Concerns on the transfer of power after Turkey’s election
In the multi-party political life in the Republic of Turkey, which has been maintained to this day since 1946 though it has suffered some interruptions, the possibility of an election’s significance being less than critical is often unlikely. Each election period has its own unique problems and contexts, characterized by evaluations such as "this elections is very important" or "the elections are critical" in one regard or another.
However, there are some elections in the post-1946 period that are unlike any other in terms of their importance, and the May 14, 1950 elections come first among them. With these elections, the 27-year-long single-party authoritarianism came to an end, and power changed hands peacefully. It is perhaps worth remembering that there is a minimalist approach that finds the superiority of democracy as a political regime in allowing the transfer of power through elections. According to this view, which does not pay much attention to whether the principles such as freedom, equality, and participation contained in democracy are actually realized, democracy is the most preferred regime compared to alternatives because power can only be changed peacefully, that is, through elections, in a democracy. Thus, it is in this regard that May 14, 1950 is written down in the annals of world political history as Turkey's great success.
WHY IS MAY 14, 2023 CRITICAL?
The date of May 14, determined by the President as the day for the election, has the potential to mark another historic turning point for Turkey, 73 years after the country broke the CHP’s 27-year-long single-party regime in 1950. In just under two weeks, Turkey will be on the verge of changing another single-party government that has been in power for over 20 years. If this change happens, it will also pave the way for the establishment of a more democratic future.
At this point, let me open a parenthesis. The single-party government that ruled the country between 1923-1950 did not come to power through free elections like those after 1950. Though the Republican People's Party (CHP) did not come to power through an election, it was removed from power through an election. The Democratic Party (DP), which toppled the CHP in 1950, also won the 1954 and 1957 elections, but it was possible to foresee that the DP would have to hand over power in the next election to be held on or before 1961, given the decline in its vote share. The May 27, 1960 military coup did not allow power to change hands through elections in Turkey once again. In contrast with the CHP, the DP came to power through an election but left through a coup. Since then, Turkey did not have a strong and long-lasting single-party government until 2002.
In an article he wrote at the time of the 1960 coup, my late professor Mumtaz Soysal described the coup as a "prematurely ringing bell." According to Soysal, if the coup had not happened and elections had been allowed to take place, Turkish society would have undergone a second change of regime through elections, thus completing its lesson in democracy. The coup was like a bell that sounded early while the lesson in democracy was still ongoing; society was pushed out class before it could learn. On May 14, 2023, 73 years after 1950, is an important milestone in completing this unfinished lesson. In my opinion, the upcoming elections should be understood in this context as "critical,” and if a change of regime occurs and the AKP government, which has been in power for more than 20 years, is replaced by way of an election, this will be the first successful change in a long-lasting single-party government since 1950 through elections, and Turkey's multi-party political life will emerge even stronger. Of course, Turkey, which has never fully earned the title of a democratic country on a universal scale, still has a long way to go to build a democratic republic, but this change will be the beginning of that road.
As the election, so vital in the context of a democratic future, approaches, the picture that emerges in public opinion polls conducted by many companies which have come to more or less similar results in their projections is as follows: No alliance or party in the parliament has obtained the minimum number of seats required to change the constitution (360 members of parliament) and they cannot even win the majority of the parliament, which is 301 seats. In the presidential election, the possibility of going to a runoff is not negligible, and who is ahead is also explained within the margin of error announced in this type of survey. In other words, the difference between the leading candidate, Kilicdaroglu, and Erdogan, which most surveys show, remains within the margin of error.
When we consider this situation together with the authoritarian line that the government has followed especially since the 2011 elections, but especially since the 2014 presidential elections, there are various concerns about facing a difficulty similar to that in 1950. These are concerns arising from the observations that political scientists today express as obstacles to a change of power through elections in "competitive authoritarian regimes." The concern in 1950 was directly related to whether an authoritarian single-party government would be willing to hand over power, and the experience of the fraudulent 1946 elections four years earlier justified this concern. However, a change of power did take place.
Today's concern stems primarily from the fact that the ruling party has all the means to take control of the entire election process. In the current presidential regime, there is no obligation for ministers, especially those critical in managing and supervising the electoral process such as the Ministers of Justice, Interior, and Transportation, to resign and make way for non-partisan individuals, as Turkey has done for years. Furthermore, for the first time, these ministers are also parliamentary candidates, giving them the opportunity to use their state power to win the elections. This is a "conflict of interest" situation that would not be allowed in any rule of law and gives a green light to the abuse of state power, regardless of the individuals involved. In fact, like all public officials, ministers should have resigned from their positions to run as candidates, both as a legal and moral obligation.
However, the Supreme Election Council (YSK) has decided that ministers do not need to resign to run as parliamentary candidates. This is one of the highly controversial decisions of the YSK and, unfortunately, since its establishment in 1950 to prevent fraudulent elections after the 1946 elections, it has spectacularly failed in terms of adherence to the principles and norms of the rule of law. The issue here is not just the decision that ministers do not need to resign. Erdogan's approval for a third candidacy though technically barred by the constitution, and the legal weakness in the reasoning he provided for his approval, should also be added to this. In addition, nothing has been done to ensure that both the President and cabinet ministers are subject to the prohibitions on the use of state resources during their election campaigns. This situation is also a source of concern as the YSK, which will make the most critical and definitive decisions regarding the management and supervision of the elections, is also affected.
THE DISCOURSE OF FRIENDS AND FOES
Another source of concern is the discourse of government officials, especially those at the ministerial level. For example, the Minister of the Interior, who heads one of the most influential ministries during the election period and who would have resigned if we still had a parliamentary system, has described the May 14th elections as a "coup attempt." We are talking about a country where governments have been determined by elections continuously since 1987, even though there has never been a full opportunity for democratic elections, except for the vetoed one in 1983. As an average citizen, it is impossible for us to understand how a date, such as May 14th, which was determined by the President, who is the most powerful and authorized person in the government, and the leader of the AKP, could legitimately be considered a coup attempt.
Shortly after this statement by the Minister, another party official addressing voters in Adana, presumably referring to the opposition bloc, stated that the goal of such alliances was to "get rid of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP, and the People's Alliance," and then added, "One vote will give the strongest answer to those who threaten Turkey against our President."
These two sets of discourses show us that this regime is not only authoritarian but also, in today's fashionable term, populist, and I believe it carries a "post-fascist" character. In other words, in an environment of "unequal competition" where all powers are concentrated at a single locus, which is the President, and where the judiciary and media have been taken under control by the government, attempts are made to distort the political process with discourse that evokes the distinction of "friend-foe" or "the nation-enemies of the nation"; these bolster concerns that the upcoming May 14th elections may resemble 1946 rather than 1950.
To alleviate these concerns, it is absolutely necessary for opposition political parties and voter organizations to stake a claim in ensuring the integrity of the ballot boxes on election day and in the post-voting process. Turkey can only achieve a change of government on May 14th, 2023, and take an important step towards building a democratic future with such a conscious civic effort.