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In Turkey, the latest elections had over 80 percent voter turnout. Here’s why.

Elections are hardly free or fair in Turkey. So why do voters keep turning up in high numbers?

- June 28, 2019

In Turkey, Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem Imamoglu decisively won the rerun of the mayoral election in Istanbul last weekend. The new elections were called after pressure from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost the original vote in March by a narrow margin.

The AKP machine put its weight behind winning these local elections. Istanbul is not only Turkey’s economic powerhouse — and a major source of patronage for the ruling party — but also where Erdogan launched his political career, as mayor, in 1994. Despite growing authoritarianism in the country, the opposition still believed in participation in the elections.

And thanks to unprecedented voter mobilization last Sunday, Imamoglu won. So why did Turks continue to turn out for elections despite all the reasons to abandon hope in democracy?

Why elections still matter

Since coming to power in 2002, the AKP has rested its legitimacy on popular support and has centered its democratic understanding on balloting. The party has frequently used elections and referendums to consolidate its power and redesign the Turkish political system. The election rerun was another instance — the third in the past year, and the eighth since the last local elections in March 2014 — as Turkish people have voted in two presidential, two general and two local elections and a referendum, which replaced a century-old parliamentary system with executive presidency.

However, elections are hardly free or fair in Turkey. Over the past decade, the AKP’s competitive authoritarianism has tilted the playing field in its own favor by systematically violating civil liberties, erecting its own media, and politicizing state institutions and the judiciary. Opposition candidates have limited access to public space and national television. An overwhelming majority of private networks maintain close ties to the government. And the government disciplines dissidents in courthouses with terrorism charges and silences critiques in social media through trolls and defamation lawsuits.

A continued push for free and fair elections

Neither the government’s violations of civil liberties nor its successive electoral victories have stopped the opposition from growing and organizing. An overwhelming majority still believes in democracy and maintains a strong sense of political efficacy, despite decreasing electoral fairness under the AKP’s rule. Several factors explain why.

First, the Turkish people have exercised competitive elections since 1950, occasional military interventions notwithstanding, and expressed their political preferences at the polls, often at odds with the military. Erdogan’s rise to power is a case in point.

Second, although the AKP has rigged campaign cycles, it has refrained from rigging elections. This is how the party maintained an element of competition in an otherwise authoritarian regime, and how Imamoglu managed to win the mayoral race March 31 and again June 23.

Third, as the AKP has suffocated the freedom of expression, information and assembly, elections have turned out to be the only venue for competitive politics and government-sanctioned political action.

Regardless of their frequency, the Turkish people have tirelessly showed up at the polls. Voter turnout has remained exceptionally high compared with democratic countries and has not declined, despite democratic backsliding. In the March 2014 local elections, a few months after serious protests to save a public park rocked the country, the turnout rate reached 89 percent and has not dropped below 83 percent since then. The only exception was the presidential elections in August 2014 (74 percent), when the presidency was still a symbolic position with limited executive powers. On June 23, 84.5 percent of Istanbul residents turned out to vote.

Participation beyond the ballot box

In early 2014, thousands of volunteers formed a civil-society initiative to fight for transparency in elections. Initially organized in Istanbul, they soon mobilized in the rest of the country, with more than 250,000 volunteers to observe every election and confirm official results with a simultaneous and independent counting process. These volunteers also injected activism into the aging local organizations of opposition parties. On June 23, the organization monitored the election, counted votes and offered live coverage of election results with its thousands of volunteers.

Imamoglu also recruited volunteers for his campaign, namely a group called the Istanbul Gonulluleri. On March 31, the group had 14,000 volunteers and, crucially, collected official election results from polling stations. On the night of the election, the semiofficial news agency stopped releasing the results, and AKP officials claimed that Binali Yildirim had won. Thanks to official records that volunteers collected, Imamoglu contested such claims in several news conferences and prevented the AKP from manipulating public opinion and rigging the election. By the latest election, Imamoglu’s campaign had more than 150,000 volunteers — and they arrived at polling stations at 6 a.m. to monitor the mayoral race. Meanwhile, the Istanbul Bar Association mobilized more than 8,000 lawyers to lend legal support to volunteers and political parties on Election Day. These volunteers observed both the voting and counting processes in all polling stations in the city.

While the high turnout in the mayoral race seemed ordinary for Turkey, voter mobilization was still exceptional. From the moment the government decided on a new election, travel agencies and airlines canceled reservations at no cost, activists raised funds to help college students return to Istanbul — and on the weekend itself, vacationers shared rides, and political parties arranged transportation for their supporters. On June 23, voters with disabilities, incapacitating sickness and old age showed up to exercise their democratic right in often-inaccessible polling stations. Their families and friends carried them to voting booths.

Imamoglu won the new election by nine percentage points (806,426 votes), ending Erdogan’s control in Istanbul after 25 years. Although this historic win affirmed Turkish faith in elections, it has not yet altered the political scene in Turkey. There are still no meaningful checks on the presidency, the judiciary remains politicized, and the media is almost entirely under government control.

Erdogan has found ways to curtail the authority of elected mayors by limiting their financial resources and transferring some of their authority to the central government or the municipal assembly. The tug of war between authoritarian and democratic forces in Turkey is likely to continue in the foreseeable future. So far, the Turkish people have shown remarkable democratic resilience.

Sebnem Gumuscu is an assistant professor of political science at Middlebury College and specializes in Islamist parties in the Middle East.