Can Turkey Count on Democratic Elections?

President RecipTayyip Erdoğan

President RecipTayyip Erdoğan

By Ilayda Ozsan

Photograph of President Recip Tayip Erdoğan courtesy of Reuters

Turkey’s latest round of elections has opened up questions about the country’s democratic process. On November 1st 2015, a general election was held to elect members for the Grand National Assembly (TBMM). President Recip Tayip Erdoğan called the election after a June election failed to establish a coalition.

The newest elections resulted in the AKP (Justice and Development Party) gaining the majority of the parliamentary seats with 49.50% of the votes. President Erdoğan, head of AKP, had campaigned with the slogan “it’s me or chaos.” Even though Erdoğan was not on the ballot, the election was about him, as getting a majority would grant him more authority. This success, however, surprised many Turkish citizens as neither the polls, commentators, nor the citizens themselves expected such results. The elections left Turkey polarized.

How Fair was the Election?

Erdoğan has long wanted to change the constitution to strengthen his presidency and have full authority. While Turkey’s current political system makes the presidency a largely ceremonial role, Erdoğan dictates to the majority of the National Assembly and the Prime Minister Davutoğlu. A presidential system, very much like that of the US, would grant Erdoğan ultimate power as both the head of government and the head of state. Critics fear that Erdoğan could use a stronger presidential system for authoritarian purposes.

Since the election, censorship has prevented the media from criticizing AKP, Erdoğan and the election itself. “These are the worst times for press freedom in Turkey,” said the president of Pen Turkey, a human rights group, to Al Jazeera. The International Federation of Journalists reports that as of March 2015, a total of 21 journalists or media workers were jailed in Turkey because of their political opinions or publications. The lack of freedom of speech or press have been issues since AKP came to power. Dozens of journalists have been jailed, and more have been censored. The deterioration in the freedom of speech has long undermined democracy in Turkey.

The political polls predicted that the election results would be very similar to the June elections, which resulted in only 40% AKP, 25% CHP and the rest divided between other parties; such as the Kurdish party HDP. Nonetheless, the November snap election results resembled very much the 2011 AKP success. This is extremely surprising as AKP did not seem to do anything to increase their share of votes, and instead were criticized for failing to prevent terrorist attacks.

Another potential flaw with election’s validity is the swiftness of the election results’ publication. Supreme Electoral Commission’s (YSK) activities appeared very opaque. Unlike the June election YSK did not publish provisional results. The central elections website was down, votes were counted hours faster than they were in any other election, and the ban on broadcasting results was lifted before it was supposed to.

Additionally, Erik Meyersson, an Assistant Professor from Stockholm School of Economics, has published a fascinating analysis on digit tests. Digit tests provide a mathematical measure of election irregularities based on the theory that, when counting votes, a particular digit should be randomly distributed. His analysis, published on his website, is worth reading in full. He concludes that the results look like they are manipulated in favor of AKP and opposing MHP and HDP. CHP, the largest opposition party, does not seem affected.

Meyersson’s analysis presents interesting question marks about the fairness of Turkish democracy. As he observes, the “landslide victory by the AKP represents a remarkable comeback for a government that, according to the overwhelming majority of polling companies, looked set to repeat its June loss. Many are now pointing fingers at these pollsters (and analysts overall), asking how they could have been so wrong. But what if they weren’t?”

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