Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s re-election as President of Turkey — he has been the country’s de facto ruler since 2002 — should have been, like all exercises in democracy, a moment of celebration. Yet, for reasons ranging from the suppression of a free press and political opposition since 2016, to the dangers of a nearly all-powerful executive and serious questions over the election process itself, Erdogan’s return to office carries with it apprehensions of the sweeping powers a quasi-authoritarian regime could exercise when it can point to a democratic mandate as justification.
In his victory speech, following the declaration of the election result on Monday, Erdogan struck a combative note, promising to “fight Turkey’s enemies” at home and abroad. For the opposition as well as the approximately 47 per cent of the electorate that did not vote for him, this does not augur well. Since an attempted coup in 2016, Erdogan has overseen the suppression of dissent and free speech on a massive scale. About 50,000 people have been arrested and another 1,00,000 have been removed from their jobs on charges of “aiding terrorism”, that is, the coup. But the crackdown has not been limited to the supporters of the exiled Fethullah Gülen — once a leader in the AKP, Erdogan’s party, and now blamed for the attempted coup. Students who have opposed Turkey’s interventions in the Syrian conflict, journalists, judges, police officers are among those who have suffered since the state of emergency and the crackdown began in 2016. Last year, after a controversial referendum, Erdogan has granted the president vast powers, including to appoint judges, officials and the cabinet. Effectively, the balance of powers is now so heavily tilted in favour of the executive that Erdogan’s control over the state machinery is near-complete.
The first world leader to congratulate Erdogan on his victory was reportedly Hungary’s prime minister, the far-right leader Viktor Orban. This is not surprising. Erdogan, Donald Trump and even Vladimir Putin represent a contradiction for those who hold both constitutionalism and electoral democracy equally dear. Each of them has tried to circumvent the principles of due process, balance of powers, civil liberties and minority rights. Yet, through a control or manipulation of the media, by appealing to a regressive nationalism and employing a muscular tone against “enemies”, foreign and domestic, and even amid accusations of tampering with elections, they seem to be winning the support of the electorate. For the people of Turkey, Erdogan must rise above the rhetoric of his acceptance speech and govern for the welfare of everyone, not just those who voted for him.