You can’t choose your family, your sex or your president
The quote in the title belongs to a Russian journalist who said “you cannot choose three things in Russia: Your family, your sex and your president.” Servet Yıldırım, one of the producers and commentators of an economy program broadcast every weekday on Turkey’s private broadcaster NTV, quoted him after the Russian elections that took place over the weekend.
The Western press is fond of placing Russian President Vladimir Putin in the same category with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. While this is something that ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) officials have no problem with, being excluded from the cadre of the democratic family of nations is hardly something desirable.
Unfortunately, with Turkey’s new electoral law the above comment made for Russia may now start being voiced by foreign commentators for Turkey as well. That would not bode well for the country: Russia can silence dissent with its oil and gas revenues, but Turkey cannot.
Director Armando Iannucci’s political satire “The Death of Stalin” is currently being shown at movie theaters in Turkey. Iannucci says the film is “absurd but 50 percent true,” and it gives us an idea about the leadership succession processes that went on in the Soviet Union. Indeed, Russians had to wait until 1991 to see the first popularly elected leader in their history.
Political scientists can come up with a long list of democratic shortcomings in Turkey’s political system, but free and fair elections would not have topped the list until recently. One could find a lot to criticize in terms of how democratically parties nominate their candidate, how democratically geographical constituencies are delimited, how fair the campaign rules are for parties in government and in opposition in the pre-election period. But when it came to the formation of electoral lists and balloting committees, as well as how votes are cast and counted on polling day, criticism could never reach the point where elections were tainted.
The general conviction was that whatever irregularities happened on polling day, they were so minor that the results could not be changed. This was also the general conclusion of monitors from international organizations like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
This view started to be shaken following the 2013 Gezi Park protests: The first mass demonstrations across Turkey against AKP rule. Allegations of voter fraud on a scale not seen in decades in the 2014 local elections, the first one held following the Gezi protests, seriously challenged the general conviction that elections in the country have been largely free and fair. Subsequently, decisions taken by the Supreme Election Board during vote-counting in the April 2017 referendum on shifting to an executive presidential system fueled serious concerns that one of Turkey’s few untarnished democratic institutions had lost its independence.
Changes introduced last week to electoral laws will further increase concerns, rather than alleviate them, becoming yet another factor distancing Turkey from democratic practices. But that should still not lead to the conclusion that Turks will no longer be able to choose their political representatives.
The new system favors parties that forge alliances and works against those small parties that do not enter into an alliance. Designed to secure a parliamentary majority for the AKP–Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) alliance, the system may actually backfire on them as it may leave other parties no option but to forge their own alliances. An alliance between the Saadet Party (Felicity Party) and İYİ (Good) Party could take some “religious/conservative” votes from the AKP–MHP alliance, costing it a majority in parliament if the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is able to pass the 10 percent threshold.
Obviously, the opposition parties will have to be extremely agile and creative in taking counter measures against loopholes in the new system. If they are not, the path to fraud could well be opened.