In an interview with CNN journalist Becky Anderson on May 19, 2023, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fell short of an outright election victory, he brushed off criticism of Turkey’s long slide toward authoritarianism: “How could someone who is going into a runoff election instead of completing the election in the first round be a dictator?”
The Turkish President seemed startled over the charges leveled against him and did not mask his discontent. “That is the reality,” he explained. “We have an alliance with 322 MPs in Parliament and the leader of this alliance will go for the runoffs in the first position. What kind of a dictator is that?”
At the heart of his criticism was U.S. President Joe Biden, who once called the Turkish leader an “autocrat” during his 2020 campaign. But the broader target of Erdoğan’s chiding is the Western world, which has depicted him as a strongman leader over his now 20-year rule.
The May 14 elections were universally regarded as a make-or-break moment for the future of the country’s political system. As Turkey marks the 100th anniversary of the Republic, Erdoğan’s unassailable grip on power has made many think that the Turkish Republic may sink into the oblivion of history after another Erdoğan win. Against this backdrop, the stakes of the May 14 vote—which pit Erdoğan against an opposition coalition headed by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu promising to restore Turkish democracy—were understandably higher than ever before.
Yet for some observers, Erdoğan’s message hit home. After all, what kind of a tyrant would be content with heading to a runoff election after garnering 49.5% of the votes in the first round? Why bother with the second round instead of pushing the 49.5% a little over 50% to nail his triumph that night once and for all?
This argument not just reeks of gross logical errors, but it is also misleading. That Erdoğan “gracefully” consented to the result does not obviate the fact that the elections were hardly fair. In its preliminary findings after the vote, the observing delegation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said that while the contest was “competitive and largely free,” Erdoğan had an “unjustified advantage” over the opposition due to restrictions on the press and free assembly.
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The opposition candidate got a 32-minute airing on state-run Turkish Radio and Television (TRT), while Erdoğan got 32 hours in a month in the lead-up to the election. This discrepancy speaks volumes about the tilted playing field long before the sides embarked on campaigning. What’s more, Erdoğan marshaled immense resources at his disposal, mobilizing the state and party apparatus to bend and twist where possible to his liking.
Victory in this environment doesn’t burnish Erdoğan’s battered credentials or rehabilitate his public record. However important a staple it may have been in the definition of democracy, an electoral win still does not make Erdoğan a democratic leader. It only serves to mask the true nature of the authoritarian regime he has successfully contrived to build all along the way.
Democracy is not about elections only. I’m not a political scientist nor an expert on the history of electoral politics. But my own predicament—the fact that I cannot even reunite and meet with my parents for the past seven years—and the tragedy that thousands of people went through is a testament to the type of regime that has taken hold in Turkey. These elections serve as a cover for a new type of governance Erdoğan achieved to build: an electoral autocracy. His record needs no amplification or philosophical exposition. Even an opposition victory would not mean an overnight, smooth return to democracy, as undoing what Erdoğan installed would take many years, if not decades.
Although it seems like ancient history now, Turkey after the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the politically-charged corruption scandal that implicated Erdogan’s close circle and family members has given way to a president who has trampled the central tenets of democracy, stamping out the last vestiges of already-imperfect judicial independence, swelling the ranks of bureaucracy with incompetent loyalists, snuffing out the space for free speech and media, and unleashing a sweeping purge of conceived non-loyalists in a push to rebuild the Turkish state in his own image. Erdoğan has done all of this and even more. He has jailed more than 100,000 people, including countless women and babies, after sham political trials. In doing so, the President has revealed to the entire world that he has no moral compunction over imprisoning the most vulnerable members of society for the reason that they were not among his loyal flock.
Elections, regardless of their results, do not change what Turkey has experienced under Erdoğan’s leadership. His “graceful” consent to runoff elections does not transform him from a pariah to a liberal democrat in the Jeffersonian mold overnight. Rather, Erdoğan’s two decades in power contain a vast body of evidence about the type of leader he is and the regime he managed to build.