Turkey’s gearing up for its first presidential election, but Turkish commentator Okan Altiparmak has doubts about how democratic it will really be.
Turkey heads to the polls on Sunday to popularly elect a president for the first time. It’s an important moment in the country’s democratic history.
Or at least it would be were the election’s presumptive winner — Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) — not showing ever more troubling signs of moving towards a political model best described as one-man rule.
Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies were plain long before the Gezi Park protests of last year, which started as an environmental sit-in at one Istanbul’s few remaining parks and quickly transformed into a full-blown struggle against repression after the government cracked down on it with startling brutality. But images of one of the greatest cities in the world choking on clouds of tear gas and awash with the high-pressured discharge of water cannons nevertheless came as a wake-up call for many who had presumed the prime minister a moderate.
Since then, Erdoğan has consistently dipped into the pages of the dictator’s handbook, decrying perceived internal and external enemies with a mind to sow fear and loathing throughout the electorate, purging state institutions of those he considers his opponents, and monopolising the media while the other presidential candidates struggle to hit the front page or prime time. And yet he remains — as strongmen are occasionally wont to — significantly popular throughout the country.
But just how popular? While Turkish and foreign reporters alike have written as though Erdoğan’s victory in the first-round of voting on Sunday is a fait accompli — there will be a second poll on August 25 should no candidate achieve a simple majority — Okan Altiparmak (@OKANsays) has other ideas. A much-followed member of the Turkish Twittersphere, who tweets in both Turkish and English, the filmmaker and sometimes-actor says Erdoğan will not be able to win in the first round without significantly low voter turn-out or, alternatively, large-scale voter fraud.
“The fact that Western publications anticipate a landslide victory for Erdoğan in the first round means they have either not done their homework or have taken the AKP party propaganda for granted,” Altiparmak told Crikey. “It will not be easy for him to receive 50% of the vote in the first round. Erdoğan has never received 50% in any election, which makes it possible only if opposition turnout is lower than usual or if there is significant cheating at the ballot box.”
“Erdogan… is happy with the power he has and will do everything he can to shove his will down people’s throats.”
“A simple calculation makes this very evident,” he said. “There are approximately 56 million eligible voters, in Turkey and the diaspora, but the turnout of such voters abroad — who would have voted in favour of Erdoğan — now appears to be less than 10%. That means will be roughly 54 million eligible voters left. If we assume that 80% of them turn up — 9 or 10% lower than the turn-out for March 30’s local elections — then that would mean a total of roughly 43 million votes being cast. Erdoğan would then need to get more 21.5 million votes to win it outright in the first round, an increase of 2 million votes over the 19.5 million the AKP received in March, including the a number of suspicious votes in many districts.”
Altiparmak said that Erdoğan had also put off-side many religious conservatives, who should by rights be his core constituents. The conservative Saadet Party’s 1.2 million votes are not a lock for Erdoğan, he said, and the the prime minister’s opposition to the Gülen and Nur movements could see 500,000 to 1 million votes go to Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the joint candidate of the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) and National Movement Party (MHP). “If that happens, as it seems it may, we would need to subtract even further from the 19.5 million votes Erdoğan received five months he ago,” he said.
“The first round will likely see a roughly even split between the AKP and the CHP-MHP coalition with about 46% each,” Altiparmak said. “As some leftists appear to be charmed by [the Peoples’ Democratic Party (BHP) candidate Selahattin] Demirtaş, who has been saying things that sound good to the ear, 6 or 7% will go to him, too.”
Of course, this is barring substantial levels of voter fraud, Altiparmak said, which he feels is “100% likely” to take place. “Erdoğan cannot afford to lose as he would most likely go on trial for corruption,” he said. “The March 30 elections were marred by countless improprieties, which were caught thanks to the work of a number of new civil initiatives. Unfortunately, the CHP and MHP did not pursue the matter very effectively except in a few places. Election fraud is inevitable.”
“In short, Erdoğan needs less than 75% voters to turn out to win in the first round,” Altiparmak said. “Yet the polling firms expect him to win with 55% of the vote in the first round and foreign media is predicting a landslide victory. This brings about the question: Do they know the election will be rigged or are they, for one reason or another, trying to help Erdoğan by discouraging people not to go to the ballot box?”
Altiparmak said he would vote for the CHP-MHP coalition’s İhsanoğlu, “even though I hate the manner by which the opposition parties imposed him on the voters, namely without any debate.
“While I am not terribly excited about him, I think he has been exceptionally civilised in his approach and performed well under conditions rigged in favour of Erdoğan, such as the monopolisation of television time and the use of state funds for campaigning. The key for him will be the turnout by the CHP voters.”
Many secular-liberal CHP voters have bristled at the party’s union with the right-wing MHP and find the choice of İhsanoğlu, a former Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), at odds with the party’s traditional values. “Even if İhsanoğlu wins — which could happen if the Saadet Party gets behind him at the last minute — voters need to start pressuring their parties and demanding inner-party democracy,” Altiparmak said.
“The system cannot go on like this, and it is a sure thing that Erdoğan will not change it. He is happy with the power he has and will do everything he can to shove his will down people’s throats. His handling of this election campaign has not only confirmed his slide toward authoritarianism, but also shows that he is in panic,” he said. “He has surrounded himself with untalented yes-men who cannot tell the emperor that he is naked.”
With nearly 16,000 followers, including a couple of thousand foreigners, Altiparmak said he uses Twitter constantly.
“Twitter is very active in Turkey and virtually constitutes the only credible source of real information, depending, of course, on who you follow. For that same reason, Twitter is most important for the anti-Erdoğan opposition, and it has not-so-surprisingly been perceived as a big threat by the Erdoğan camp.”
*Read more about the Gezi Park protests and Turkey’s future on the website …On the effect of the Gezi Park protests on Turkey …
Gezi has changed Turkey drastically. The reality may not have yet hit people fully but people will keep discovering how it has changed the nation in the coming years and perhaps even decades. The Gezi protests were spontaneous and involved people from all political and philosophical views. I personally do not think what it was can be grasped by means of traditional political thought. Some leftist groups — not all, but some — have taken the movement in a narrower direction since last year and that may have turned some people off. But I think the frustrations that lie behind the movement are still present and can still spark it up at any time. One thing people do not understand is that Gezi was more like an uncontrollable living organism than a political movement. Even though it included many political views, it was not political at all. It was — and remains — essentially about inalienable freedoms and human rights that transcend any one single political view, encompassing every single human being.
Sympathy for Gezi remains high among Turkish people because it actually took place everywhere across the country. Demonstrations occurred in 80 of Turkey’s 81 provinces — most of them unreported — and not just in the Gezi Park area. According to official numbers, five million people across the country took to the streets. That number doesn’t include those who supported these demonstrators: the people who yelled out encouragement from the balconies and the demonstrators’ families, who stayed home in large numbers, but were fully behind the protests.
Like I said, it has not gone anywhere. Gezi was a new type of revolution that changed the mindset of the Turkish people as a whole. Naturally, while they may want to use it to their benefit, political parties neither understand nor like the Gezi mentality as it constitutes a challenge to the status quo about which hardly anyone is happy.
On Turkey’s future …
Erdoğan is attempting to hang on but he is worn out and is now making serious mistakes to try to protect his accumulated wealth and power. No matter what happens in these elections, it seems as though the downfall has started and will take its due course. His attempts to change the nature of the presidency may trigger a huge constitutional crisis that might harm everyone, friend or foe. I expect resistance to be omnipresent from now on. People from inside his party may join in, but probably by resigning.
I believe Erdoğan will be put on trial somehow. I don’t know how, but that is what I intuitively feel. I look around, and he is fast losing the support of long-time friends and supporters. I cannot see him holding on without throwing Turkey into a deep crisis. People and politicians in the US and the EU, of course, can help lower the risk by stopping to make excuses for his dictatorial behaviour. Foreign leaders stay quiet and give him the audacity to go one step further. What Erdoğan and the Turkish people need is constant international pressure for freedoms and human rights for all (not just the minorities).
No one can tell where the country will go in five or 10 years. Bad days are ahead, but something good may also come out of it in the end. Turkey has a young and energetic population, and as we have seen with the Gezi protests, amazing things can take place. The only requirement is free expression and their inclusivity in the political discussion and decision-making processes. The current Turkish political system surely stands in the way, however. Erdoğan is the final product of the current system.