Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is grappling with the fallout of the ruling party’s big defeat in the Istanbul mayoral election, and his government faces pressure to release political prisoners, Foreign Policy reports. Sixteen civil society activists went on trial on Monday accused of trying to overthrow Erdogan’s government through popular nationwide protests in 2013. Prosecutors are seeking life sentences without parole.
The victory of Ekrem Imamoglu, a dynamic former district mayor from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), “shows democracy is resilient and elections still matter,” said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Imamoglu won with a landslide — a 10-point lead — even though Erdogan mobilized all the state resources in this election.”
“Rather than being an example of how democracies die, Turkey showcases the fact that they don’t die all that easily,” argues Murat Somer, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Koc University. “The ascendance of authoritarianism triggers an equally strong pro-democratic reaction. And the case of the Istanbul rerun offers insights into how such impulses may be able to succeed against polarizing and populist authoritarian politics.”
The CHP had long failed to provide an effective counterweight to the AKP, because it refused to develop a popular platform, clinging instead to its traditional role as the party of rigid secularism, according to Daron Acemoglu** and James A. Robinson, co-authors of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty and The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty.But that changed with Imamoğlu, who ran a positive campaign centered on improving welfare, delivering better municipal services, reducing waste, ending corruption, and – in the case of the re-vote – restoring democracy, they write for Project Syndicate:
To be sure, this isn’t the end of AKP rule in Turkey. Erdoğan doesn’t have to stand for re-election until 2023, and his party has a strong parliamentary majority. To bolster its credibility, the CHP must deliver on its campaign promises, which will not be easy with Erdoğan attempting to undermine it at every turn. But, at the end of the day, populists derive their power from real grievances. It is only by responding to those grievances, not by ignoring them, that opposition parties can wrest democracy back from its populist usurpers.
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, notes Freedom House analyst Nate Schenkkan.
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, he writes for Foreign Affairs.
“Erdogan has been cited by many columnists as being ahead of the democratic regression curve,” said Kemal Kirisci of the Brookings Institution. “Maybe what’s happening in Turkey may be the beginnings of a broader democratic restoration,” he added, noting recent mass protests in the Czech Republic and Hong Kong, and the rise of new liberal forces in Europe.
All eyes have been on the June 23 election rerun, but the day after the election was equally important for democracy in Turkey, Schenkkan adds. June 24 marked the first hearing in the so-called Gezi trial, the case of 16 civil society activists accused without evidence of directing nationwide protests in the summer of 2013 with the goal of overthrowing the government.
Democracy means “rule of the people.” The Istanbul election results suggest that so long as core political freedoms and institutions remain, the people have a voice even in less-than-ideal circumstances, adds Henry Olsen. We should always press these governments to do better, but genuine friends of democracy should rest easier. Democracy looks stronger than many had thought, he writes for The Post.
“If Turkey’s elections were still truly free and fair, [Imamoglu] would have never been removed from office in the first place,” said Howard Eissenstat, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy* and Associate Professor of Middle East History at St. Lawrence University, in a new Expert Q&A, “Whoever Wins Istanbul Wins Turkey: How a Mayoral Race Has Precipitated a National Crisis.”
Henri Barkey, senior fellow for Middle East studies at CFR and former member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff, and Steven Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at CFR, join James Lindsay to discuss Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the result of Turkey’s recent election.
Watch “Post-Erdoganism? Turkish Politics After the Istanbul Face-Off,” featuring Amb. Eric S. Edelman, Aykan Erdemir, Alan Makovsky, Giran Ozcan, Merve Tahiroglu.
The growing authoritarianism of Erdoğan’s ruling AK Party (AKP) is detailed in Ece Temelkuran’s How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship – above.
*A partner of the National Endowment for Democracy.