Turkey’s elections are an example of democracy as performance art
Imagine an election so intense that a head of state toured a country, town-by-town, campaigning on behalf of mayoral candidates by screening a snuff film. Local elections in mid-sized countries rarely make international headlines, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pulled it off earlier this month when he began showing footage of the Christchurch mosque massacre during crowded campaign rallies for this Sunday’s upcoming vote.
It was a controversial move condemned by both the Turkish opposition and the international community, but still worth it in a country of performative democracy. A country where democracy has been stripped of its substance but not of its pageantry. Such systems are where cynical identity politics thrive, and where a president’s electoral fortunes rely heavily on his ability to weave a “the world is out to get Muslims” narrative. And so, even an amicable meeting with New Zealand’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Winston Peters – dispatched to Turkey to confront increasingly belligerent rhetoric by officials – was not enough to stop further showings of the video. The Turkish media – over 90 per cent of which has been forcibly brought under government influence – no longer even bother with fact-checking, and instead just amplify whatever message is coming out of the President, even if it means contradicting themselves. Such as when the Daily Sabah newspaper ran as a main headline “We Stand By New Zealand Terror Victims, West Remains Silent” just two days after the shootings, despite having run a piece a day earlier listing condemnations by Western leaders.
The proliferation of aggressive messaging, along with a president working overtime on behalf of thousands of city, district and neighbourhood administrators, makes Sunday’s local elections appear far more significant than they really are. And there is some functional importance to controlling local administrations in a clientelist state distributing largesse for political support. But everyone is more focused on the symbolic importance of the election, suggesting that this is a referendum on Mr. Erdogan, that a defeat will signal the beginning of the end, and that his hard work and underhanded tactics are a sign he is desperate – especially considering the possibility of a potentially game-changing financial crisis.
This is the same song and dance heard before every election, only to be immediately forgotten after the ruling party wins again so that it can be brought up next time. And there are many next times. Sunday will be Turkey’s 10th vote in a decade: 2009 (local), 2010 (constitutional amendments), 2011 (parliamentary), 2014 (local), 2014 (presidential), 2015 (parliamentary), 2015 (reboot after earlier one didn’t deliver desired results), 2017 (constitutional amendments), 2018 (presidential plus parliamentary snap election).
The President’s seeming desperation is just another part of the performance, one meant to give the appearance of a real challenge and thus confer a degree of legitimacy to the election. But beneath the façade, the mechanism is hardly democratic.
“Mostly free, but largely unfair” has become the tagline of Turkish elections, repeated over and over again in reports by international monitors. People are free to vote as they wish, it’s just that the playing field has been rendered so uneven that there is no real contest. In their 2010 book Competitive Authoritarianism, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way describe the means by which such hybrid regimes – systems which are part democracy, part autocracy – stack elections: “Unequal access to finance and the media as well as incumbent abuse of state institutions make elections unfair even in the absence of violence or fraud.” All are elements present in Turkey, although sometimes a little extra push is needed. The last three elections – 2015, 2017 and 2018 – were all conducted under exceptional circumstances that were perfectly legal but nevertheless violated the spirit of democracy. The 2018 election, for example, was brought forward 17 months because a looming economic recession threatened the ruling party. And both it and the previous 2017 vote were conducted during a state of emergency – drastically limiting speech and assembly while allowing for the imprisonment of the most effective opposition politicians.
And sometimes even a stacked deck doesn’t win, in which case you just ignore the outcome. The most egregious example of this was in 2015, where Turkey got a do-over vote five months after voting incorrectly the first time. Other times, it’s simply easier to accuse elected opposition mayors of terrorism, have them arrested and replace them with government-appointed trustees – an option the President has already implied and the Interior Minister outright declared is the plan in case Sunday goes badly. The most high-profile such target is Mansur Yavas, whose imposing lead in the polls for capital city Ankara has earned dubious corruption charges, laying the groundwork for removal in case he wins. Unfair contests with preordained outcomes do not confer the legitimacy the democratic process is meant to provide. But, as the world slides toward illiberalism and curtails pluralism, it is no longer important to appear legitimate to all, just to the supporters at home and the millions of fans abroad. Turkey has even invented a term for such performative democracy without substance: “advanced democracy.”
By Cinar Kiper
Source: Globe and Mail