The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Will Turkey’s elections be free and fair? Here’s what to know.

A woman walks near an election campaign poster for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with the slogan “Right Time, Right Man,” on an overpass in Istanbul on April 26. (Nicole Tung for The Washington Post)
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Turkish voters head to the polls Sunday in an election with potentially sweeping ramifications for the fate of democracy in Turkey and beyond. At its heart lies a paradox: Even as their country sinks deeper into authoritarianism, Turks love to vote — and have a real chance of reshaping their country’s politics.

The election appears to be Turkey’s most closely contested in years, with opposition party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu polling slightly ahead of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has presided over Turkey for two decades and consolidated power in his hands. Erdogan has come under fire for his management of a tanking economy and his response to devastating earthquakes in February that left at least 50,000 people dead and more than a million homeless.

Turkey elections: Are voters ready to move on from Erdogan?

Facing an unusually unified opposition, Erdogan is vulnerable. Still, he has imprisoned critics and essentially controls the Turkish media — and U.S.-based watchdog organization Freedom House ranks Turkey as “not free.”

Analysts say the vote will test whether elections still provide a viable means of political contestation in Turkey, or whether they will become a facade to justify an autocratic president’s enduring grip.

Here’s what to know about the election process in Turkey.

How do elections in Turkey work?

Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary election is only the third time the country’s voters will choose their president directly. Before 2014, the president was elected by parliament.

Erdogan, 69, has led Turkey since 2003, first as prime minister and then as president, beginning in 2014. Since then, he has overhauled the country’s political system, pushing a successful referendum in 2017 to replace the parliamentary system with a strong presidency and abolish the position of prime minister.

In Turkey, the president can serve up to two five-year terms. Erdogan is taking advantage of a loophole: Since his first term ended early because of the 2017 referendum, he can run for a third term this year — and if he wins, remain in office until 2028.

Four candidates have campaigned for the presidency this year: Erdogan; Kilicdaroglu, a former civil servant who leads the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP); Muharrem Ince, who ran against Erdogan in 2018; and Sinan Ogan, head of a small nationalist alliance. A candidate must gain more than 50 percent of the vote to win outright, or if no one passes that threshold, must win a runoff on May 28. Ince announced Thursday he was withdrawing from the race.

On the legislative side, a party, or alliance of parties, must receive at least 7 percent of the vote to enter parliament. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) dominates, holding 295 of 600 seats.

Some 60 million people in Turkey are eligible to vote. Among them are more than 100,000 Syrians who obtained Turkish citizenship and have reached voting age, out of the more than 3.6 million who sought refuge in Turkey after the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011.

Voting is compulsory in Turkey — though the fine for not voting is unenforced — and turnout surpasses that of most countries, reaching 86 percent in 2018.

“Turkey has a very long track record of holding competitive elections,” said Merve Tahiroglu, Turkey program director at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “So for people from all walks of life, it’s a bare minimum that the country should have a free enough election where people feel, ‘We’ve picked our leader.’”

Is the voting process secure?

While allegations of fraud have marred previous votes, elections are still free in that opposition candidates are permitted to run — and despite the erosion of democracy under Erdogan, Turkish civil society has maintained a rich tradition of election monitoring, Tahiroglu said.

“I do think it still could be a free election,” she said. “And by that I mean that on the day of May 14 when people vote, that those votes will, by and large, count, and the results will be, by and large, correct.”

That’s because groups including Turkey’s oldest election monitoring organization, Vote and Beyond, send out tens of thousands of volunteers to polling stations across the country to monitor the vote, including the official count.

“Because the stakes are so high, they’re mobilizing at a level I’ve never seen before,” Tahiroglu said.

Turkey election: Erdogan’s challenger vows to end ‘authoritarian rule’

Still, concerns remain. If they lose, Erdogan and the AKP could refuse to accept the results. In late April, Turkey’s interior minister appeared to lay the groundwork for such an outcome, warning of a “political coup attempt” backed by the United States.

A delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which visited Ankara last month, raised concerns about the logistics of voting in areas devastated by the February earthquakes.

The body is sending a 33-member delegation to Turkey to observe the voting along with other international monitors.

Will the election be fair?

Even if the voting process itself is secure, which would mean a free election in a narrow sense, the vote is unlikely to be fair, analysts say.

Freedom House gives Turkey a score of 2 out of 4 for the fairness of its elections, citing criticism of the 2018 general elections by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which accused the AKP of misusing state resources to gain electoral advantage and Erdogan of falsely portraying political opponents as supporters of terrorism.

“The judges of the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK), who oversee all voting procedures, are appointed by AKP-dominated judicial bodies and often defer to the AKP,” the Freedom House report finds.

Ahead of the election, Erdogan has turned to his tried-and-true tactic of stoking culture wars. And he has deployed massive public spending this year — offering tax relief, cheap loans and energy subsidies — to woo voters.

An Erdogan defeat would mark a victory for liberal democracy worldwide

Erdogan’s tight control over the media has tipped the public narrative in his favor. And under his rule, the judiciary has jailed or brought charges against critics — including Istanbul’s popular mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, who is from Kilicdaroglu’s party. Imamoglu was convicted in December of insulting state institutions in a case widely seen as politically motivated. He has appealed the verdict.

Last Sunday, protesters disrupted a rally Imamoglu was holding on Kilicdaroglu’s behalf in eastern Turkey, pelting rocks at his campaign bus.

Turkish authorities also arrested more than 100 people in a sweeping operation focused on the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir last month, alleging they had ties to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group.

Politicians, lawyers and journalists were among those detained. Pro-Kurdish politicians described the detentions as politically motivated.

“Given how much control Erdogan has over the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the media and other state institutions, it’s impossible for this to be a fair playing field,” Tahiroglu said.

That doesn’t mean the opposition can’t win. Major opposition parties of disparate ideological backgrounds have rallied behind Kilicdaroglu, who has sought to circumvent media bias by publishing videos filmed in his modest kitchen to social media.

From his kitchen table, Erdogan’s challenger gets his message out

Municipal elections in 2019 served as a stress test of the electoral system. Erdogan’s party lost nearly all of the country’s major cities — including Istanbul, the launchpad for Erdogan’s political career. When Erdogan rejected the Istanbul results and forced a revote, his party lost by an even larger margin.

“What does this tell us about elections in Turkey? That they are popular and fraud is not, making heavy-handed election fraud risky for Erdogan,” Gonul Tol, director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey program, and Ali Yaycioglu, a history professor at Stanford, wrote in Foreign Policy.