Turkey will hold local elections on March 31 in which voters will choose their mayors and city councilors. Fearing a backlash from voters in response to the first recession in a decade, the government has employed its control of the media, courts, and the country’s voting machinery to undermine the opposition, raising concerns that it plans to put the final nails in the coffin of Turkish democracy.
The latest polls show that the country’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ultranationalist allies may lose control of major cities, including the capital, as disgruntled voters punish them for their financial mismanagement and the ensuing economic crisis. A panicked Turkish government has resorted to hardline tactics of threatening opposition candidates and voters.
Erdogan’s near-total control of the media has gagged opposition parties and candidates for the most part, preventing them from campaigning. Last month, Turkey’s state-run broadcaster TRT dedicated 53 hours of airtime to Erdogan and his ultranationalist allies, all of which was favorable, and only 6 hours to the main opposition bloc, consisting mainly of negative coverage. Pro-Kurdish candidates, meanwhile, received only 7 minutes of coverage, all of it critical. Erdogan and his cronies also control over 90 percent of private media outlets, which have been busy smearing opposition candidates as “terrorists.” Nearly all of Turkey’s daily papers claimed in unison that 334 opposition candidates, including Turkish nationalists, were linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Irregularities in the voting process also abound. The Supreme Electoral Council’s voter registries included 6,389 voters aged between 100 and 165, many of whom have never cast a vote in their life. In one district, the number of voters increased by 95 percent since the last elections, while another district included a single apartment with 1,108 registered voters. Meanwhile, the government relocated ballot boxes for more than 96,000 voters in Kurdish-majority provinces, effectively forcing them to travel long-distances into strongholds of the ruling bloc to cast their ballots.
Fearing none of these strong-arm tactics will be sufficient to secure him a victory at the ballot box, Erdogan and his aides have repeatedly threatened that if voters elect opposition mayors and councilors, the president would remove them from office and appoint trustees. Since the last local elections in 2014, Erdogan has already replaced elected mayors in almost a hundred municipalities with handpicked trustees, sending 40 mayors to prison on trumped-up charges. Over 40 million Turkish citizens, comprising almost half of the country’s population, now live in cities administered by trustees.
Despite Turkey’s uneven playing field, and Erdogan’s intimidation and foul play, the opposition, against all odds, could still win a historic victory on Sunday, capturing the nation’s capital Ankara and its economic hub, Istanbul. While there are no national elections scheduled for the next four years, losing key cities would be a major blow to Erdogan, who extracts cash from municipal governments. A victory would also extend a lifeline to Turkey’s battered opposition.
Yet, should Erdogan act on his campaign threats, destroying any semblance of ballot box democracy that is left in Turkey, he will bring the country fully in line with Iran, Venezuela, and the other authoritarian regimes he has been flirting with. That might secure Erdogan’s grip on power, but such a move is sure to cripple Turkey’s flailing economy for years to come.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Merve Tahiroglu is a research analyst. Follow them on Twitter @aykan_erdemir and @MerveTahiroglu. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.