Turkey will go to the polls on 31 March 2024 to elect local administrators. However, these elections will have political and social consequences far beyond the election of mayors. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) wants to turn the whole country into a “thornless rose garden” by winning victories across the country but in particular in Istanbul, Ankara and other big cities. For the opposition parties, these elections are the last opportunity to narrow the Erdoğan government’s room for maneuver.

According to some commentators, if Erdoğan and his supporters emerge victorious in local elections as well, the March 31st elections may be the last “competitive” elections held in the country. Yes, no election in Turkey, especially in recent times, has been held in a fully democratic and fair environment. The opposition competed not only against its rivals, but also against a repressive government that recklessly used all state resources, did not hesitate to conduct smear campaigns with fake videos, and controlled almost 95 per cent of the media to pollute perceptions and information. In an environment where the constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression, assembly, peaceful demonstration, and protest have been almost completely suspended – except for the actions of pro-government supporters – civil society organisations have also been silenced and human rights defenders face the constant threat of administrative and legal harassment.

If Erdoğan and his partners win the governance of major metropolitan cities, especially Istanbul, in the March 31st elections and gain again the upper hand in the country as a whole, they will see this as a public endorsement of all the policies they have implemented so far. Thus, the government’s mentality of “I got the authorisation again, I can do anything I want” will be further reinforced. In other words, the blockade and siege on democracy, rule of law, justice and human rights will increase. Seeking remedy for human rights violations will become even more difficult for everyone. The pressure on civil society organisations, especially on human rights defenders, will intensify. The areas where one can “breathe democracy”, even if only a little, will become even narrower.

It is no secret: The government has already started preparations for a new constitution after the elections. According to the statements made by the ruling politicians on various occasions and leaked information, this new constitution will bring new restrictions on rights and freedoms. The Constitutional Court, which has contradicted the government line with some of its decisions, is also frequently targeted by the government and its partners. Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, the main partner of the ruling bloc, has repeatedly called for the Constitutional Court to be dissolved. For example, in a speech he delivered on February 9th, Bahçeli said: “The Constitutional Court is now a national security problem. The president and the members of the court have become enemies of the indivisible integrity of the state with its country and nation, and of social peace and security. It cannot go on like this, such a court structure cannot and should not take place among the higher judicial bodies in Turkey. The Constitutional Court, which has shaken the domestic peace and tranquillity environment with its scandalous rights violation decisions and confirmed that it is a centre of chaos production, I repeat that it should either be closed down or restructured from scratch.”

After the elections, the Constitutional Court, which is the last line of defense in the field of rights and freedoms, may face a regulation, at least restricting its powers.

In short, Turkey is not going to an ordinary local election: Turkey is heading towards a period pregnant with developments that may lead to the drying up of the last oases of democracy.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index (EIU Democracy Index) is a ranking frequently used in political science and international relations, especially in comparative studies and referred to by many semi-academic articles and newspaper articles around the world to provide information on the democratic status of countries. The 2023 EIU Democracy Index lists Turkey 102nd among 167 countries and categorises it as a “hybrid regime”, somewhere between “democracy” and “authoritarianism”.

Hybrid systems are countries where there is a ballot box but which “fail” in areas such as rights and freedoms, independence of the judiciary, and freedom of the media from repression. On a scale of 1 to 10, countries that score between 4 and 6 on the democracy scorecard are considered “hybrid regimes”. And Turkey, with a score of 4.33, is just “one click” away from slipping into the “authoritarian regimes”. The only thing that stands in the way of Turkey’s “promotion” to the authoritarian league is the existence of a political and social opposition, the rulings of the Constitutional Court, and the existence of an independent press, albeit with limited outreach.

The Democracy Index is based on scores in the following areas: “electoral process and pluralism”, “functioning of government”, “political participation”, “political culture”, “rights and freedoms”. Turkey’s lowest score is predictably in the area of “rights and freedoms” which is only 2.06, the same as Russia. Let us emphasize: Turkey’s rights and freedoms score is the same as that of Russia, where the imprisoned dissident Alexey Navalny died under suspicious circumstances.

The only area in which Turkey comes close to the European ranking and exceeds the world average is “political participation”. The score in this area is 6.11 and the world average is 5.34. However, Turkey is at the bottom of the world (just like rights and freedoms) in “electoral process and pluralism” with 3.50. The world average in this area is 5.49.

In other words, the March 31st elections will also be decisive in terms of whether Turkey will fall into the category of “authoritarian regimes”. Because the “hope of changing the government through elections”, which still exists in Turkey despite everything, saves Turkey from being categorised as a “fully authoritarian country”, even if only by a hair’s breadth.

Turkey is heading for an election that could shape its future decades. The results of this election will determine whether Erdoğan will establish a “boneless” rule or whether the existence of democratic oases will continue to play out, to use sports terminology, in overtime. The difference between these two situations is huge in terms of rights, freedoms, rule of law, and independent media.

Erdoğan had declared the importance of these elections in May 2023.

Let’s remind ourselves: On May 14th 2023, Turkey went to the polls to elect both the President and the members of the Parliament. The result is known: Erdoğan received 49.5 % of the votes in the presidential elections, while his rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu received 44.9 %, and the election moved to the second round. In the runoff election on May 28th, incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan defeated Kılıçdaroğlu by a margin of 52.18% to 47.82%. This victory gave Erdoğan a third term as president of Turkey.

Delivering a “victory speech” to his supporters in Istanbul when the unofficial results were announced, Erdoğan emphasised the local elections to be held on March 31st 2024 and Istanbul elections in particular. Erdoğan said: “Now we have 2024 ahead of us. Do you understand what I mean? Are we ready to win Üsküdar and Istanbul in the local elections in 2024? Then we will not stop, we will work hard.”

In a sense, Erdoğan kicked off the local election campaign on the night he was re-elected as President. Instead of celebrating his new electoral victory to the fullest, Erdoğan’s emphasis on “winning the local elections and especially Istanbul”, even before his victory was officially announced was a very important indicator of the upcoming period.

Following Erdoğan’s call, the ruling party rapidly started preparations for the local elections. It determined its candidates and “winning strategy”. In fact, Erdogan’s strategy is very clear: Whatever it takes to win will be done, there is no limit! From what has been done so far, it is understood that this strategy has the following pillars: Divide the opposition, threaten the voters, use the “national security” card, create information pollution, silence opposition voices.

In fact, the “divide the opposition” pillar is the easiest to implement in this plan. The opposition is already in pieces. Some “opposition” parties have already started campaigning against other opposition parties with which they had formed an alliance only a short while ago. Case in point, the IYI party. This party, led by Meral Akşener, had acted together with the main opposition Republican People’s Party in the May 2023 elections. Akşener even wanted the presidential candidate of the alliance to be Ekrem İmamoğlu, the mayor of Istanbul, or Mansur Yavaş, the mayor of Ankara. Now, Akşener has chosen to compete in both Istanbul and Ankara with her own candidates instead of supporting İmamoğlu and Yavaş. Especially in Istanbul, this may cause İmamoğlu to lose the election.

Another card frequently used by the ruling party is the threat. Officials and candidates of the ruling party often tell voters: If you elect the opposition candidate, they will have problems with the central government and your city will not be served. For example, speaking in Ordu, a Black Sea city, on 16 February, Erdoğan addressed the voters as follows: “A metropolitan municipality without us, I am sorry, I am speaking frankly, how will they bring natural gas? If we are there, there is natural gas, if we are not there is no natural gas.”

In short, the government, by utilizing public resources to the fullest, is setting up a “game without rules” to win these elections and is trying to turn this already unfair race into a one-horse race.

The opposition, on the other hand, is in a state of chaos. The parties, which worked together in May, are not campaigning against the government, but against each other. The CHP, the main opposition party, has not even finalized all its candidates yet due to internal conflicts within the party.

The opposition as a whole seems to be far from realising the importance of these elections for the future of Turkey, basing its strategies on the interests of its parties and failing to give hope to the electorate.

The opposition fails to realise that the loser in these elections is the “hope for democracy” and fails to unite against the government. However, if the opposition is successful in these elections, a channel will be opened to curb the government, and at least it will be possible to remain in the “hybrid” category.

Let’s see what kind of a day Turkey will wake up to on April 1st: A country where the hope for democracy is still alive, or a country where democracy is an April Fools’ Day joke?

Peščanik.net, 01.03.2024.