Following the results of the March 31 local elections in Turkey which saw Turkey’s main opposition, Republican People’s Party (CHP), win 4 out of 5 largest cities in Turkey, some commentators were quick to call the defeat of President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) a victory for democracy.
But what do these commentators mean when they say victory for democracy? More of often than not they mean that the party they support did well. However, the real test of whether an election is a victory for democracy is not if the party you voted for wins, but the extent to which the elections were held under conditions considered free and fair, the incumbent’s willingness to concede defeat and the applicability of contestation to all parties who have a legitimate grievance.
Sadly, in all of the above counts Turkey failed. Firstly, just as previous elections over the past few years, they were neither free nor fair. Media coverage was overwhelmingly pro-government, there were incidents of intimidation and harassment, and the governing AKP had the benefit of using state resources for their campaign.
Secondly, although the ballots have been officially counted, the ruling AKP has refused to accept defeat in Ankara and Istanbul. Although they were very close races it is quite clear that barring some irregularities, the CHP won in both cities. Still, the AKP has insisted on recounts (there were even rumours that AKP had sought to nullify the vote in the entire city of Istanbul). One may object and say that the AKP has a right to do so. Fair enough, but at the same time the AKP has put up posters across Istanbul thanking voters for their victory. The recounts are taking a long time and there is extreme pressure being put on the Supreme Election Board.
Thirdly, when the ruling AKP demands recounts it usually (not always) gets its way, but when the liberal and Kurdish oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) demands the same by district and provisional boards in localities where it lost by the narrowest of margins, its appeals are rejected. In other words, there are clearly double standards.
Despite the victory of the CHP in several cities, this was not a win for democracy. If it turns out that the AKP concedes defeat to the CHP in Ankara and Istanbul, I have the following words which were published in a piece for Haaretzand have pasted below and can also be found here:
Erdogan wobbled. But can he really be toppled?
The polls should have been a sleepy affair. They were local elections for mayoral and municipal offices. And last weekend was the seventh time in five years that Turkey had held elections.
However, far from being dreary, the elections proved to be a rather lively affair as Turkey’s firebrand president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been at the helm of Turkish politics for 17 years, did not get his way. And that’s just putting it mildly.
Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost four of the country’s five largest cities to the opposition, including the capital Ankara and the commercial hub and largest city, Istanbul, albeit by the narrowest of margins.
What to make of these results? Do they mark the beginning of the end for Erdogan’s apparent invincibility? How significant a victory is this for the country’s beleaguered opposition, led by the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP)?
The CHP deserves some credit. Together with the Iyi Parti (Good Party) with whom it formed an alliance, the CHP campaigned hard and under very difficult circumstances, managing to not only win major cities and municipalities but also garner 30 per cent of the popular vote, a significant improvement on recent years.
The CHP’s successes in Istanbul and Ankara were also due to the strategic decision by the liberal and Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) not to field candidates in these cities. Reportedly, HDP leaders urged its supporters to vote for the CHP instead. Thus, the HDP got in some retribution against Erdogan, whose government has mercilessly suppressed the party, even arresting and detaining its leadership under trumped up terrorism charges and removing elected mayors in the Southeast.
Unlike the AKP, which also benefitted from the use of government and state resources, the CHP had to fend off underhanded attacks by Erdogan and his followers who accused it of perfidy and siding with terrorists.
Mansur Yavas, the CHP Ankara mayoral candidate, was accused of forging a signature over a decade ago in a spurious attempt to delegitimize him. Erdogan even broadcast footage from the gruesome Christchurch massacre to boost his party’s chances.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s subdued media offered the government obsequious coverage. For example, Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT gave 135 hours of positive coverage to Erdogan and his allies but just 20 hours, most of it negative, to the opposition. It was therefore quite a feat that the CHP managed to attract additional votes.
Still, one should not write off Erdogan so easily. Far from being the beginning of the end, Erdogan and the AKP remain popular.
Despite voter fatigue, international isolation and an economic downturn that has seen inflation spiral and the lira tumble, prompting the government to sell its own subsidized fruit and vegetables, the AKP still managed to win over 44 per cent of the popular vote. This is about two percent more than last year’s parliamentary elections and a gain of 1.5 per cent compared to the last local elections of 2014.
In other words, the CHP has only managed to make a small dent in the AKP’s support base.
Meanwhile, Erdogan still enjoys the backing of his political allies, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Together they won over 51 per cent of the vote. Erdogan also controls all the state’s levers of power from the security forces to the judiciary and is not afraid to use them. This is especially ominous, as there are no more elections scheduled for the next four and a half years. A period of unaccountability looms.
If the opposition wishes to make further gains it needs to maintain the tacit CHP-HDP understanding which thwarted Erdogan’s plans in this election. This means the CHP will have to swallow its Turkish national pride and convince its followers that it is prudent to come to a tacit understanding with the Kurdish-oriented HDP.
And that’s just the easy bit. Despite all the talk of the economy and international affairs during the campaign, this was a local election.
If the opposition is serious about making this a turning point, it needs to knuckle down and dedicate itself to improving municipal services in order to prove to the electorate that it can be trusted with the country’s economy and positively steer Turkey’s political future. That is, of course, assuming that the AKP's attempt to stifle the loss of Istanbul by demanding recounts proves fruitless.
Either way, the opposition will no doubt face a relentless campaign of delegitimization and intimidation by Erdogan and the AKP, who don’t kindly to strong opposition. Pro-government media are already pushing the narrative that the results in Istanbul are an attempted "coup." Still, it’s an opportunity. The opposition best make the most of it.
This article first appeared in Haaretz on 3 April 2019
While Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was visiting the United Kingdom last week, I wrote a piece about UK-Turkish relations which was published by the EU Observer and can be found here. Some of you might be aware that I am currently working on a research project about UK-Turkish relations at the Istanbul Policy Center. My main thinking about the subject will be available in a full policy report in a couple of months, but let me take this occasion to make a few brief comments about President Erdogan’s UK visit.
In my view UK-Turkish relations are entering a golden age. Bilateral trade is flowing at its highest level, ministers are regularly meeting and goodwill has never been higher. So, it was pretty obvious that Downing Street would give President Erdogan the red-carpet treatment including the pleasure of meeting Her Royal Majesty the Queen.
Indeed, it was this audience with Britain’s hereditary sovereign which was the most controversial aspect of President Erdogan’s visit. It should be remembered that as soon as Erdogan called snap elections other European nations ruled out the possibility of ministerial visits for campaign purposes, leaving only Bosnia as part of Erdogan’s international campaigning.
But President Erdogan’s visit to London was planned well before the snap elections were announced. However, it was not planned as a state visit, meaning that London was not obliged to stick the baked bean (that’s cockney for Queen) before the Turkish head of state. However, Lizzy was not busy and so London was able to provide Erdogan a great photo op while he is fights what is increasingly becoming a tough presidential and parliamentary election race next month.
But it didn’t quite work out so smoothly, at least not for Erdogan. The footage of the meeting between Erdogan and the Queen was not heavily circulated by the Turkish press, even pro-government outlets. Perhaps this was because Erdogan appeared to be making a very low bow before the Queen in the photograph? Obviously, one is supposed to make a humble nod of the head before blue blood, but it remains the case that at 1.85 (6ft 1) Erdogan towers over Elizabeth II whose height stands at a regal 1.63 (5ft 4). In other words, in order to make eye contact and shake the hand of the head of the House of Windsor, President Erdogan had little choice but to make a deeper bow than what looked good.
A slightly different case with the Turkish first lady Emine who was accompanying her husband in his royal visit. Looking rather overwhelmed by the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony, Emine had the advantage of being about the same height as her regnant host, and their handshake looked like one between equals. This was the photo the Turkish press chose to publicise more widely.
Also, Erdogan made a disastrous interview with Bloomberg while in London, stating that he would tighten his grip on the economy including ensuring that interest rates remain low. This was the opposite of what investors wanted to hear and contributed to the Lira plunging against all major currencies including the dollar, euro and pound sterling. The visit can hardly be described as a boon before the elections.
This aside, there are questions that need to be raised about this visit. Last year the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee released a report on the UK’s relations with Turkey which stressed the importance of not just strengthen its relationship with the ruling governing party but all segments of Turkish society. Absolutely right. But upgrading the nature of Erdogan’s visit to London hardly meets this goal, especially without the UK making some kind of gesture towards the opposition or fostering stronger ties with Turkish civil society. The question still looms, how can Britain forge ties with all segments of Turkish society without angering the governing party and President? For real long-term durability in bilateral relations, Britain has to diversify the nature of its engagement with Turkey.
However, from Turkey’s perspective, this recent visit affirmed what I have thought all along - in Britain, Erdogan and the AKP has found a perfect ally. Although Britain’s international standing has diminished, it still remains a significant medium international power that is able to punch slightly above its weight. Turkey’s ties with the UK are unlike that of, say, Germany. British leaders do not go on about human rights, the state of democracy or the rule of law. They mention it a little bit of course, but they in no way make political relations and economic engagement contingent on such matters. Also, as a supporter of Turkey’s EU accession and a country that has been the most sympathetic towards the ruling government after the attempted 2016 coup, Britain has earned Erdogan’s favour. Last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May even used the term “Kurdish Terrorism”. You don't hear that too often from European leaders.
The UK is eager to shake hands and make deals whether that be in the defence, services and pharmaceutical sectors or new emerging industries. London's hope is that during the period of Brexit, UK-Turkish relations can stand as an example of beneficial trade and diplomatic relations with other countries outside of the EU and thus maintain the Global Britain brand.
Much more to come about this subject in a couple of months when my report is released.
It took a hashtag to heat up election season in Turkey. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remarked that if the public want him to step down all they had to do was say “tamam” (in this context meaning enough). Within hours there were over a million tweets with the hashtag #Tamam. The next day Erdogan’s supporters were tweeting “devam”, meaning “continue”.
This brings me to a related issue, one which I had already planned on addressing: branding and brand identity in the Turkish political context.
Perhaps more than anything in this world people are consumers. We make purchasing choices all the time - what food to eat, what clothes to buy, what car to drive. Successful businesses seek to steer our decisions towards their products or services.
The idea of a brand is more than just the name of a product like, say, “Coca-cola” or “Burger King”. The brand is the encapsulation of the attributes of a particular product or service that communicates a strong sense of association, perception, feeling or emotion. Not only does it do so in a way which is brief and concise, but it also has the potential to reach a broad audience.
Central to a successful brand strategy, at least in recent years, is the idea of a narrative or personal story. Often this is described as a “journey”. Go to the website of any new brand. Whether they sell bed linen or blouses, there will probably be a section that details the personal background of the owner and how he or she created the product. The idea is to create an illusion of intimacy between the brand and the consumer. By purchasing the product, you become part of the story.
Branding in politics is not so different. Just as we are consumers, we are also voters. Let me sketch out the brand identities of the leading presidential candidates and political parties in Turkey to illustrate my point. In doing so, I hope you will see who are the frontrunners in the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections on 24 June as well as their chances for success.
The party which has the strongest brand identity is the ruling AKP. Just its name, the Justice and Development Party, hints its political agenda – the quest for justice for those, particularly the pious or traditional, who despite being the majority were marginalised by the secular elite. The Party stands for rectifying this injustice while developing the country into a vibrant, innovative and modern economy. The official name of the AKP is the AK Parti. AK, meaning clean or white, denotes purity. Not only does this speak to the religious or those concerned with family values, but it also implies that the party is transparent. Love or hate the AKP, this is a highly effective brand message. No wonder the AKP has won every election it has contested and remains the frontrunner ahead of next June.
President Erdogan’s personal brand is a rag to riches story, a man of the people who encapsulates the quest for the rectification of past injustices while fighting for the prosperity of the Turkish nation. A religious man with a pious educational background, Erdogan is the man that “they” could not prevent from rising. A man of the people, Erdogan’s success is your success. A vote for Erdogan, the message goes, is a vote for yourself. What is more, his brand is that of being a doer whether that means putting foreign leaders in their place or managing the economy. Erdogan’s brand message continues to be highly effective. However, recently it’s been taking some knocks. Sometimes Erdogan comes across as beleaguered and his flashy expensive suits seem out of kilter. Also…well actually I’ll stop there. Don’t think I really want to give out advice.
Let’s turn to the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The CHP also has a clear and consistent brand which everyone knows. Come on, say it with me, “the CHP is the party of Ataturk”. This clearly implied in the party’s logo, the six arrows of kemalism on a red background mirroring the national flag. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this brand per se. Its failing is that it is old fashioned. It also lacks a narrative beyond that of the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In this day and age the story of Ataturk has been appropriated by many different sectors of society, leaving the CHP’s brand narrative rather dull. It doesn't speak to innovation, the future or the Turkey of the 21st century. As a result, the CHP consistently hovers around the 25 per cent range of the popular vote in recent elections. This is unlikely to change.
Perhaps the biggest mistake of the CHP this election was not putting forward its party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu as its presidential candidate. From a branding perspective, I think this decision will prove catastrophic. When Kilicdaroglu became CHP leader in 2010 he was quite cleverly marketed as Turkey’s Gandhi. But this brand weaned in subsequent years and Kilicdaroglu appeared more like a boring bureaucrat than a toga wearing non-violent revolutionary. However, this Turkish Gandhi image was revitalized after the 2016 attempted coup and the ongoing state of emergency. Justice marches, rallies and civil action campaigns, Kilicdaroglu’s brand was becoming effective. He wasn’t wearing a toga, but he was pictured in a string vest eating a modest meal while breaking bread with ordinary citizens while on his Ankara to Istanbul march. Not bad. Yet, after all this the CHP chose Muharrem Ince as its candidate. Ince, who certainly has some fire in his belly and cross-party respect, might be an ok candidate, but time is not on his side to develop a publically recognizable brand. I think he stands no real chance.
This is in contrast to IYI Party founder and leader Meral Aksener who led a break-away faction from the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). In reality, this split should not have been a big deal – the activities of a renegade faction from a country’s 3rd or 4th largest party normally fades from the news cycle quite quickly. But Aksener was somehow able to brand herself as a political warrior leading a fight against those in the MHP who were succumbed by the allure of power. I guess you could say they were seduced by the dark side of the force. Noble and defiant, Aksener’s stands for the honor of fighting for your principles. The problem with Aksener’s brand is that it completely overshadows her party. I suspect the election results will show poor votes for IYI Party (although part of the opposition coalition), but significant votes for Aksener in the Presidential run-off.
Finally, let us turn to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and its Presidential candidate, the imprisoned Selahattin Demirtas. Both have an effective brand image as the country’s liberal and democratic pro-Kurdish Party. This image does not speak to the entire Turkish population, but doesn’t attempt to; the HDP is not trying to turn atheists into believers, or, in this case, ardent nationalists into progressives. The unfair incarceration of Demirtas who is running for President while in prison only adds to the HDP’s effective brand. It also plays into the image of Demirtas as a man who stands for hope, reason and change (remind you of anyone?). The brother of a PKK fighter but who chose the path of peace with an outstretched arm to his Turkish brothers and sisters of all faiths and backgrounds, Demirtas and the HDP have no problem with their brand, but rather a huge problem with their inability to effectively campaign. Restrictions, incarcerations and physical attacks, it’s an insurmountable obstacle.
So, there it is, an overview of branding in the Turkish political context. I hope this helps explain some of the dynamics of the forthcoming elections. More to come soon.
The electoral schedule in Turkey has been announced, the parties who are running are confirmed, and the election harmonization bill has been signed. Meanwhile, opposition parties are manoeuvring. There have been meetings and discussions about Presidential candidates and possible alliances ahead of the joint Presidential and Parliamentary race.
It seems that as we enter the beautiful spring month of May, the election process is starting to heat up. But there are no darling spring buds blooming in this election. If you are a believer in democracy and a good dose of liberalism to boot, the situation is not looking rosy.
I have read some interesting and well thought out pieces over the past week or so, which have been somewhat optimistic about the chances of the opposition. Not necessarily because they have any real chance of winning, but because the race will be a tight; the AKP and its leader President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have to fight it out, both at the parliamentary and presidential polls. The optimists think it possible that the AKP may not end up dominating parliament, thus necessitating ’s the President (in all likelihood Erdogan), to be more conciliatory towards the opposition. A small victory for Turkish democracy.
Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but such optimism is nonsense. The upcoming election is a contest for an elected autocracy, plain and simple.
Turkey’s new presidential system, voted in after a tight referendum last year, is not designed to have a robust opposition. It is also not designed to have a dynamic relationship between President and Parliament. In fact, the opposite. One of the reasons why Erdogan and the AKP sought to move away from the parliamentary system was to untie the President’s hands of having a strong parliament which was seen as an impediment to effective government and passing legislation easily.
The new Presidential system is one where parliament’s role is to rubber stamp the policies of the President. Under the amended constitution, the President can basically ignore much of what comes out of parliament and possibly rule by Presidential decrees instead (the scope of this power is under defined). The President may also use, or at least threaten to use, the Samson option - dismiss parliament and call for new simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections.
Let’s quickly remind ourselves of some of the other powers the President now has. He can declare a state of emergency. He can appoint his cabinet at will and without any parliamentary oversight. The President can appoint almost half the high court without any approval needed from parliament. Meanwhile, the impeachment process is so convoluted and arduous that it only really exists on paper. For a full breakdown of the power of the President under the new constitution and a critique of the new system, read the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission’s report and opinion of the constitutional changes. It is a terrifying document which accurately describes the democratic deficiencies of the new system. Basically, it is an elected autocracy. It doesn’t matter how well the opposition performs in parliament. (Also, see my post about some of the opposition’s chances of passing the 10 per cent threshold here).
It also doesn’t matter who wins the presidency. The new constitution has eroded democratic norms.
Just for the sake of argument, let us say that President Erdogan loses the race. The votes have been counted, there are no cases of electoral fraud or violence, and a committed democrat becomes Turkey’s new President. Let us even imagine that he or she decides that these new additional presidential powers will not be used. There still lies the problem that the constitution still grants such power to a future presidential office holder who might not be a committed democrat. In other words, there is currently no constitutional guarantee for present or future democratic practices.
Again, for the sake of argument, let us follow the scenario that Erdogan loses the election to a committed democrat. On entering office, the new president decides to revert back to the status quo ante and overturn the changes that were voted for in last year’s referendum. This is also problematic. Ignoring the results of the referendum may not be considered legal. Some might also argue that it would also be undemocratic to ignore the will of 50 per cent of the population who voted in favour of it. Doing so might even plunge the country into a constitutional crisis with widespread confusion about correct institutional procedures, practices, and protocols. Decreeing constitutional changes void would set a dangerous democratically questionable precedent (no pun intended).
Another alternative might be for this new committed democratic president to decree new democratic safe guards into the constitution. But you can’t instil democracy by decree as it can just as easily be uninstalled by decree. The only real option would be to seek constitutional amendments through parliament. This would mean that Turkey would have significantly altered its constitution three times in 10 years and potentially be a source of internal and external doubt about the country’s stability. But for this happen we are envisioning a scenario where Erdogan loses, a committed democrat enters office with a parliamentary majority strong enough to change the constitution and committed to democratic reform. It’s just not going to happen and that is why last year’s referendum was a catastrophe for Turkish democracy.
Sadly, it doesn’t matter who wins the forthcoming elections. The democratic constitutional safeguards are all but extinct and the power of parliament is a façade for one-man presidential rule. No-one should have such overwhelming power in a democracy. Not Erdogan, not Abdullah Gul (next time), not Aksener, Kilicdaroglu, or Demirtas. Not even the bloody Dalai Lama. Nobody.
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