Ankara University, Law Faculty
Editors' Note: This is the second part of a two part post discussing the impact of the recent Presidential and Parliamentary elections in Turkey.
Firstly, Turkey has been under a state of emergency since July 2016. Since then, the government extended the emergency regime for consecutively seven times, each time for three months. The last prolongation was adopted by the Parliament shortly before the elections. This indicates a clear intention of the government to hold elections under extraordinary conditions. Note that, during this period of time, the government extensively used its powers issuing emergency decrees having the force of law. The Constitutional Court’s infamous ruling of 2016 that enabled government to regulate all matters with emergency decree-laws without constitutional review gave rise to an arbitrary rule. Obviously, conducting elections under such conditions would a fortiori infringe the free nature and fairness of the elections. Calls from several national and international organizations, such as the UN and Council of Europe to the Turkish Government to lift the state of emergency failed to get a result.
Secondly, the Parliament made substantial changes to the electoral laws shortly before the elections. This left a very short time for opposition to adjust and complete their preparations for elections. It breached the principle of predictability which is an essential component of the rule of law.
Thirdly, issues regarding electoral security occupied a big part of the campaign of opposition parties. Some of the recent amendments made in Law No. 298 on Basic Rules of Elections and Voter Registers raised severe concerns on the free nature of elections. Statutory change validates non-stamped ballot papers by election officials and multiple times-stamped ballot papers. Note that the validation of such ballot papers was a substantial legal and political issue in the 2017 constitutional referendum. In accordance with the very controversial decision of the YSK, such ballots were counted, even though the Law at that time stipulated the opposite. This decision raised a big criticism since it contradicted the law and invited electoral fraud. Thereby the legal alteration disregards such concerns by legalizing the YSK’s controversial decision.
Another statutory amendment allows the YSK to merge voting districts and relocate ballot boxes to other districts for unspecified security reasons on the request of provincial governors appointed by the government, enabling government-appointed civil servants to run voting booths and police and soldiers to enter voting stations more easily. Indeed, the Board used this power in the elections to move some of ballot boxes in south-eastern parts of the country, where HDP is historically very strong. Accordingly, ballot boxes of 144,000 voters in the region were moved to other districts, Obviously, this power opens the door to fraud and jeopardizes the principle of free elections. These changes justified by alleged security concerns related to the situation in the south-east of the country, raised concerns that the electoral outcome would be heavily affected by decisions of the local governors and security forces.
However, after elections the opposition did not make any claim suggesting that a massive fraud affecting the results had occurred.
Fourth, there was a clear imbalance between the ruling party and opposition in favor of the former regarding the campaign finance and access to public media. According to the law, presidential candidates are not entitled to public funding. However, President R.T Erdogan and his AKP obtained state benefits in kind using all state facilities generously during campaign, while other candidates were unable to take advantage of these opportunities. In democratic elections voters have the right to be informed on political alternatives in order to make an informed choice. Nevertheless, media failed to fulfil this task during the campaign in Turkey. The legal framework neither sufficiently provides for impartial coverage nor guarantees eligible political parties equal access to public media, contrary to the European standards. An emergency decree-law issued in January 2017 repealed the YSK’s authority to sanction for biased coverage. Yet the Parliament approved a law granting the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) the authority to regulate online content. Note that members of the RTUK are elected by the Parliament with simple majority. Memberships are allocated between political parties that form parliamentary groups in proportion to their number of representatives in the Parliament. Hence, majority of the members of the RTUK are designated by AKP.
With the exception of a few independent mainstream and online outlets, the media landscape is dominated by the state funded Turkish Radio and Television Cooperation (TRT), Anadolu News Agency and by private television channels and dailies that are often owned by business groups that depend on public contracts. In brief, the legal framework does not guarantee equal access to the media nor does it provide for impartial coverage, so that the media’s power is wielded fairly and properly to all candidates.
Indeed, during the campaign, the opposition parties and candidates could find very little place in the media. To give an example, between May 14 and June 22, state-funded TRT allocated 181 hours and 8 minutes for AKP, its ally MHP and their presidential candidate, 15 hours and 40 minutes for CHP and its presidential candidate, 3 hours and 38 minutes for IYIP and its presidential candidate, 1 hour and 19 minutes for SP and its presidential candidate and, only 32 minutes for HDP and its presidential candidate. This was a clear violation of the Constitution (Art 133) that obliges the state-funded media to be impartial. The outcome was not any better on the private TV channels.
Also, judicial rulings led to the unfairness of the elections. During the state of emergency, the biggest blow among the opposition was to the pro-Kurdish HDP. Its several parliamentarians, local politicians and joint presidents were imprisoned for crimes linked to terrorism. Even though he has not been convicted yet, the courts rejected all appeals on the HDP’s presidential candidate’s release so that he could run a campaign under equal conditions with other candidates. This created a controversial situation. On the one hand, the YSK found no legal impediment for him to run for presidency, on the other hand courts ruled continuance of his detention on the grounds of a risk of destroying evidence. This contradiction created a clear unfairness between the candidates.
Likewise, the Constitutional Court contributed to the transformation of the constitutional system towards an authoritarian path. As mentioned above, it broke with its precedent and rejected to review constitutionality of the emergency decree-laws. The Court barely adopted an approach towards strengthening the free and fair nature of elections. It deemed constitutional all controversial statutory provisions that amended electoral laws. It rejected individual application of the HDP’s presidential candidate for discharge in order to campaign under equal conditions with other candidates.
The voter turnout was high, i.e. 86,2 percent. The winner of the presidential elections was R.T. Erdogan. He was elected in the first round obtaining 52,59 percent of the votes. CHP’s candidate received 30,64 percent. Candidates of HDP (8,40 percent) and IYIP (7,29 percent) received less votes than their parties achieved in the parliamentary elections. Each of other two candidates, i.e. SP and VP obtained less than 1 percent of the votes.
AKP came first in the parliamentary elections obtaining 42,56 percent of the votes. However, it lost seven percent of its total votes comparing to the last parliamentary elections held in November 2015. CHP won 22,65 percent, that corresponds to a roughly 3 percent drop comparing to the previous elections. IYIP attracted 9,96 percent of voters. HDP exceeded the national threshold by winning 11,70 percent of the votes. The party increased its votes about one percent comparing to the 2015 elections. MHP conserved its votes by receiving 11,10 percent. Islamist SP obtained 1,3 percent.
Thus, AKP obtained 295 seats out of 600 in the parliament and its ally MHP achieved 46 delegates. CHP won 146, HDP gained 67, and IYIP won 43 representatives. Accordingly, AKP lost its absolute majority in the Parliament. Differently from the parliamentary composition of the 2015 elections, AKP and its ally MHP cannot reach the super majority, i.e. three fifth, necessary for amending the Constitution.
Clearly, conditions for the opposition during the campaign were considerably unequal. The principle of free and fair elections was infringed in many ways. Nonetheless, at the same time the results reveal that economic issues or significant restraints on rights and freedoms were not the primary concerns of the majority of voters. Deep polarization in Turkish politics maintain and R.T. Erdogan continues to consolidate conservative votes. Results indicate that opposition should be more creative to alter the polarized political landscape.
Elections completed Turkey’s transition to a new presidential system. In accordance with the results, R.T. Erdogan, as president, will exercise his broad executive powers. However, he will need to maintain his alliance with MHP or collaborate with another party in the Parliament, since his party lost the absolute majority. Nonetheless, these results will probably not rise to establish a new equilibrium in a short period of term in the Parliament. In other words, the results barely pave the way for democratization of the political system. They are not encouraging to reverse the decline of democratic constitutionalism and deepening of authoritarianism in Turkey.
Selin Esen is Professor of Constitutional Law at the Law Faculty, Ankara University.
Suggested citation: S Esen, 'Part II: 2018 Elections in Turkey: What Did Change?' IACL-AIDC Blog (15 August 2018) https://blog-iacl-aidc.org/blog/2018/8/15/2018-elections-in-turkey-what-did-change-part-ii