ISTANBUL – Late Sunday night, after the polls closed and election officials started opening ballot boxes and counting votes, nearly every television in Beşiktaş, a neighborhood in central Istanbul that is a stronghold district for the main opposition party, was turned to Fox. The news channel, which many consider to be one of the last opposition outlets still on the air, was live streaming election results as the country’s only wire service Anadolu Agency sent in vote counts.
Turks sitting at bars, hookah cafes, pubs, and restaurants pretended to not follow each fraction of a percent of votes as it was reported. But everyone had the same, pressing question on their minds: was the opposition going to drag President Erdoğan into a runoff election, and was Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party going to retain its grip on parliament?
In what was one of the most exciting—and dirty—elections in a decade, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been president since 2014 and whose party, the AKP, has been in power since 2002, snuffed out the hopes of government critics and secured the presidency with over 52 percent of the vote. His party formed an alliance with a far-right nationalist party (MHP) and together won about 54 percent. But amongst wild accusations of vote manipulation, suppression, and media blackouts for the opposition, experts have been asking whether anyone actually thought Erdoğan would let himself be defeated.
This election was also the first held after Erdoğan won a referendum last year to vastly increase his presidential power. The referendum abolished the prime ministry, consolidated executive powers to the president, and increased the number of parliamentary seats to 600. Erdoğan, having won the election, is set to take control with the new powers his referendum granted.
This was also the first election in which parties could form alliances to compile votes and reduce the risk of not gaining enough votes to win seats. Turkey has the highest parliamentary threshold in the world, at 10 percent of the votes. If a party doesn’t win 10 percent, they receive no representation in the legislature, and all votes of parties that don’t pass the threshold automatically are awarded to the winning party. While the AKP together with the MHP gained more than 50 percent of the vote, the party itself only won 42 percent of the vote. This is only the second time since the party first gained control of parliament in 2002 that it hasn’t won a majority of the seats by itself.
With the presidential election, what galvanized Erdoğan’s opposition so much this year was a candidate who ran back and forth across the country, holding more than 100 rallies, and who charismatically connected with voters angered and scared by the direction Erdoğan is pulling Turkey. Muharrem Ince drew enormous crowds, drawing several million supporters in Istanbul, more than 2 million in Izmir, and, a first for the Republican People’s Party (CHP), huge crowds in the eastern Kurdish city of Diyarbakir.
But running a campaign against the most powerful man in the country was no easy feat, and Ince was barely able to make TV appearances, get his rallies aired, or reach the voters he tried to connect with. When he held a rally in Istanbul with millions in attendance, major television networks instead decided to show Erdoğan visiting the construction site of the new Istanbul airport or a television interview with one of Erdoğan’s aides. Meral Aksener, the candidate for the newly formed Good Party, was able to grab even less election coverage, and the candidate for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) had to campaign from jail, where he’s been held for over a year without a conviction.
Beyond the media blackout for opposition candidates, the AKP seemed to be doing everything it could to make sure HDP wouldn’t pass the threshold. In the weeks before the election, numerous polling station officials for the HDP were arrested or detained throughout the provinces where it draws most of its support. A decree that the High Election Commission issued said that women staying in shelters, having fled from abuse, wouldn’t be able to cast votes in the election. Frequent accusations of terrorism were hurled towards the Kurdish-majority HDP, inevitably to animate nationalist Turks.
On the day of the election, videos surfaced, showing men stuffing stacks of ballots into boxes in Şanlıurfa in the southeast—the same district where four people were killed in a brawl that erupted after an argument about politics. Polling stations closed at 5 p.m. and people anxiously refreshed their phones and found TVs to watch the incoming totals.
By the time 10 p.m. rolled around Sunday night, final vote tallies were being sent to news stations. The opposition cried foul on social media, alleging Anadolu Agency sent out manipulated results and telling supporters to wait for official counts. Ince passed 30 percent in the unofficial results, and before the official results were announced, Erdoğan claimed his own victory and said he would make his way to Ankara to do his balcony speech, a post-election AKP tradition.
False, or misinformed, videos surfaced on Twitter where people claiming to be election officials in Ankara announced that Ince was actually four points ahead of Erdoğan in the official tally and said not to lose hope. Anadolu Agency typically sends in vote counts from precincts that support the government, giving Erdoğan an initial lead on average 25 points higher than the final results. His lead dropped nearly 15 percent from its starting place, but never below 52 percent. HDP won 11 percent of the vote and secured 67 seats in parliament.
Late in the evening, Ince sent a text to Fox news anchor Ismail Kucukkaya, who was broadcasting live when he read the message. “The man won,” he said in his message. “Of course, the race wasn’t fair. We experienced a few problems in the campaign. I have things to say, but I accept that he won.”
After months of hype, Ince’s supporters expressed their feelings of crushed hope, of abandonment after a campaign that ended with a text message concession. The following day, when he held a press conference to officially concede, Ince demanded that reporters from TRT, the state-run news channel that continuously denied him coverage, leave.
What happens next is uncertain. Amidst an economy growing slower than inflation, growing discontent with the state of affairs, and a currency that has bled value in recent months, many wonder how Erdoğan will continue to retain such broad support. But after being in power for 16 years, with his newly won term set to end in 2023, and with a majority of seats in parliament together with the MHP, Erdoğan now has the time—and the power—to deal with the problems the country faces in whatever way he pleases.