On Sunday, May 14, more than sixty million voters throughout Turkey will cast their votes in what may be the most fateful election for the nation since its founding a century ago. According to the results, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been ruling the country since 2002 in a growingly authoritarian and erratic fashion, will either further consolidate his grip on power, or finally lose it.
For many people in the West, the latter option may sound unrealistic, if not naive. They see that under Erdogan, Turkey has become an authoritarian regime where freedom of speech and rule of law have largely vanished, and many critics of the president have ended up in jail. They also recall the famous quote attributed to Joseph Stalin: “It’s not the people who vote that count. It’s the people who count the votes.”
Yet Turkey’s drift into authoritarianism has not quite reached a Stalinesque level. Erdogan is not the typical 20th century dictator, who rules unquestionably in the name of the proletariat or the Aryan race. Rather, he is a 21st century populist, who rules in the name “the people” — the latter being just 50% plus 1 of the electorate, made up of mostly religious conservatives, which he pits against the rest of society.
Moreover, Turkey is not a Russia, China, or Turkmenistan, where society has never experienced free elections. Instead, it has a decently competitive electoral system that has worked since 1950. All votes are counted openly, in the presence of opposition party representatives and independent observers, so it is not easy to cheat. That is why Erdogan’s ruling AK Party grudgingly lost the two greatest cities, Istanbul and Ankara, to opposition mayors in 2019.
That is all why the opposition bloc, which is now more united than ever as the “Nation Alliance,” is hopeful that this time they can defeat Erdogan and his “People’s Alliance” by winning both the presidency and the parliament majority. Their presidential candidate, Kemal Kılıcdaroglu (74), a former civil servant turned main opposition leader, has the support of a remarkably diverse crowd — from secularists to “never Erdogan” conservatives, from Turkish nationalists to the pro‐Kurdish left. He is not too charismatic, but he is still popular because he is not Erdogan. Unlike the latter who is divisive, intimating, and menacing, Kılıcdaroglu is embracing, gentle, and promising.
However, Erdogan’s popularity is still largely intact. He has a cultishly devoted religious base who sees him as the much‐awaited savior who is finally making Turkey great and Muslim again. Even the economic despair caused by none other than Erdogan’s delusional mismanagement is, for them, a Western conspiracy which only proves their leader’s greatness. Even if they get constantly poorer, they find delight in Erdogan’s newly built warship or fighter jets.
That is all why the polls show that the race on May 14 will be tight one. It is quite possible that no presidential candidate may win the first round — due to two other smaller candidates who will chip away largely from Kılıcdaroglu. In that case, there will be a decisive second round two weeks later on May 28.
At this point, nobody really knows what is going to happen. But there are three possible scenarios: the good, the bad, and the scary.
The good scenario is that Kılıcdaroglu decisively wins and Erdogan can’t refuse to concede. That would be a joyous moment for tens of millions of people in Turkey, who have been suffocated by a regime that sees them as the enemy within. It would be great news for the world, too, proving that a draconian populism that has gone this far can be overturned. The new government would still face huge challenges — from a battered economy to cities ruined by earthquake, to its own internal divisions — but it would bring a fresh start. Turkey’s frayed relations with the European Union and the United States could also be repaired.
The bad scenario is that Erdogan decisively wins, as he has won every election in the past two decades. That will devastate the opposition, as few hopes will be left for the future. Erdogan has proven to deepen his authoritarianism steadily and relentlessly, and another five years of him may mark a point of no return. His party‐state may continue its “blessed march,” further conquering whatever is left of independent judiciary, free media, even academia, making Turkey a Muslim version of Putin’s Russia.
The scary scenario is a dispute over the results, which can escalate unpredictably in a county which is extremely tense. This is possible especially if Kılıcdaroglu wins with a very small margin and Erdogan responds by a stop‐the‐steal scheme. His hawkish interior minister raised these concerns by calling the election “the West’s political coup attempt.” If they really depict the loss of the vote as a “coup,” things may get really ugly.
Friends of Turkey — and of freedom, universally — should hope and pray for the good scenario. Meanwhile, the other two should remind the world of a lesson: Democracy should not be reduced to mere ballots. Without liberty and justice for all, mere majority rule can turn into a tyranny mastered by a strongman. Without liberty and justice for all, in fact, democracy ultimately devours itself.