A Lesson in Democracy From President Erdoğan

With over 99 percent of the vote counted as of Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was 100 percent assured of victory and a second term as president, this time with more executive power than ever before in modern Turkish history.

Erdogan tallied 53 percent of the vote, compared to his closest rival, Muharrem Ince, with 31 percent, thereby sparing the incumbent the trouble and embarrassment of a runoff, had he received less than 50 percent.

It was his seventh electoral victory in 16 years, and Erdoğan hailed it as a triumph of democracy, citing the high voter turnout of almost 87 percent, according to official figures. “Turkey has given a lesson in democracy to the entire world,” he said.

“The winner of this election is each and every individual among my 81 million citizens,” proclaimed Erdogan at 3 a.m. from a balcony of his party’s headquarters in the capital of Ankara.

Critics of Erdoğan don’t see it that way, of course. Not only because of the 47 percent of the electorate who voted for others, but because of the crackdown on political opponents, including the jailing of an estimated 160,000 people. Monitoring groups accuse the Turkish government of being the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, a practice that does not usually go hand-in-hand with democracy.

The election itself apparently passed the bar of what qualifies as “free and fair,” but opponents say it was neither. Erdoğan wields extensive, if not complete, control over the Turkish media, and rival candidates had a hard time getting heard. “Equal time” for all candidates was not to be had.

Seeking to pre-empt charges of election-rigging, Erdoğan said, “I hope nobody will try to cast a shadow on the results and harm democracy in order to hide their own failure.”

But that did not prevent circulation of a video that caught the Turkish leader telling party workers how to guarantee a free and fair vote for his nemesis, the Kurds:

“I can’t speak these words outside. … If the HDP (Kurdish party) falls below the election threshold it would mean that we would be in a much better place. … You know who is who. You will take the voter lists for each ballot box and conduct special work.”

That victory will give him significantly augmented powers: to directly appoint senior officials, including ministers and vice-presidents, authority to intervene in the judiciary, to impose a state of emergency if he deems it warranted, and the elimination of the inconvenient office of prime minister.

The style has become known as “managed democracy,” the use of entrenched power to manipulate democratic processes to gain more power. It has proved an effective, if somewhat slow, path to autocratic enhancements.

Indeed, it was reported that the first to call in his congratulations was the right-wing Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, who, along with Russian President Vladimir Putin, is regarded as an exemplar of “managed democracy.”

Orban was shortly followed by Pakistan’s President Mamnoon Hussain, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and two of the main beneficiaries of his Mideast policy, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh, according to Turkey’s Andalou news agency.

However, it must be said that security was reportedly tight at the polls, and Turkish officialdom noted proudly that 415 observers from eight international organizations were on assignment at voting stations around the country. Complaints of irregulaties on Monday did not seem serious enough to endanger Erdoğan’s victory.

Whatever “special work” was done against the HDP, it didn’t knock it out of the box. Election results put it over the 10 percent threshold needed for representation in parliament. That will mean about 60 seats, though down from 80 after the June 2015 elections.

Those concessions to democracy were not insignificant. While they gave legitimacy to what many regard as a grab for power, they also showed that opposition to Erdoğan persists despite repressive measures. The broad opposition to his increasingly one-man rule was manifest, undeniable.

Even the winner of 53 percent of the vote cannot deny that 47 percent did not vote for him. Hopefully, that democratic fact will serve as a much-needed reign on power in the coming years.