Last Sunday, a week before the most hotly contested election in modern Turkish history, police stood by as fanatics supporting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pelted opposition politicians and their supporters with stones at a rally that had to be cut short for safety purposes. The scene produced shocking images: the vice-presidential candidate spoke under the shelter of umbrellas as rocks rained down, the campaign bus was smashed, and a small child cried as blood dripped down his face. Instead of condemning the political violence, regime officials said it was the candidate’s own fault for having the gall to deliver a strident campaign speech.
It was a grim preview of worse that could still be coming, and not only for Turkey. Many democracies are now threatened by autocratic populists like Erdogan who refuse to leave office fairly and peacefully, bringing their countries down with them. This is a historic time for the citizens of Turkey and other backsliding democracies to preserve their freedom, and for the United States and other European and NATO allies to speak rapidly, loudly, forcefully as autocratic efforts unfold.
Erdogan has been in power for 20 years, during which time he has increasingly relied on repression — Turkey ranks among the countries with the greatest numbers of imprisoned politicians, journalists, activists, and other civic actors — and autocratic control over state organs to ensure that elections are highly unfair, even though voters remain free to cast ballots that matter. He uses an autocratic playbook that includes abusing states of emergency to expand his executive power, capturing regulatory bodies to ensure party control over public airwaves, enacting draconian new laws to monitor and regulate speech on the internet, steering public expenditures into the hands of cronies who pour it back into his reelection campaigns, and manipulating polling locations to make voting more difficult and intimidating in heavily-opposition areas. As an example of the latter, in the Kurdish southeast, voters have been forced to pass through security checkpoints where soldiers brandishing machine guns are instructed to check voter IDs, looking for anyone wanted for arrest.
At Freedom’s Edge
The result has been that each successive Turkish election since 2011 has been more unfair than the last, and the country is now on the brink of descending into fully unfree authoritarianism. Whether or not the election this Sunday is free at all, if Erdogan wins, it is likely to be the last free Turkish election of his lifetime. He would probably continue the trend of the past dozen years by doubling down on his dictatorial direction. He may dispense with free elections, on the theory that they have taken him as far as possible — he once likened democracy to a train, a vehicle to reach a destination and then disembark. And if Erdogan wins despite his unpopularity – he currently is weighed down by his abysmal economic policies and failures related to the February earthquake — and despite an uncharacteristically unified opposition, a critical mass of Turks would stop regarding elections as free and meaningful.
With this election presenting the strongest challenge yet to his incumbency, Erdogan has already deployed his usual tactics to tilt the balance in his favor. One opposition party remains under multiple criminal investigations by prosecutors loyal to Erdogan, its leader has been jailed for years, and dozens of its members and party officials have been detained in recent weeks. The candidate who was dodging rocks last Sunday, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, is running for vice president rather than president — even though he was seen by many as the most promising competitor for the job — because he could face obstacles to assuming office, as he’s being prosecuted for allegedly calling the politicized election authorities “fools” after they vacated his first election as mayor.
After Erdogan was down 10 points in the polls less than two months ago, he used his pervasive influence over 90 percent of Turkish media to end public debate about the earthquake and inflation and instead flood the airwaves with glorification of all the ways he has made Turkey great again. Now the race has tightened to a dead heat against the opposition’s presidential candidate, who has enjoyed only 32 minutes of airtime in April compared to Erdogan’s 32 hours.
The tumult on Sunday raises the ominous possibility that if the usual autocratic tactics fail to secure a clear victory, the government could rely on violence and intimidation to stay in power. Several parties in Erdogan’s coalition have ties to nationalist paramilitaries or Islamist groups that have engaged in political violence in the past. The day before that rally, the head of one of those parties said about the opposition, “These traitors will get either aggravated life sentences or bullets in their bodies.” On Sunday, Erdogan held a rally at which he played a deepfake video that depicted leaders of a terrorist organization singing the campaign song of the opposition. Erdogan warned, “My people will not allow drunks and boozers to take the stage … My nation will make the necessary response on May 14. We will not allow [opposition candidate Kemal] Kilicdaroglu, who is hand in hand with terrorists, to divide our homeland.” That same day, a leading Turkish academic was detained for having tweeted about his country sliding into authoritarianism. Sunday also brought multiple reports of parties allied with the regime allegedly perpetrating violent attacks on opposition campaign staffers in their vehicles — tires slashed, windows broken, passengers beaten with clubs — and that was before the stoning attack at the vice presidential candidate’s rally.
Heads Up for Democracy
This violence and manipulation are the modern incarnation of what it looks like when a democracy is in the process of collapsing into dictatorship, a form of government from which there is typically no peaceful return. In 2016, it briefly looked like the classic military coup was back, when a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces tried and failed to depose Erdogan. But the most lasting repercussion of that coup attempt was Erdogan’s repressive crackdown and further concentration of power, autocratic efforts that are culminating in an electoral process that is difficult even to call free, let alone fair.
Voters in other struggling democracies set to hold elections next year — India, Mexico, or Georgia, for example — should not look away, nor should those in countries that are still fully free but in which autocratic candidates in Erdogan’s mold are currently running for the highest office, from Poland to the United States. The lesson from Turkey is that autocrats like Erdogan ultimately have nothing to offer but corruption, repression, and eventually violence. Americans traditionally assume that such unfortunate events only happen overseas. But with the United States having had its own taste of violent challenges to the democratic process on Jan. 6, 2021, they have no excuse not to see repressive autocracy in Turkey as a ghost of U.S. elections yet to come under a future administration of Donald Trump or any other U.S. president insufficiently committed to democratic restraint.
Nor should the official international community look away. The U.S. government and key NATO allies have maintained disciplined silence to avoid giving Erdogan opportunities to drag Western powers into the election. The time to use their voice is probably coming in the days ahead, at the moment when reports emerge about threats to the integrity of the electoral process. They should be on the lookout for incidents that would echo autocratic behaviors perpetrated during past Turkish election days and other national events. That could include, but isn’t limited to, the state electoral authority loyal to Erdogan changing rules for ballot counting, Erdogan’s media mouthpieces prematurely or dubiously calling the election in his favor, Erdogan losing and refusing to concede, the Turkish government shutting down access to the internet or social media platforms, or the government and its thugs violently suppressing pro-democracy protests.
Election observers, the Biden administration, and NATO allies must be prepared to publicly denounce any such autocratic efforts as soon as they occur, and privately convey to Erdogan and his senior officials the severe consequences of standing in the way of a free electoral process. The alliance must deliver timely and vigorous diplomatic pressure to stand by the Turkish people in what could be their last stand for political freedom.