would be useless if not for the fact that he and his party are already so popular. Since the elections were so close, a redo could easily swing his way. Because of his base of support, simply calling another election on the grounds of ‘fairness’ is all he needs to do to keep the AKP in power in Istanbul. Otherwise, Erdogan would have had to take more drastic measures—meddling with vote tallies, for instance. Instead, his long-cultivated political appeal allows him to entrench his power less dramatically, with onlysome added pressure on the Election Council.

In short, Erdogan can behave as a stealth authoritarian largely because he maintains democratic support. By supporting his referendum on constitutional powers, voters granted his amassment of power democratic legitimacy. Similarly, abundant support for AKP allows a simple revote to seriously threaten the opposition’s hard-won gains. All the while, Erdogan is able to operate within the confines of the law. The uncomfortable truth with stealth authoritarians like Erdogan is that the democratic process landed him in power to begin with and continues to support not only his authoritarianism, but just how stealthily he can support it. This trajectory raises serious doubts about whether democracies are sustainable, or whether they are bound to vote themselves out of existence.  

^1 Stealth Authoritarianism, by Ozan O. Varol, Iowa Law Review

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