Delaying Turkey’s Elections is Unconstitutional

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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (C) exits a polling booth prior to cast his ballot at a polling station during the municipal elections in Istanbul, on March 31, 2019. - Turkey voted in local elections in a test for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with his ruling party risking defeat in the capital as an economic slowdown takes hold. (Photo by BULENT KILIC / AFP)

Under fire for his lackluster response to a massive earthquake on February 6, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is considering whether to delay presidential and parliamentary elections that, according to Turkish law, must be held by June 18. Such a delay would flagrantly violate the Turkish constitution, which only allows the government to postpone elections in the event of war — and even then, it is the parliament, not the president, that can authorize a delay.

Public opinion is turning against Erdogan in the aftermath of the deadly quakes that struck ten provinces in southeastern Turkey, killing more than 41,000 residents. The state has been visibly slow to mount relief efforts. Citizens are beginning to ask uncomfortable questions, such as how the government allowed so many unsafe buildings to be built with little to no oversight. Before the earthquake, polls showed Erdogan narrowly trailing potential challengers, giving him little room for mistakes.

Turkish law requires new elections within five years of the last contest, which Erdogan and his party won decisively in June 2018. The government indicated it was planning to hold this year’s contest on May 14, but the date was not final. Erdogan could legally push the voting back to June 18, but no further.

Article 78 of the Turkish constitution permits delaying elections for one year “if the holding of new elections is found impossible because of war.” The constitution gives parliament alone the power to authorize a delay. If Erdogan defies the constitution with impunity, what is to stop him from delaying elections indefinitely to maintain his 20-year hold on power?

It is uncertain whether Erdogan will proceed with a delay. Postponing the election for a year does not necessarily provide Erdogan an electoral advantage. Twelve months from now economic conditions in Turkey could be worse. Economists fear the quakes could shave as much as 2 percent off Turkey’s GDP growth in 2023. Voters could be even angrier at Erdogan and his party than they are now if new evidence links the government to the permitting of unsafe structures.

Yet Erdogan may fear elections now more than the risks of waiting. A week after the earthquake, Erdogan’s confidant and former speaker of parliament, Bulent Arinc, issued a call to postpone elections until 2024. The government, which is growing tired of the public and the media’s calls for accountability and transparency, has also taken a more threatening tone toward critics. Omer Celik, spokesman of the ruling AK Party, told reporters the government was “taking note” of all those criticizing President Erdogan and his government’s disaster relief efforts.

The United States has rightfully extended a helping hand to Ankara, dispatching USAID relief teams and offering aid worth $185 million. Secretary Blinken’s visit to Ankara on February 19 reaffirmed the Biden administration’s resolve to help Turkey. Yet sympathy for the earthquake victims should not translate into tolerance for illegal and anti-democratic actions. On the contrary, Erdogan’s long record of undermining democracy and the rule of law likely amplified the quake’s devastation. Turkey’s sharp turn toward authoritarianism, especially after an attempted coup in 2016, has also given rise to hostility toward its neighbors and divisive behavior within NATO. The White House should communicate unequivocally that violating the constitution would create a breach in U.S.-Turkish relations.

By: Sinan Ciddi – a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Sinan, the Turkey Program, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Sinan on Twitter @SinanCiddi. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.

Source: FDD

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