On 14 May 2023, Turkey is set to host its first general elections since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan centralised power in the country’s transition to a “one-man rule” presidential system in 2018. On election day, both the election of the President of Turkey in a two-round system and the parliamentary elections for the 600 members of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey will take place.
But long before the elections, Erdogan and his allies have made use of ‘legal warfare’, or lawfare, to undermine the democratic integrity of the electoral process.
The progressive, pro-Kurdish forces in the Turkish opposition are set to play the role of kingmaker in both presidential elections and in post-election parliamentary arithmetic — and Erdogan is scared.
Over the course of the past two years, his government has aggressively pushed to imprison their leaders and ban their party, the HDP, from Turkey’s electoral system.
Erdogan has been successful in his attempt to impose a de facto ban of the HDP. Two politically motivated cases – the so-called “Kobani trial” seeking life imprisonment for 108 mostly Kurdish politicians and a case driven by the Turkish far right to ban the party outright – were set to hear final rulings after 11 April, a day after the candidate lists for the elections had to be submitted.
But Turkey’s progressive forces are resisting the government’s anti-democratic crackdown. They have reorganised in a new party, the Green Left Party (YSP), to contest the 14 May elections. The party, like the HDP before it, brings together a broad progressive coalition of Kurdish and other minority groups, as well as trade union, feminist and ecological forces.
Yet they still face major challenges, as the government is escalating its crackdown on the progressive opposition just a few days before the election. Over the past two weeks, at least 150 lawyers, journalists, officials and candidates of the HDP and YSP were arbitrarily detained in a dozen provinces all across Turkey. The government is clearly intent on muting all those who could play a role in monitoring on election day.
This is the first major concern. The second comes into play once the polls close on Sunday. Erdoğan has repeatedly tried to link his main presidential challenger, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who has been endorsed by the HDP and YSP, to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Borrowing from the international far-right playbook championed by Trump and Bolsonaro, he went as far as to suggest that he may not accept the result of the elections: “My nation will not hand power to someone elected president with help from the PKK.”
The third concern is the rise in electoral violence. On Sunday, the far-right MHP's leader Devlet Bahçeli said that “a sad end” awaits the main opposition bloc Nation Alliance and its presidential candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Bahçeli went on to fan the flames by claiming that they will either receive “aggravated life sentences” after the May 14 elections or “bullets in their bodies.” Later the same day, the election bus of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu – who runs as the opposition's vice-presidential candidate – was attacked with stones by a group of people during a rally in the eastern province of Erzurum. And in Mersin province, MHP supporters attacked the YSP’s election vehicle and injured five people with knives and sticks. In both cases, the police stood idly by.
A massive international mobilisation will therefore be critical to defend democracy in Turkey.
That’s why the HDP has invited the Progressive International to “observe presidential and parliamentary elections on the ground, with a particular focus on Kurdish provinces, where electoral irregularities and fraud are systematic and rampant, and the ten provinces hit by the earthquake that are under emergency rule.”
We have heeded their call – and will send a delegation to Turkey ahead of the elections on 14 May. The delegation will meet with social movement leaders, trade unionists, and representatives of political parties, and we will use our experience from similarly contentious democratic battlegrounds – like Brazil, Peru and Colombia – to monitor threats to Turkey’s democratic process.