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The masses have spoken, but not all hope is lost, for Turkey’s democracy

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan addresses supporters in Presidential Palace, Ankara, Turkey April 17, 2017. Depo Photos/Press Association. All rights reserved. The 51.3% win for the ‘yes’ vote means the
country in 2019 will transition to a presidential system from a parliamentary
democracy that it has lived under since 1945. Unlike the US-style presidential
system, the Turkish model won’t have the separation of powers that provide
strong checks on the executive. Rather presidency a-la Turka provides the executive with the keys to the state,
legislature, and judiciary. The president will be accountable to virtually
nobody, the country susceptible to the whims of a single person’s wishes. These victories fuelled the perception of the
AKP as the architects of contemporary Turkey who alone understood what was best
for the country.

Turkey has for many years witnessed the
steady dismantling of democracy under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule. Consecutive
electoral victories since 2002 by Erdoğan’s AKP allowed the party to govern
single-handedly with an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly. Over
time, these victories fuelled the perception of the AKP as the architects of
contemporary Turkey who alone understood what was best for the country. Ruling
with a strong majority in parliament for Erdoğan and his AKP comrades was
equated with the unrestricted exercise of a power carried out with systemic
efficiency.

Indeed, the early years witnessed some
democratic gains but after the 2007 victory the trend began to reverse, picking
up full speed from 2010 onwards. During these years, the
legislative actions indicated a government taking great strides at pulling
apart any democratic institutions and practices. Turkey’s already fragile
democracy couldn’t withstand the onslaught of their
overwhelming majority. Erdoğan’s government became comfortable, at times
gloating, in their efforts to muzzle, marginalise and repress their opposition.
What little tolerance existed disappeared altogether
for any opposition and critics.  What little tolerance existed disappeared altogether for
any opposition and critics.

In the face of the erosion of political
and civil rights of their fellow countrymen, freedom of assembly, the press,
independence of the judiciary and social harmony withered away, replaced by an
extremely polarised and divided society. The public continued to re-elect
Erdoğan.

The period of democracy’s cessation was
neither brief nor sudden. Rather the coming end of democracy was slow and
steady. Developments following the failed coup on the night of July 15, 2016
marked the inevitable termination of democracy, formalised with the slim
victory for the ‘yes’ vote in the referendum.

Reversible
democracy?

Turkey’s experience flies in the face of
assumptions that the path of democratisation is near irreversible, at the least
difficult to reverse. The country’s experience is another lesson that in
democracy nothing is out of the question if the majority so choose. It
demonstrates democracy has no inbuilt mechanism to deny anti-democratic ideals
from slipping into its midst. When supported by enough numbers anything can be
put into question, interrogated, repealed – even the idea of democracy itself.

The cancellation of democracy indeed remains
a perpetual risk, which no democracy can legitimately guard against.  This inherent ability to cancel itself out is
democracy’s paradox:  to “sow the seeds
of its own destruction” as Mark Chou has stated, die at its own hands,
succumbing to the electoral will of the majority.

All
is not lost

Yet, all hope for Turkey’s democracy is not
lost. The coming end of democracy need not be permanent or assured. As the
masses can choose to end democracy, they are as capable of reviving it.

In opposing the presidential system, 49% of
the country voted ‘no’. This by no means is a small minority in a country in
which around 46 million are reported to have cast their ballots. The difference
between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ vote is around one million, by no means
irreversible. Despite utilising the state’s resources to drive his campaign,
control over 90% of the country’s media, imprisoning politicians, activists and
journalists, and creating an alliance with the Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (Nationalist Movement Party, MHP),
Erdoğan failed to receive a decisive victory, hardly
the “strong mandate” he was striving for. The combined vote share of the AKP
and the MHP was more than 60% in the 2015 elections, and the April 16 result
did not yield a similar result from their union. This 51% signifies a
significant drop in both their vote potentials. Worryingly for Erdoğan, the ‘no’ vote won in Turkey’s
largest cities Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.

A solid belt along the Aegean and
Mediterranean regions rejected the proposed executive presidency. Worryingly for Erdoğan, the ‘no’ vote won in Turkey’s largest cities
Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. Together with other major cities of Antalya, Adana
and Mersin, where ‘no’ also prevailed, they represent the country’s financial,
industrial and touristic heartlands all opposed to Erdoğan’s vision for Turkey.
In addition, the majority of the Kurdish majority regions in the south and
southeast voted overwhelmingly against the
constitutional changes.

Peak
Erdoğan?

Perhaps, this is an indication that Erdoğan
has reached the limits of his electoral power and could have a hard time
sustaining his narrow popularity in the lead up to the 2019 presidential and
parliamentary elections.

Subsequent developments from the referendum
suggest there are credible claims that voter manipulation occurred to hand the
narrow victory to the ‘yes’ campaign. The two main opposition parties
Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican Peoples’ Party, CHP) and the Halkların
Demokratik Partisi (Peoples’ Democratic Party, HDP) and
hundreds of citizens have appealed to the election watchdog for the annulment
of a critical referendum that resulted in a narrow win for the government,
arguing that unsealed ballot papers and envelopes were counted in open
violation of the law.

The European Commission has also urged
Turkey to launch “transparent investigations” into alleged voting
irregularities in the constitutional referendum. The international
observers charged on April 17 that the referendum campaign was conducted on an
“unlevel playing field” and that the vote count was “marred by late procedural
changes that removed key safeguards.” Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Board (YSK)
made a controversial last-minute decision on April 16 to count ballots that had
not been stamped by officials. This has brought into serious disrepute the
legitimacy of President Erdoğan’s victory domestically and internationally,
which will further stimulate the “no” camps.

Indeed, the outcome shows a deeply polarised
society. As troubling as this is, the staunch resistance by the opposition groups signifies that the
fight for democracy has yet to be concluded. Given that this group did not wilt
away in the face of undemocratic and illiberal practices in the lead up to the
vote, there is no indication that they will disappear now that the decision has
handed him victory. Further slight shifts on the political landscape provide
further hope. There are murmurs that experienced and established former
politicians from MHP like Meral Akşener, or the AKP, could be getting ready to
form another centre-right party in the post-referendum era. Depending on the
names involved, a new centre-right party might challenge Erdoğan’s electoral
power. Erdoğan’s likely response will be to… extend his grip over the state to expend all
his power to advance his personal vision.

Erdoğan’s likely response, in the short
term, will be to press ahead with his victory and extend
his grip over the state to expend all his power to advance his personal vision.
It will be hard for him both to extinguish the deep tradition and spirit of
competitive politics and completely erode the organisational power and support
of party’s like the CHP and HDP, that have shown immense resilience.

Erdoğan is experienced enough to know
that this slim victory, in spite of his efforts, will not allow him to take
steps as freely as he could with a greater margin. Turkey’s parliamentary
system has been replaced with a presidential one that is not restricted by any
checks and balances, with no quick reversal in sight. Yet,
the world’s political history is littered with the many lives and deaths of
democracy. Turkey will be no exception. As grim as it might seem at this point, there still beats a pulse of
hope. The tussle between the two
diametrically opposed camps will create the space and tension to keep political
pluralism alive in Turkey, just enough to sustain the flame for democracy.

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