Turkey’s political future is at a crossroads

On 14 May, the people of Turkey will elect their president and members of parliament. A hundred years after the foundation of a secular state under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, these elections are crucial to the country’s future.

The economic and social situation in Turkey is catastrophic. With three-figure inflation, the price increases have become unbearable. Most workers, be they blue-collar or white-collar, are paid no more than the legal minimum wage of 8,500 lira (around €400), a salary that barely covers the monthly basic food costs of 9,590 lira (€479.50) for a family of four and falls far short of the poverty line, set at 30,700 lira a month (€1,535).

According to the latest official statistics, unemployment has reached 10.7 per cent. The balance of payments has significantly deteriorated. All these indicators point to a Turkish economy that is gasping for breath.

The constitution adopted in 2017 established a presidential system. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan exercises executive power and is the leader of the ruling party, the AKP. Most importantly, he has placed the judiciary under his direct control.

At the end of January 2023, 341,497 people were in prison in Turkey. Among them are thousands of citizens – journalists, lawyers, academics, political figures, NGO members, trade unionists – who have been arrested, convicted and imprisoned on political and social grounds, on charges such as insulting the president of the Republic.

The government is riding roughshod over the will of the people. It has, for example, dismissed dozens of democratically elected Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) mayors in the east and south-east of the country and appointed administrators in their stead. A groundless lawsuit was brought against the mayor of Istanbul who was barred by the court of first instance from holding political office and sentenced to jail. The judge heading the trial objected to the request for this verdict and was removed from the case and transferred. The judge who replaced him ruled in the desired direction. And so, a mayor democratically elected by more than 16 million people becomes a victim of arbitrary rule.

In the run-up to the 14 May elections, legal action has been filed against the HDP, the third largest party in parliament in terms of number of MPs, which could lead to its banning. Selahattin Demirtaş, former co-leader of the party, has been unjustly imprisoned for seven years. The aim is to keep him in prison for life by staging successive mock trials. Businessman Osman Kavala is in the same position. Although the European Court of Human Rights has ordered the release of these two prisoners, Erdoğan is stubbornly refusing to respect these rulings.

Freedom of thought and expression is under pressure. A story circulating on social media illustrates this perfectly: a prisoner wants to get hold of a book; the guard tells him they don’t have that book in the prison, but they do have the author!

A constitutionally questionable candidacy

Erdoğan’s candidacy is a matter of intense debate. Article 116 of the constitution states that a person can only run for the presidency of the Republic twice, which the current president has already done. In the absence of a parliamentary majority justifying the holding of early elections, Erdoğan argued that the 2017 constitutional referendum had opened a new period and that his election in 2018 was therefore his first term. The vast majority of constitutionalists in Turkey disagree with this interpretation of the constitution but the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK), the body in charge of organising elections and whose members are appointed by Erdoğan, has dismissed all the objections raised.

If re-elected on 14 May, Erdoğan’s term would run until 2028. In the event of early elections, he could even stretch it until 2033.

Erdoğan has a history of disregarding legal and constitutional provisions. He has said that he would not respect or implement the decisions of supranational courts, such as the European Court of Human Rights, national supreme courts, the Constitutional Court and the Council of State, or even judicial rulings that he does not agree with.

In 1996, Erdoğan – then mayor of Istanbul – is said to have remarked: “Democracy is like a train: when you reach your destination, you get off.” What did he really mean by this? That his political project, that of weakening democracy and secularism, was at the heart of his programme, behind the façade of reassuring promises.

Today, Erdoğan is preparing to cross a new line. Might the establishment of an Islamic republic be the outcome of the new “journey”, if he is re-elected?

With an eye on the 14 May 1elections, the AKP has formed an alliance with two nationalist parties (MHP and BBP) and two Islamist political parties, the Hüdapar, referred to as Turkey’s Hezbollah or Party of God (although distinct from its Lebanese namesake), which is linked to numerous political assassinations, and the Yeniden Refah Partisi (the New Welfare Party).

The condition laid down by the two Islamist parties is the possibility of overturning the republican and secular principles hitherto enshrined in the Constitution. They also want the law prohibiting violence against women to be repealed, as a follow-up to Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention.

They are also calling for women to be restricted to jobs “suited to their nature” and for the abolition of mixed gender classes in schools. Erdoğan has accepted the candidacies of these two parties in his electoral coalition.

Turkey at a crossroads

The upcoming elections on 14 May and Erdoğan’s bid to stay in power are crystallising the century-old struggle between the republicans and their opponents. Turkey’s historical process is distinct from that of other countries in the Middle East. A hundred years ago, at the close of the War of Independence, the sultanate and the caliphate were abolished with the proclamation of the republic. Since his election, Erdoğan has consistently worked to weaken the country’s secular foundations.

This process has been intensified by the ‘presidentialisation of power’ resulting from the constitutional reform of 2017. Power is increasingly being taken away from the people and transferred to the president.

The security and integrity of the elections are by no means guaranteed. The impartiality of the local electoral commissions is in doubt. Lawyers close to the government who have been appointed as judges will be in charge of organising the vote and certifying the results.

Attacks and threats are being used to intimidate voters and discourage them from going to the polls. Reports that the main opposition party leader, Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, the opposition’s presidential candidate, is under threat of assassination have made the headlines.

In addition to the ‘National Alliance’ of six opposition parties, two other left-wing coalitions are supporting Kiliçdaroğlu’s candidacy in the presidential election. A broad front has been formed against Erdoğan. The opposition candidate is ahead of his rival in the polls and many fear the situation could trigger a return to the violence and clashes that marked the 2015 presidential election. Turkey is at a veritable crossroads. It is essential that, with these elections, it finds its way back to democracy and the rule of law.

This article has been translated from French by Louise Durkin