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Turkey elections: The myth of ‘free but not fair’

Following this week’s epochal elections, Turkey is now looking forward to another five years of increasingly-autocratic rule by incumbent President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan. His challenger, secular nationalist Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, is now highly unlikely to push him further than a run-off election in two weeks’ time, while contrary to most predictions the Parliament also remains in Erdoğan’s grasp. Voters have shifted even further to the right, standing behind Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) or backing minority candidates representing other, equally virulent strands of nationalism.

Among other election-night clichés – ‘key NATO ally’, ‘100 years of the Turkish republic’ – one in particular stood out. These elections, Western Turkey-watchers glibly asserted, were ‘free, but not fair’. By this they essentially meant that while the Turkish government has launched a concerted assault on media freedom, freedom of political organisation, and freedom of expression, elections remain competitive on the night itself.

This distinction is pure semantics. In particular, while the mainstream opposition represented by Kiliçdaroğlu might be able to launch a challenge against Erdoğan despite being hampered by deeply unfair conditions, there is no meaningful sense whatsoever in which the progressive, Kurdish-led opposition were ‘free’ to participate in the elections. To put it another way, it would be wrong-headed to oppose Erdoğan’s expected victory on the basis of certain electoral irregularities alone: the rot at the heart of Turkish democracy runs far deeper than that.

The conditions are indeed difficult for Kiliçdaroğlu’s People’s Republic Party (CHP). For example, Turkey ranks 165th out of 180 countries globally for press freedom, meaning the state broadcaster gave Erdoğan approximately 6000% more coverage in the run-up to the elections than his rival. But in the media field, as elsewhere, it is Kurdish opposition journalists who bear the brunt of Turkish authoritarianism, with dozens of Kurdish media workers currently behind bars, many of them arrested during the election campaign.

The Kurdish-led opposition had hoped to be king-makers in this election. Instead, they were scapegoated by both Presidential candidates

Some were swept up during mass arrests earlier this month, which also targeted Kurdish civil-society activists, actors, and politicians. They join no less than 4000 people linked to the pro-Kurdish, pro-democratic Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) currently behind bars, including many leading party figures, the co-chair, and no less than 11 MPs. Most strikingly of all, the HDP were unable to participate in these elections under their own name. With a fresh ban on the party imminent – meaning it will join no less than eight predecessor pro-Kurdish parties in being banned by Turkey’s nominally independent judiciary – the party was forced to abruptly pivot in the weeks prior to the election, running its candidates via a smaller, associated party, the Green Left.

There can be little doubt that if the Kurdish-led opposition had been allowed even the circumscribed freedom to manoeuvre afforded to the CHP, they would have swept up enough votes to carry out their strategy of winning a strong minority in Parliament while backing Kiliçdaroğlu’s push to unseat Erdoğan – even setting aside the more radical question of what the political landscape would look like if Turkey did indeed have a free judiciary, press and separation of powers. In the present conditions, the Kurdish-led opposition bloc’s ability to retain its position as the third-largest force in Turkey’s Parliament, and return scores of MPs is a minor miracle. But at this crucial moment, ‘minor’ was not enough.

The progressive, pro-Kurdish opposition would have been sure to make far larger gains were they able to participate equally in the democratic process

Certainly, there were instances of manipulation and intimidation on the night of 14 May. But the vote count which favoured Erdoğan and military vehicles parked outside polling booths in Kurdish regions were only the tip of the iceberg. These elections may appear ‘free’ enough to outside observers, but Erdoğan’s campaign of intimidation and coercion has been many years in the making. With the Kurdish-led opposition already held back by all manner of restrictions, and all but wholly excluded from debate and public life, there can be no talk of genuine democracy. The situation is so unfair that glib talk of ‘free elections’ only serves to underwrite Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule. A system which is unfree for its largest, most-repressed minority is ultimately unfree for all.

If Kiliçdaroğlu is able to fight back against Erdoğan, it will only be by making further concessions to his ultra-right electoral allies and voters who backed ultra-nationalist spoiler candidate Sinan Oğan in the first round – with the latter already stating he would only back Kiliçdaroğlu if he promised to exclude the HDP from politics. More likely, Erdoğan will comfortably sweep up these votes, and continue the process of suffocating Kurdish political expression and democratic participation. Regardless, there is no bright new dawn in Turkey – only the long, continued struggle being waged within and without Turkey’s ailing democratic institutions, with which the Kurds and progressive left are all too familiar.

Regardless of the final result, the Kurds will play their most decisive role in the Presidential election not as king-makers, but as scapegoats.

Matt Broomfield

This article first appeared in Medya News

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