The logic of early elections seems clear. It capitalizes on the largely successful Turkish campaign against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria — and a general sense in Turkey that the broader war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is going well. The latest round of spats with Turkey’s Western allies, including the United States and Greece, also plays well domestically.
Early elections also lessen the risk that growing economic instability might undermine the government’s popularity. Strong growth in the past year has been accompanied by increasingly high inflation and basic questions about Turkey’s financial stability. It is unclear how long the political pressure and stimulus efforts that the government has employed to keep economic growth high will continue to work. Erdogan’s recent criticisms against international financial markets and statements in favor of a return to the gold standard are unlikely to change the economic fundamentals that have caused concern to credit-rating agencies.
But if Turkey has an authoritarian government, then why should these political calculations matter?
Part of the answer lies in political science’s work on “electoral authoritarianism,” which attempts to understand governance in states where political power is uncontested but the facade of electoral multiparty democracy is maintained. The recent, clearly rigged, elections in Russia and Egypt are examples of this system. These elections serve to demonstrate popular support for an entrenched dictatorship.
In Turkey, however, something more complex is underway. The ultimate outcome of the election is no less predetermined, but the costs of obvious, large-scale ballot rigging are much higher and a fabricated outcome like that in Egypt would be counterproductive in Turkey.
There are two core reasons for this.
Turkish support for democracy
First, there is a broad national consensus in Turkey that the country’s government should be chosen through competitive elections. A recent study found that 86 percent of Turkish citizens believed that “supporting democratic values” was somewhat or very important to being a Turk. Compare that to Russia — where sympathy for “rule by a strong leader” is stronger — or in Egypt, where polling suggests that support for democracy is weaker and in decline.
Turkey was never fully democratic and has become less so. But there is a broad political consensus that Turkey should be a democracy. Could Erdogan rule through flagrant ballot-rigging? Yes, most likely he could. His command of the basic institutions is so great at this point that it is hard to imagine an outcome where the courts, the military or anyone else could effectively stand against him. But to do so would be tremendously costly.
Political parties this election
Of the major opposition parties, one, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), has become a sort of junior partner to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Another, the pro-Kurdish Democratic People’s Party (HDP) has been dramatically reduced through massive repression, under the guise of counterterrorism efforts. Its most important leaders have been jailed and face lengthy prison sentences.
The main opposition, the Republican People’s Party, maintains a loyal base but has not been able to rise above 26 percent of the national vote in any parliamentary election since 1977. A significant improvement on this record is unlikely.
The wild card of the new election, an MHP breakaway party called the “Good Party” (it sounds only slightly less awkward in Turkish) has received lots of positive press in the West, but it may not be able to fully compete in the election. Even if it does, there is little reason to believe that the Good Party will live up to its name enough to make significant breaks into the AKP’s base.
Nonetheless, at least on the surface, there is hope. And with that hope, the major parties continue to play by the rules, pretending elections still hold the possibility of ending the AKP’s 16-year reign.
By keeping that illusion alive, Erdogan not only maintains his own legitimacy as a popular democratic leader, he wins the quiescence of the opposition. A 97 percent — or even 75 percent — victory for the AKP would be so blatantly false that the illusion of democracy would be stripped away.
Erdogan doesn’t need the breathtaking victories enjoyed by Vladimir Putin or Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. He needs a bare majority — just enough to maintain his claim on the levers of power and, ideally, with enough of a semblance of fairness.
Ongoing ‘state of emergency’
The 2018 election in Turkey will be held under a state of emergency, which began after the 2016 attempted coup. As in the April 2017 referendum, opposition rallies will likely be harassed, state resources will be levied in support of the ruling party, and blanket pro-government coverage will dominate a compliant media.
Irregularities will be explained away. Indeed, regulations for the Turkey High Election Board have made it less likely that it will offer even mild resistance to any election deception: a recently passed law provides for accepting unstamped ballot boxes, empowers the electoral board to redraw electoral districts or move ballot boxes. Electoral commission staff (most likely government loyalists), rather than party representatives will oversee election stations.
Erdogan remains a tremendously popular politician. The opposition remains divided and mostly unimpressive. Erdogan may not need to cheat to win the 2018 election — but if he needs to, he will. The core of Turkey’s “electoral authoritarianism” is to ensure that victory without blatant ballot rigging.
A simple 51 percent of the vote guarantees Erdogan’s control for at least a decade to come. Getting much more than that undermines his democratic bona fides; getting any less is not an option. Maintaining authoritarian rule while keeping the opposition playing a rigged game is the core of Erdogan’s election game.