The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Turkey’s elections in Istanbul show that democracy is tough to subvert

Ekrem Imamoglu, the candidate of the secular opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), waves to supporters at a celebratory rally in Istanbul late Sunday. (Onur Gunay/Imamoglu Media team via AP)

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rightfully been criticized for weakening his country’s democracy. His party’s defeat in Sunday’s Istanbul mayoral election, however, shows that suppressing a genuine democracy takes much more than tilting the playing field in one direction.

Erdogan is one of several world leaders whose blend of nationalism, religion and private-sector-driven economic growth has brought them to power in recent years. These leaders — who include Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Andrzej Duda — have drawn protest for doing things that more mature democracies would not tolerate, such as exerting more control over state-run or state-financed mass media. Such behavior should continue to be criticized.

Erdogan, for his part, has jailed journalists and prosecuted thousands of political opponents on the grounds of alleged terrorism, but Turkey and other nationalist governments have not embarked on the total suppression of political opposition that characterize genuinely un-free regimes. In each, opposition figures are allowed to speak, campaign and criticize the government even if limits on press freedom reduce their ability to reach mass audiences as cost effectively as in more liberal countries. And in each, the core agencies that conduct elections remain competent and independent: There is no ballot-box stuffing in these countries. Sunday’s election demonstrates how vital those core freedoms are.

The opposition’s unexpectedly large 9-percentage-point victory in Turkey’s largest city showed that the people can still register their disapproval even in semi-free states so long as core freedoms and the electoral mechanism itself are secure. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) pulled out all the stops to secure a victory, even making overtures to once-decried Kurdish figures to woo Kurdish voters living in the city who had once backed the AKP. None of that mattered, as the party’s brazen attempt to reject the opposition’s original victory in the spring and a deepening recession cost the AKP’s candidate more than 200,000 votes. And this time, Erdogan accepted the outcome.

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This victory occurred in part because the opposition united and because Turkish voters acted as voters in democracies usually do — rejecting the incumbent party when the economy contracts. That suggests the opposition’s defeat in the 2018 Hungarian election had as much to do with a disorganized opposition and a decade of continued economic growth as it did with Orban’s manipulation of the media. The same is true for the upcoming election in Poland, where polls suggest that divided opposition parties will allow the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) to win a majority of the seats in the Sejm, the Polish Parliament, despite receiving only about 40 percent of the vote.

The contrast between Hungary and Turkey is particularly stark. The Budapest-based Hungarian opposition parties did not unite themselves (had they done so, they would have won all 18 seats in Budapest instead of the 12 they actually won) and would not ally with the rural-based — and heavily nationalist — Jobbik party. Orban has also presided over nine years of robust economic growth, and voters almost always reward parties that deliver a strong economy. The Turkish opposition, on the other hand, united Kurdish separatists, free-market conservatives and social democrats in their effort to halt Erdogan and also benefited from the deepening recession. These factors probably mattered much more than Erdogan’s and Orban’s media manipulation.

That’s not a popular view among the opinion leaders of our democracies, but consider the source. Polls show that college-educated voters in Turkey oppose Erdogan by large margins, and the opposition to Poland’s and Hungary’s governments is strongest among the educated people in their nations’ capitals. The same is true in Italy, where the educated precincts in large cities voted against the ruling populist coalition in last year’s vote; in Britain, where opposition to Brexit and Brexit-backing parties is highest in the poshest neighborhoods; and here in the United States, where “the resistance” is most active in educated and affluent areas. Claims that political figures on the right are destroying democracy might just be extreme political rhetoric masquerading as analysis.

The hypocrisy that could underlie these claims can be seen by comparing one charge levied at Poland’s Law and Justice party with developments here. Critics who charge that the Polish regime threatens democracy allege that the ruling party sought to corrupt the courts by passing laws forcing that country’s Constitutional Court to appoint five judges and subsequently seeking larger changes to the justice system. Here, however, Democratic Party presidential contenders trip over themselves to propose doing the same thing by increasing the number of justices on the Supreme Court, should they win the presidency and Senate. Curiously, almost no one in the anti-Trump opposition, which has labeled the president an autocrat and a fascist, seems to find this move anti-democratic.

Democracy means “rule of the people.” The Istanbul election results suggest that so long as core political freedoms and institutions remain, the people have a voice even in less-than-ideal circumstances. We should always press these governments to do better, but genuine friends of democracy should rest easier. Democracy looks stronger than many had thought.

Read more:

Asli Aydintasbas: Erdogan faces a choice — and Turkey’s democracy is at stake

Asli Aydintasbas: Turkish voters send a clear message to Erdogan: Enough

Asli Aydintasbas: Why Erdogan is terrified of Istanbul’s new mayor

The Post’s View: Erdogan’s expanding dictatorship is steering Turkey toward a dead end

David Ignatius: Erdogan sabotages Turkey’s progress by turning away from the West