Can Dundar: Turkish democracy will continue despite Erdogan

Istanbul's mayoral election will be rerun following an appeal from the strongman-president's party. The exiled journalist Can Dundar gave DW his appraisal of the complex situation leading up to the June 23 election.

Ever since Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994, I have followed him closely. At the beginning of his political journey, he said, verbatim: "Democracy, for us, is not a final goal, but a means to an end. We will take the democracy train as long as we can, and then at some point we will get off it." I think that was the most candid remark he has ever made.

Ultimately, now that he is president, he has decided to get off the democracy train at the "political Islam" stop. In the past 25 years, he first utilized all the facets of democracy. Then, he systematically decimated them: the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, the media, the universities, civil society, and, finally, free elections.

"Everything is mine," he said — and with that, became an autocrat.

Nevertheless, Turkey's democratic chapter is not yet finished. Although Erdogan may have stepped off, the democracy train rolls on. Sometimes it is brought to a halt, sometimes it advances, sometimes obstacles get in the way, but somehow it continues. One must not forget: At least half the country wants a democratic, free and secular Turkey.

Erdogan's opposition: Stronger than ever

Charting Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism

July 2007: Abdullah Gul becomes Turkey's first Islamist president

After years of free market reforms, Turkey's transition slowly begins to reverse. Islamist Abdullah Gul's candidacy as president in 2007 marks a clear shift away from secularist policies, and strains relations between the ruling AKP and the military. However, with broad support from both conservative Muslims and liberals, the AKP wins the parliamentary elections and Gul is elected president.

Charting Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism

September 2010: Constitutional reforms take hold

Then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan tables a constitutional reform increasing parliamentary control of the judiciary and army, effectively allowing the government to pick judges and senior military officials. The amendment, which is combined with measures also aimed at protecting child rights and the strengthening of the right to appeal, passed by a wide margin in a public referendum.

Charting Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism

May 2013: Dissent erupts in Gezi Park

Pent-up anger directed by young people at Erdogan, Gul and the Islamist-rooted AKP hits a boiling point in May 2013. The violent police breakup of a small sit-in aimed at protecting Istanbul's Gezi Park spurs one of the fiercest anti-government protests in years. Eleven people are killed and more than 8,000 injured, before the demonstrations eventually peter out a month later.

Charting Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism

July 2015: Turkey relaunches crackdown against Kurds

A fragile ceasefire deal between the Turkish government and the Kurdish rebel PKK group breaks under the weight of tensions aggravated by the war in Syria. Military forces resume operations in the mostly Kurdish southeast of Turkey. In early 2016, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) — a breakaway PKK faction — claim responsibility for two bombings in Ankara, each killing 38 people.

Charting Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism

July 2016: Military coup attempt falls short

A military coup attempt against the government shakes Turkey to its core and briefly turns the country into a war zone. Some 260 civilians die in overnight clashes with the army across five major cities. Erdogan, however, rallies supporters and the following morning rebel soldiers are ambushed by thousands of civilians on the Bosporus Bridge. The troops eventually drop their guns and surrender.

Charting Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism

July 2016: President Erdogan enacts a state of emergency

In the aftermath of the failed coup, Erdogan announces a state of emergency, leading to arrests of tens of thousands of suspected coup sympathizers and political opponents. Among those detained are military and judiciary officials and elected representatives from the pro-Kurdish HDP party. The purge is later expanded to include civil servants, university officials and teachers.

Charting Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism

2016: Crackdown on the press

As part of Erdogan's crackdown against supposed "terrorist sympathizers," Turkey becomes one of the world's leading jailers of journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders. The government shuts down around 110 media outlets in the year following the coup and imprisons more than 100 journalists, including German-Turkish correspondent Deniz Yücel.

Charting Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism

March 2017: AKP officials try to stoke support in Western Europe

With a referendum on expanding Erdogan's presidential powers set for April 2016, AKP officials look to galvanize support among Turks living in Europe, particularly in Germany and the Netherlands. However, the Netherlands forbids Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu from landing in the country, while Germany opts to cancel two rallies. Erdogan accuses both countries of Nazi-style repression.

Charting Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism

April 2017: Erdogan clinches referendum vote

Erdogan narrowly wins the referendum vote expanding his power. As a result, Turkey's parliamentary system is abolished in favor of a strong executive presidency. Erdogan is also allowed to remain in power potentially until 2029. However, international election monitors claim that opposition voices were muzzled and that media coverage was dominated by figures from the "yes" campaign.

Charting Turkey's slide towards authoritarianism

June 2018: Election wins secure Erdogan's power

Erdogan secures a new five-year term and sweeping new executive powers after winning landmark elections on June 24. His AKP and their nationalist allies also win a majority in parliament. International observers criticize the vote, saying media coverage and emergency measures gave Erdogan and the AKP an "undue advantage" in the vote.

The fact that Erdogan, with the help of obedient judges, has managed to annul the Istanbul mayoral elections has led to an unexpected outcome: For the first time, the various opposition parties have put aside their deep political divisions and formed an alliance.

This large coalition has united social democrats, socialists, nationalists, and conservative religious groups who respect and support the will of the those who cast their vote at the ballot box. No other goal than having Erdogan as their common opponent could bring them together in such a way. The polarization that he himself brought about is now coming back to bite him.

Investors, artists, lawyers and most notably opponents from within the ranks of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), who until now have remained silent, have taken to the streets. People who had holidays planned have canceled their flights so they can participate in the electoral re-do. June 23 — the day set for the local elections in Istanbul — is something of a last chance for a final stop before the collapse of Turkish democracy.

Read more: Freedom of speech in Turkey is in crisis

A stark contrast: Erdogan ally Binali Yildirim and opposition star candidate Ekrem Imamoglu

What happens now?

Can the opposition, which won the Istanbul municipal elections but lost them again to the judicial authorities, repeat its victory under these circumstances?

Erdogan will stop at nothing to win, says Dundar

It's too early for optimism. We still have seven weeks to go. I know Erdogan well, and I know he will use every opportunity to ensure he does not lose again. And there's an example from the past that makes me pessimistic: When Erdogan suffered his first heavy loss of votes in the 2015 parliamentary elections, he ditched peace negotiations with the Kurds — and the country plunged into chaos.

Read more: After election gains, Kurds fear Erdogan's reach

In the summer that followed, over 600 people died in terrorist attacks. Erdogan offered his people a way out of chaos: "Give me 400 seats in Parliament [an absolute majority, Eds.] so the problem can be solved in peace." In the next elections, he picked up an additional five million votes, and the chaos was over.

These examples indicate what could happen in Turkey over the next seven weeks. The president will use provocation tactics to drum up support, such as warning that more Turkish soldiers will return home in coffins after dying fighting Kurdish militias.

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Harun Armagan: Election re-run ‘makes our democracy strong...

Istanbul 'a staircase to success'

Istanbul's mayoral candidates are running neck-and-neck. But AKP candidate and former prime minister Binali Yildirim, who represents Erdogan's establishment, is actually looking rather weak. Opposition candidate and previously declared winner Ekrem Imamoglu, however — he's rolling up his sleeves and digging in.

Imamoglu, of the Republican People's Party (CHP), had already been verified as the winner of the March 31 election prior to the electoral council's re-do announcement on Tuesday. With his shining demeanor and engagement, Imamoglu has become a political star; with amicable determination, he confronts the raging Erdogan. Many secular commentators have already pegged him as a future president of Turkey.

Istanbul is like a staircase to political success. Erdogan's career began on this staircase, which he climbed to the top and then went down again. Imamoglu is only at the start but moving steadily upwards; now the two are standing eye-to-eye on the same step in what will be Turkey's hottest summer yet.

As for the country as a whole: Turkey is like a bag of surprises. Both hope and pessimism are bouncing around inside, and when you reach in, anything could come out. But one thing is sure: The democracy train keeps rolling along, faster and faster, now that Erdogan has stepped off.

Can Dundar is a prominent Turkish journalist and the former editor-in-chief of Turkish daily newspaper Cumhuriyet. He currently lives in exile in Germany.