Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is losing confidence in the face of an accumulating opposition that has unified ranks since the campaigns kicked off last month for snap elections scheduled for 24 June.
For the first time in 16 years, circles close to the top have seriously begun to ask themselves whether, this time, the Turkish strongman and his party might lose. It did not help when, several weeks ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that if the Turkish people decided they had had enough, he would step down.
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the hashtag “#Tamam!” (Enough!) went viral across Anatolian social networking sites. Opposition circles are wondering whether Erdogan, with nearly unlimited powers within reach, would prove true to his word if the polls turned out against him.
Certainly, he and his party have taken every imaginable precaution to ensure victory. The AKP and its ally the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which together control parliament, passed a raft of amendments to the electoral laws some of which effectively facilitate ballot fraud.
Erdogan not only avails himself of all the resources of the state for his campaign, he controls 95 per cent of the media which, thanks to the abovementioned amendments, is no longer finable for not providing equal media coverage to all candidates.
It is thus more readily pressed into the service of the regime’s propaganda purposes which entails painting all opponents to Erdogan as traitors, saboteurs and terrorists while simultaneously instilling widespread fear of the inevitable “deluge” should the ballot box tell Erdogan “Tamam!”
Yet, in spite of such an un-level playing field — so much so that one of the presidential candidates, Selahattin Demirtas of the pro-minority rights People’s Democratic Party (HDP), in jail since November on trumped up charges, has to run his campaign from his prison cell — every passing day and every opinion poll brings Erdogan more ominous portents.
What would happen if he lost? Would he bow out gracefully if his main opponent, Muharrem Ince of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), achieved the heretofore unimaginable and scored an incontrovertible victory in the polls?
That Ince has a stab at winning is not as far-fetched as it might have sounded some months ago, especially given two phenomena. One is widespread discontent at the economic straits and declining standards of living due to the deteriorating value of the Turkish lira and soaring inflation rates.
The other is the rise of NGOs dedicated to ascertaining the integrity of the polls. One, “Impossible Without You”, has called for volunteer lawyers to man the polling stations.
Another, the “Fair Election Platform”, formed by representatives from the opposition parties and a number of rights advocates and syndicate organisations, has organised sessions to train ordinary citizens in how to monitor the polls and produced a smartphone application for the purpose.
Still, some observers believe that Erdogan will never admit defeat. “He will never accept results that tell him he has lost after all that he has done to ensure his victory and after he and his supporters have waited for so long to reap what they have sown for so many years,” wrote one commentator. “It is impossible to expect the AKP or Erdogan to surrender the presidency to anyone else, especially given the unprecedented powers that will be vested in the forthcoming president.”
Another reason why Erdogan and AKP will not accept defeat is because “they will lose too much”. For example, “if the AKP is ousted from power, it will lose its ability to manage the state’s resources in a manner that benefits its support base which will make it hard for it to secure the loyalty of that base.”
An electoral loss could also strip many senior members of the AKP of their current immunity or other type of protective wing that has so far sheltered them from charges of corruption. Erdogan and AKP officials have been haunted by the resurfacing of the 2013 corruption scandals and frequent leaks pertaining to offshore tax havens.
Also, both Ince and IYI (Good) Party candidate Meral Aksener, in their campaigns, have repeatedly homed in on Erdogan’s squandering of millions of dollars of public funds to build sumptuous presidential palaces and retreats in Ankara and Istanbul. Indeed, Ince, in one of his campaigns speeches, promised Erdogan an “uncomfortable retirement”.
In light of such looming dangers, Erdogan and the AKP elite know that the 24 June polls are of existential importance to them. They will not be easily budged from their positions of power even if the polls hand a clear victory to the opposition.
In this regard, there have been reports that the regime already has plans in place to counter unfavourable election results.
Evidently there are two possible scenarios. One is to claim that sleeping cells of FETO (the “Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organisation”) in league with the PKK infiltrated government organisations, including the Supreme Election Board, and managed to replace the ballot boxes.
The second scenario calls for pressuring the Supreme Constitutional Court to rule in favour of a suit filed by the opposition parties challenging the constitutionality of the recently introduced amendments to the electoral law, thereby effectively invalidating the polls.
But even more ominous possibilities have been mooted in political corridors, including rumours regarding a possible assassination attempt against Aksener.
Whatever the credibility of such rumours, observers do not discard the possibility of deliberately provoked or staged suicide bombings, political assassinations and other violent acts with the purpose of generating anarchy and turmoil, thereby furnishing cause to cancel the elections for security reasons.
It should be borne in mind that Erdogan and his media machine still holds considerable sway over a large portion of the Turkish public, so much so that, as one admirer put it, if he told them he had built a four-lane highway to the moon they would believe it.
This is a public that has been systematically nurtured on “conspiracies” against Erdogan and significant numbers would readily swallow the story of a grand international plot to overthrow him through the ballot box. If Erdogan used the “conspiracy” tactic to mobilise supporters against the election results, Turkey would face not only the last fatal blow to democracy but also the spectre of civil war.
The commitment of his popular power base to his leadership is made abundantly clear at AKP rallies such as the one on Sunday at Yenikapi Square in Istanbul. Erdogan’s address, which marked a final bid to muster support in the city before his return to Ankara, was received by the zealous cheering of a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Winning at all costs