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Possible transfer of power in Turkey: Would Erdoğan concede defeat?

Point of View, 12.05.2023 Research Areas

As Turkey heads to the polls on May 14, many fear that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan might not respect the election results if he is defeated. Aslı Aksoy and Salim Çevik argue that a violent rejection of the transfer of power is unlikely.

There are growing concerns that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) may not hand over power peacefully. The AKP’s long history of investment in the criminal sector, its alliance with mafia organisations, the establishment of shadow paramilitary organisations such as SADAT, and the creation of new security forces such as the “night watchmen” – made up entirely of AKP loyalists – all raise suspicions that the AKP may be preparing a violent rejection of the election results if it does not win. Recent statements from the AKP leadership reinforce this fear. The experiences relating to other right-wing populists, such as Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, reinforce the fear that such populist politicians tend not to concede elections.

There are two different ways in which a defeated leader could refuse to concede the election results, depending on whether state institutions and the judiciary side with the incumbent. If Erdoğan loses the election but manages to force state institutions to declare him the winner, that would be Turkey’s “Belarus moment”, similar to when Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory amid widespread evidence of vote rigging.

Although it is conceivable to think that the AKP is preparing for a “Belarus scenario”, there are several factors that could disrupt the government’s plans. First, Turkey’s electoral system is very thorough, and opposition members can be present at all levels. Thus, committing large-scale fraud without getting caught is unlikely. In case of a dispute, the final decision would be made by the Supreme Election Board (YSK), which is vulnerable to government pressure and manipulation, as already demonstrated in its decision to repeat the 2019 Istanbul elections. However, it could only go so far as repeating the election rather than falsely declaring an AKP victory. Moreover, although Erdoğan may be an autocrat, his power is derived from the fact that he has the popular vote on his side. Without public support, he loses his legitimacy, signalling further weakness. Given the harsh sentences for electoral manipulation, public officials will tend not to approve the rigging of the elections, even if they have supported Erdoğan in the past. If Erdoğan pushes for such a scenario, there is a serious risk of Turkey descending into chaos. Assuming that the opposition takes its fair share of responsibility and demonstrates the credibility of its victory, it is likely that supporters of the opposition would take to the streets. The AKP may respond either by using the police or unleashing its own base onto the streets. In either case, the result would be skirmishes and street fights either between the police and the demonstrators or between supporters of the opposing political groups. Unleashing such a scenario is too risky and does not offer clear gains, and it is hard to predict how events might unfold.

Is Erdoğan afraid of being sent to court?

The second scenario would be similar to the cases in Brazil and the United States, where neither Trump nor Bolsonaro conceded the elections, despite the verdicts of the respective election authorities. However, such attempts have little to no chance of subverting the electoral process. Moreover, the assumption that Erdoğan cannot – and will not – concede defeat is based on a number of faulty assumptions. The main narrative is that defeat would be too risky for him and open the door to jailtime due to potential charges against him. However, this scenario does not account for Turkey’s current power configuration or the country’s specific legal aspects. From a political point of view, even if he is defeated, Erdoğan would still have the support of more than 40 per cent of the society. He would continue to be an important political figure.

Also, Erdoğan is under legal protection. Since he served as the president, he could only be tried by the Constitutional Court. For him to be sent to the Court first requires a two-thirds majority in the parliament: an unlikely vote share to ever be reached by the opposition. But more importantly, even if the opposition managed to send Erdoğan to the Court, he would be tried by 15 judges, all of them appointed by the AKP leadership. The opposition would have to wait until August 2028 to shape the court’s composition and appoint the majority of the judges.

Erdoğan is a shrewd politician with a keen sense of power balance and a penchant for not overplaying his hand. Since he is a fighter, he might prepare himself for a future comeback, just like Benjamin Netanyahu managed to do in Israel after losing the government in 2021. The potential hurdles the new government will face in trying to solve the country’s dire economic problems also encourage him to plan a comeback. In this context, Erdoğan would most likely consider that, not conceding the election would make it much harder for him to plan a comeback.

Moreover, the Turkish public – even though it is not keen on the irregularities of the electoral process and the lack of a fair playing ground tends to be very protective of its right to vote. Hence, attempts to alter the electoral process are often met with resistance, even from the party base. The 2019 Istanbul municipal elections demonstrated the political risks of not conceding the election. Although the election, which was later annulled by the YSK, resulted in a very narrow margin of 13,000 votes in favour of the opposition candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu, in the repeat elections, the difference was more than 800,000. If Erdoğan does not acknowledge the election results, one can expect defections from the AKP rank and file as well as the AKP leadership.

From Erdoğan’s point of view, refusing to concede the elections would not just be hard to sustain and pointless, it would also not be wise politically, assuming that Erdoğan remains in politics after a potential defeat. The chances of success are limited, whereas the risks are many. Erdoğan may take this course of action only if he believes that the opposition has not fully secured the electoral process. Therefore, the decisive element is not Erdoğan’s respect for the election results, but the opposition’s ability to demonstrate its resolve and willingness to protect the vote.