Turkish voters have just made their country the model for every dictator and the envy of every wanna-be dictator in the world. President Tayyip Erdoğan convinced 52% of the voters to give him unprecedented powers to run the country exactly as he sees fit. Separation of powers? Forget it. Independent journalism? Independent judiciary? Forget it. Parliamentary checks and balances? Forget it.
Erdoğan now has the power to rule by decree, appoint cabinet ministers and senior officials answerable only to him, and appoint senior judges. In short, Erdoğan is free to impose his 19th century vision on Turkey. I was going to say 16th century, but there were some very enlightened Ottoman rulers during that period.
|With his absolute power where will he take Turkey?|
The opposition put up a spirited fight, but in the end they were no match for the sheer organizational skills of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the charismatic power of a ‘strong man’ who said the dictatorial rule was necessary to restore Turkey to its rightful place in the world – wherever that might be. He has the typical autocrat’s disdain for the necessary, messy compromises or checks and balances of real democracy. Why bother with other people’s opinions when your own ideas are so good? Waste of time, really.
One sure thing was Erdoğan’s determination to use every means – fair or foul -- at his disposal to win this election. And after 16 years of near absolute control it is fair to say he has many more weapons at his command than the opposition to control the outcome of an election.
While the physical act of voting may have been more or less free, it would be a serious mistake to call these elections ‘free and democratic’ in the true sense of the phrase. All Erdoğan’s opponents faced severe restrictions on media exposure during the campaign. In addition to the media outlets owned by Erdoğan’s henchmen or by people intimidated by him, even the state TV station found reasons to keep the opponents off the air. The campaign of Meral Akşener, leader of the IYI Party, also faced frequent assaults and attempts by local Erdoğan supporters to prevent her election rallies. Selahattin Demirtaş, leader of the Kurdish-based HDP party, had to run his campaign from the prison where he has been kept for a couple of years on unspecified charges. In these circumstances it’s a minor miracle that the opponents performed as well as they did. A cynic would say it was all part of Erdogan's game plan. Let Ince run relatively free, but inhibit and intimidate the other two so their vote total won't challenge Erdogan. Crude, but effective.
|Ince did well, but got no help from the other opposition parties|
Other than Erdoğan’s personal victory there were a few interesting election results:
1. Erdoğan’s main opponent, Muharrem Ince, performed exactly as he predicted, winning just under 31% of the presidential vote. He ran well ahead of his party, the CHP, raising the expectation that he may assume leadership of the party and inject some much-needed vitality. His problem was that Akşener and Demirtaş combined did not get enough votes to help force the presidential election into the second round. But, given the restrictions their campaigns faced, that is no surprise.
2. HDP, the Kurdish party, secured enough votes (11.7%) to enter parliament with 67 MPs, making them the third largest group. HDP’s vote was undoubtedly helped by voters from other parties who voted tactically just to make sure HDP passed the 10% threshold.
|Selahattin Demirtas: Tough to run a campaign from behind bars|
3. Erdoğan ran way ahead of his AKP that received just over 42% of the vote, down from previous elections. This reconfirms the president’s star power while demonstrating that at least some of the party’s former voters are beginning to lose faith with the party. AKP now has 293 MPs, below the 300 required to give them total control of parliament. They will have to rely on the 50 MPs from the ultra-nationalist party MHP to exercise what little authority left to the parliament. Look for Turkish policy to become even more anti-Kurdish and bellicose.
4. The two rival nationalist parties, MHP and the newly-formed, IYI party combined received more than 20% of the vote, far above the usual result for the nationalists. Perhaps the government’s strident anti-Kurdish rhetoric and military incursions into Syria and Iraq inspired this burst of nationalist fervour. Things don't look good for Demirtaş's early release.
|Assaults and boycott by most media hurt her campaign|
It remains to be seen just what Erdoğan will do with his sharply enhanced powers. One would like to think he might use them to help unite a badly fractured country and society. Nice, but, given past performance, not too likely. He might also move aggressively to counter the country’s mounting economic problems. Unfortunately, he has shown absolutely no sign that he even understands the gravity of the situation, let alone have any idea how to solve the problems.
During the campaign he re-iterated his plan to force the Central Bank to reduce interest rates as the best way to fight the increasing inflation and depreciating currency. This will not have a happy ending.
He also stressed his commitment to huge, budget-busting public works projects that will do little except feed his fervent contractor allies while putting great stress on an already weakened budget. One of his pet projects is the so-called Kanal Istanbul, a canal rivalling the Suez Canal to run from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara bypassing the Bosphorus Straits. It’s not clear where the $20 billion or so funding will come from, but the hapless and overstretched state banks will undoubtedly be called upon to provide the funds.
While he is touting grandiose projects, the real problems of inflation, unemployment, mounting current account deficit, depreciating currency and a tattered education system designed more for quill pens and rote memory than computers are only getting worse. On top of this the once-strong agriculture sector is reeling, forcing Turkey to import more and more basic food products like onions and potatoes.
At some point, these problems will snowball into a real economic and social crisis. But for the moment Erdoğan is free to delude himself that they are all the fault of the usual suspects – ‘foreign interests’ that are afraid of Turkey. This plays well in domestic elections, but doesn’t do much to convince those same ‘foreign interests’ to lend you a hand when you desperately need it.