President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s campaign posters read “Great Turkey wants a strong leader”, flying above election banners for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) he chairs, Galata Bridge, Istanbul, June 2018.
© 2018 Human Rights Watch
Turkey will hold presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24, 2018, with a second-round run-off election for the presidency on July 8 if no candidate secures more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round.
Whatever the outcome, an executive presidential system of governance will fully enter into force following the elections. This new system was narrowly approved by voters in an April 2017 referendum. It will greatly increase the president’s powers and reduce the role of Turkey’s parliament.
This question-and-answer document provides background on the context in which the elections are taking place, the impact of the changes to the electoral law and the implications of the new constitutional arrangements.
Why are the elections taking place now and which parties are participating?
The elections will take place 16 months earlier than the November 2019 election date originally proposed during last year’s referendum campaign. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the new date in April, weeks after the government had rushed a revised election law through parliament.
President Erdoğan, as chair of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), is aiming to renew his own presidential mandate. The AKP, which currently has a parliamentary majority, has entered into an alliance with the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) in a bid to retain a majority in the parliamentary election.
There are five opposition presidential candidates, including candidates from the two current parliamentary opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the left-leaning pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and a candidate from the new nationalist center-right Good Party (İyi Parti). Four parties—CHP, the Good Party, the religious conservative Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi) and the Democrat Party —have formed an alternative opposition alliance to compete in the parliamentary elections. The HDP is running for parliament outside that alliance.
Isn’t there a state of emergency in Turkey at the moment?
Yes. The June 24 elections will take place during a state of emergency imposed after a failed military coup in July 2016.
The state of emergency has allowed President Erdoğan to head the cabinet and rule the country by decree, with weakened parliamentary and judicial oversight. Under the state of emergency, the government can place broad restrictions on the right to organize public assemblies and protests although this provision in theory does not affect the right of political parties and candidates to organize election campaigning activities.
Are journalists and human rights groups free to operate in Turkey right now?
The authorities have used emergency powers to all but silence independent media in Turkey, notably by forcing the closure of many media outlets, including television channels, by decree. Three months before the election, a government-loyal holding company took over a large media consortium, including two private television news channels, consolidating the government’s almost complete control over television news.
Under the state of emergency, the number of journalists and media workers in prison has shot up and is presently at over 170. The majority of those detained are being prosecuted for bogus terrorism offenses, based on no more than their peaceful and lawful journalistic activities or association with media companies. In February, courts convicted three prominent political commentators for involvement in the coup and handed down sentences of life imprisonment without parole. Their convictions and those of many other journalists who have been convicted in first-instance courts are on appeal.
Human rights defenders have also been prosecuted on bogus terrorism charges, and in some cases jailed, and nongovernmental organizations closed down by decree under the state of emergency. Thousands of people are being prosecuted for social media postings critical of government policy, the president, the police, or the courts.
Can opposition parties conduct their election campaigns effectively in this climate?
There is no level playing field in the pre-election period.
The government’s control of most media is compounded by limited airtime for opposition parties and presidential candidates. For example, members of Turkey’s official broadcasting watchdog RTÜK have reported major disparities in the amount of state television (TRT) coverage of President Erdoğan and the AKP as compared with coverage of opposition parties and candidates. From May 14 through 30, state television coverage of Erdoğan and the ruling AKP amounted to over 67 hours, with the main opposition CHP and its presidential candidate Muharrem İnce receiving six hours, the Good Party and candidate Meral Akşener 12 minutes, and other opposition parties less, and no coverage at all of the HDP and its presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş. RTÜK members have similarly reported that from May 1 to 24, the major private television news channels CNN Türk and NTV between them devoted 70 hours of coverage to President Erdoğan, 22 hours to the CHP and İnce, and 17 minutes to the Good Party and Akşener.
This inevitably restricts opposition parties’ and candidates’ ability to convey their campaign messages to Turkey’s voters. It also means voters have very limited access to information, independent news coverage, and non-government-controlled commentary about all the candidates and parties contesting the elections. This undermines their capacity to make an informed choice at the polls.
The opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and Demirtaş, its former co-leader, face the most obstacles in contesting the election. The HDP currently has nine members of parliament in jail including Demirtaş after they were stripped of parliamentary immunity, and 11 members have been stripped of their parliamentary seats.
Demirtaş is running for president from prison, where he has been held pending trial since November 2016. Demirtaş and other HDP parliament members face dozens of bogus terrorism charges, and in his case a possible 142-year prison sentence if convicted in the main ongoing trial against him. His lawyers have applied to Turkey’s constitutional court for his release to enable him to campaign in person. The major opposition parties have also called for his release.
Hundreds of HDP party officials have also been arrested on dubious terrorism charges over the past two years, a further hindrance to the party’s ability to campaign.
What is the impact of recent changes to Turkey’s Election Law?
The government rushed changes to the election law through parliament in March 2018.
The main change to the law allows parties to form electoral alliances to bypass the requirement in Turkey’s law that a party has to secure at least 10 percent of the vote nationally to win parliamentary seats. The possibility of electoral alliances has enabled the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to ally itself with the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) so that the latter can enter parliament. The MHP is supporting Erdoğan’s presidential campaign.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has also taken advantage of the change to form an alliance with the Good Party, the Felicity Party, and the Democrat Party, seeking to ensure that all will secure parliamentary seats.
The HDP and other smaller parties have not formed any electoral alliances and therefore to win parliamentary seats, each party will need to secure at least 10 percent of the vote nationally. That threshold is double that of any other Council of Europe member state and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has said it is too high.
Opposition parties contend that some of the new amendments to the Election Law may give the AKP and President Erdoğan a structural advantage at the polls or undermine the fairness of the elections.
For the first time, ballots that local ballot box committees have not stamped can be counted in this election as valid. When the Supreme Election Board issued a last-minute decision for the April 2017 referendum to count unstamped ballots, it caused great controversy, leading to concerns of ballot-box stuffing by opposition parties.
Changes to the law also mean that on the request of a ballot box official or simply a single-voter, members of security and law enforcement forces can enter the polling place to maintain security. These forces may be police, gendarmerie, and also private security personnel hired by local authorities. Citing unspecified security reasons, the Supreme Election Board can instruct electoral districts to merge and to move ballot boxes to the new locations.
The latter two provisions mainly affect the predominantly Kurdish southeast. Governors in 19 provinces have asked to move ballot boxes to new locations and the Supreme Election Board has reported that it has approved mergers affecting 144,000 voters. Opposition parties are concerned that the potentially significantly greater distances to vote could depress turnout.
The government has justified the potential deployment of security forces in polling places in southeast Turkey as a measure to prevent intimidation of Kurdish voters by members of the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). However, there are concerns that the decision is designed to -and will- prevent effective monitoring of fairness at the polls and that the presence of police and gendarmes could intimidate voters from voting for their chosen party if it is not part of the AKP alliance.
How have international human rights bodies assessed the climate under which Turkey is going to the polls in June?
On April 24, the Monitoring Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe issued a statement calling on Turkey to postpone the elections, citing the ongoing state of emergency, restrictions on media and fundamental freedoms in the country, and concerns over the changes to the electoral law, including that they were introduced only three months before election day. The Monitoring Committee has asked the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional law, to examine the electoral law changes.
The UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, called in a May 18 statement for lifting the prolonged state of emergency under which the June 24 elections are being held, asserting that “[p]rotracted restrictions on the human rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association are incompatible with the conduct of a credible electoral process in Turkey.”
What powers will Turkey’s next president have under the new presidential system?
Under the executive presidency that will come fully into force after the elections, there will be limited checks on the power of the president. The president will assume control of government and appoint vice presidents, ministers and high state officials. The position of prime minister will be abolished, and the president will have powers to legislate by decree and secure the presidency’s budget without parliamentary approval being a precondition. The president will be able to run for two five-year terms and have the power to dissolve parliament, although triggering parliamentary elections will also entail new presidential elections.
Two key changes to presidential powers entered into force immediately after the April 2017 referendum. The president assumed increased authority over the body that administers Turkey’s judiciary and controls the appointment of judges and prosecutors, and the prohibition against the president having a formal party affiliation was lifted. With courts in Turkey already under political influence, these two changes together further undermine any aspiration to strengthen judicial independence. President Erdoğan has assumed his current position of chair of the ruling Justice and Development Party, which currently has a majority in parliament.
Before the referendum, the Venice Commission had raised serious concerns about the concentration of powers in the office of the president. On March 13, 2017, it issued an opinion on the constitutional amendments concluding that the change “would introduce in Turkey a presidential regime which lacks the necessary checks and balances required to safeguard against becoming an authoritarian one.”
What will parliament’s role be under Turkey’s new presidential system?
Turkey’s parliament will continue to have the authority to draft and enact laws. In theory the president’s authority to issue decrees on matters that do not pertain to fundamental rights will not conflict with that role. In practice, the president will be able to exert huge influence over parliament and its law-making functions, especially when the president’s party has a parliamentary majority. In the absence of a parliamentary majority, the president’s influence over passing laws will be less pronounced but the presidential power to issue decrees has the potential to become a controversial means of bypassing parliament.
In the new system, parliament loses the authority to monitor the executive branch – the president, vice presidents, and ministers. Though the number of seats in parliament increases from 550 to 600 members, the body will not be able to introduce motions of no confidence in the executive and its officials. Parliament members will not have the authority to pose parliamentary questions to the president and will only be permitted to direct written parliamentary questions to the vice presidents and ministers.