In an April 27, 2019, file photo, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he arrives to deliver a speech to members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara, Turkey.

In an April 27, 2019, file photo, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he arrives to deliver a speech to members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara, Turkey. Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool, File

How Authoritarians Manipulate Elections

From Russia to Venezuela, the strongmen who have destroyed democratic institutions won high office at the ballot box.

When Recep Erdoğan was first elected prime minister of Turkey, in 2003, he vowed to respect the country’s democratic institutions, and to vacate office if he ever lost the public’s trust. The reality of Erdoğan’s rule has been rather more bleak. Although international newspapers and magazines initially portrayed him as a democratic reformer, he systematically expanded his powers and purged opponents from top positions in the army, the civil service, and the country’s educational institutions. When former allies tried to oust him in a coup in the summer of 2016, he used the occasion to consolidate his hold over the country. Thanks to the vast emergency powers he claimed within days of the failed putsch, he was able to dismiss tens of thousands of civil servants he considered politically unreliable, and to jail some of the country’s most prominent journalists.

But even as the dictatorial nature of Erdoğan’s regime became apparent, and the freedom to criticize him more constrained, Turkey continued to hold multi-party elections, which gave the opposition some ability to compete at the ballot box. In June 2018, Erdoğan won 53 percent of the vote in an election many observers said was tainted by violent attacks on the opposition; from then on, Erdoğan styled himself president of Turkey.

This election seemed to allow Erdoğan to eat his cake and have it too: On the one hand, the control he exerted over key institutions, such as the country’s electoral commission, had limited the risk the election posed to his rule. On the other hand, the election helped to shore up his legitimacy at home and abroad. Even though observers from the OSCE to Freedom House emphasized that the election was not free and fair, international leaders including Angela Merkel and Donald Trump publicly congratulated Erdoğan on his “victory” at the polls. As Timur Kuran, a Turkish expert on authoritarian regimes, put it, Erdoğan sought to combine “the illusion of a contested election” with “a predetermined outcome.”

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The tremendous power Erdoğan now holds makes it all the more remarkable that a united opposition was, last month, able to gain an unexpected set of victories in the country’s municipal elections: Exploiting anger at Turkey’s growing economic crisis, and fielding a new crop of candidates who are both charismatic and conciliatory, the opposition pulled off two highly symbolic upsets, winning control of the country’s capital, Ankara, as well as its largest city, Istanbul.

As a result, Erdoğan has, for the first time since the failed coup three years ago, faced a real trade-off: Would he allow the election results to stand, thereby acknowledging the public’s growing discontent with his rule? Or would he exploit his hold over Turkey’s institutions to have the election annulled, making it blatantly clear to anybody who cared to look that Turkey is no longer a democracy?

For much of the 20th century, the most acute threat to democracy came from the barrel of a gun. When democratic systems collapsed, it was usually because tanks commandeered by the leader of an openly antidemocratic movement rolled up in front of the country’s parliament or presidential palace. Javier Cercas vividly describes such a coup attempt in the opening pages of The Anatomy of a Moment, his account of a failed putsch against Spanish democracy in 1981:

Pistol in hand, Lieutenant Colonel of the Civil Guard Antonio Tejero calmly walks up the steps of the dais, passes behind the Secretary and stands besides the Speaker Landelino Lavilla, who looks at him incredulously. The lieutenant colonel shouts: “Nobody move!”, and a couple of spellbound seconds follow during which nothing happens and no one moves and nothing seems to be going to happen to anyone, except silence … Four nearby shouts, distinct and indisputable, then break the spell: someone shouts: “Silence!:”; someone shouts: “Nobody move!”; someone shouts, “Get down on the floor!”; someone shouts: “Everyone down on the floor!.” The chamber rushes to obey.

Because it makes for such striking theater, the kind of open attack on democracy that Cercas describes has had a long-lasting hold on the political imagination. But in the 21st century, coups have become rarer. From Russia to Venezuela, the strongmen who have destroyed democratic institutions won high office at the ballot box. Far from openly attacking democracy, they have tended to argue that they, and they alone, truly represent the people.

Granted, autocratic regimes from the German “Democratic” Republic to the “Democratic” Republic of Congo also tried to create some illusion of public legitimacy through “elections.” But whatever propagandistic purpose their ballot dramas may have served, they were far too ham-fisted to fool a domestic audience. By and large, only a single party was allowed to present itself in elections, which usually ended with 99 percent of the voting public expressing its deep devotion to the dictator.

By contrast, the new crop of authoritarian leaders is much more invested in retaining the appearance of a genuine democratic mandate. As a result, they have to engage in a more complicated political calculus: They have to give the opposition enough of a chance to compete in the elections to look credible to a significant segment of the population. But they must also capture political institutions such as electoral commissions to a sufficient extent to ensure that the people can’t actually boot them out of office.

As the recent developments in Turkey show, however, it may not be possible to sustain this equilibrium forever. Eventually, even governments that have effectively abolished the freedom of the press risk growing so unpopular that they have to resort to more blatant ways of rigging the vote.

But by the time he held his inspiring speech, İmamoğlu knew all too well that, at least for the time being, Erdoğan already had. After using his control over most of the country’s media to spread the insane conspiracy theory that a powerless opposition had somehow been able to falsify the outcome of the election, Erdoğan went on to use his control over the country’s judiciary to cancel its result. Citing supposed irregularities, the electoral commission announced on Monday that Istanbul would hold new elections in June.

The announcement marks a fundamental turning point in Turkey’s political history: It is now impossible for any reasonable observer to keep denying reality. A country whose president has the power to annul elections when he doesn’t like their outcome has clearly become a dictatorship. From now on, anybody who still insists on calling Turkey a democracy, or treating its elections as a fair barometer of public opinion, is a liar or a fool.

While the announcement dispels any remaining doubt about the current status of Turkey’s democracy, it also raises big questions about its future. In the next days, İmamoğlu will need to decide whether to boycott the repeat election in June. If he does, he’ll hand Erdoğan the power he craves. If he doesn’t, he’ll lend legitimacy to an election he likely cannot win. If it’s heads, Erdoğan wins. If it’s tails, İmamoğlu loses.

But although Erdoğan is likely to retain control of Istanbul in the short run, he too now faces a much more difficult future. Until now, large segments of the Turkish population believed his professions that he would leave office of his own accord if he ever lost the people’s trust. Even his more obviously repressive moves, such as the jailing of scores of journalists, had a slither of democratic legitimacy: In the wake of the 2016 putsch, some of Erdoğan’s supporters were willing to believe that the writers he decried as “terrorists” really were part of a dangerous plot to unseat the elected government. Now Erdoğan’s insistence that he represents the true will of the people is, even in the ears of his erstwhile supporters, likely to ring hollow.

Erdoğan’s loss of democratic legitimacy does not imply that he is about to lose power. As the long history of dictatorships demonstrates, many people are willing to support a leader who openly opposes democratic institutions—and many autocrats are able to stay in office for years or decades after they have become deeply unpopular. But it does suggest that his rule will, from now on, be based on a much more precarious foundation. With his claim to a popular mandate gone for good, Erdoğan will likely face an even more determined opposition—and need to resort to ever more naked oppression to stay in power.