Turkey exists in a unique state, not a fully-fledged democracy but also distinct from electoral autocracies, which can be described as a struggling democracy where the desire for change has been overcome by the fear of change, says exiled Turkish journalist Can Dündar in an article for Zeit Online on Tuesday.
Dündar recalls a moment of surprise shared with his German colleague as they watched the election results, where the colleague exclaimed disbelief at the 50 per cent. Initially assuming it referred to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s vote share, considering his 21-year oppressive regime, economic turmoil, and a devastating earthquake, he soon realises that his colleague was actually referring to the opposition’s share of the votes and their ability to secure half of the electorate in an autocratic regime.
The journalist characterises Turkey’s situation as a unique example, not fully representing a democracy but also different from other “elected autocracies.” He believes it to be a “struggling democracy” that succumbs to the fear of change.
Dündar points out that during the election campaign, while the opposition campaigned on promises of change, peace, and compromise, Erdoğan relied on a “list of fears” to rally support. He notes that Erdoğan emphasised concerns such as potential Kurdish division, foreign occupation, the breakdown of family unity, and the acceptance of same-sex marriage. Despite the opposition’s message of hope for a better future, Dündar observes that Erdoğan’s imagery, including his photo in a military pilot jacket and sunglasses on a warship, proved more impactful than Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s portrayal of tranquillity and prosperity in his modest kitchen. He concludes that the majority of Turkish voters, like many worldwide, prioritised security over freedom.
Dündar connects the significant shift towards the far right, exemplified by the alliance between Erdoğan’s Islamist party and ultra-nationalist partners, along with the presence of religious-right factions within the opposition, representing approximately 65% of the electorate, to the global surge of nationalism.
He does not overlook the fact that the ruling party has benefited from its control over resources, such as state television TRT, which allocated significantly more airtime to Erdoğan compared to Kılıçdaroğlu. Dündar notes that private television stations were already under the government’s influence. Furthermore, he highlights that the state apparatus, including the bureaucracy, police, and judiciary, aligned with the ruling party, while the Minister of Interior warned that an opposition victory would be akin to a coup, and the leader of the alliance partner MHP threatened opponents with severe consequences. In response, Kılıçdaroğlu appeared at his final rally wearing a bulletproof vest.
Despite these challenging circumstances, Dündar points out that the fact that half of Turkish society voted for change indicates that Turkey has not entirely succumbed to autocracy. He believes that urban, educated, and young voters, despite facing pressures, threats, and risks, expressed their commitment to democracy.
Dündar highlights that the ruling AKP, which previously achieved a record 49.5% in the elections eight years ago, experienced a significant decline, losing 14% of its votes. Erdoğan secured 26 million votes, while Kılıçdaroğlu garnered 24 million.
As Turkey heads into the second round of this historic election, the nation finds itself deeply divided as a result of Erdoğan’s 20-year-long polarisation strategy. However, Dündar notes that Erdoğan, along with the entire state apparatus, sits firmly on one side of the political seesaw. Despite Erdoğan’s prior statement expressing a lack of faith in democracy, Turkey’s democrats are now striving to defend the crumbling fortress of democracy against his authoritarian rule.