Populist regimes and popular legitimacy: A couple of lessons from Istanbul

June 26, 2019 12:00 AM
Simonelli (University of Barcelona)

By Marco Antonio Simonelli*

On June the 23rd, the citizens of Istanbul were called, for a second time in a three months span, to elect their major. The first election, held in March 2019, gave a narrow victory - around 14.000 votes - to the opposition candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu, but were annulled by the Supreme Court on allegation of electoral frauds coming from the Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (‘the AKP’). A second election was thus called on the 23rd of June, in which İmamoğlu obtained a victory by a much more significant margin, having attracted 55% of the popular vote with a turnout of 85%. This victory, celebrated both by international observers and Istanbul citizens, has a significance that can hardly be overestimated: after 25 years of AKP dominance, indeed,  Turkey’s most important city will be administered by the laic Popular Republican Party (‘the CHP’). Further, this proves that Turkey is still not a fully fledged authoritarian state, as the government remains tied to some form of popular legitimacy.

No doubt that the calling of a second election by Erdogan ultimately produced a ‘boomerang effect’ for the ruling party, however, also in light of the results of the March elections, where AKP lost power also in Ankara and Izmir, it is possible to develop some broader consideration about the health status of democracy in Turkey.

The process of democratic backsliding in Turkey has known an uncontrollable acceleration after the failed coup d’état in July 2016. In the afterwards of the failed coup, Erdogan in fact purged more than 50.000 civil servants, from university professors to judges, without any process and jailed journalist critics towards government -  Turkey has now more journalist in prison than China and Russia. As a consequence, the space for civil society has shrunk considerably and the media are controlled by the government. Also, in 2017 a constitutional reform, approved by a narrow margin with a popular referendum, concentrated powers in the hands of the President of the Republic and gave him an essentially unfettered power to appoint officials and especially judges. Not surprisingly then, in 2018 Freedom House declassed Turkey country status from ‘partly free’ to ‘not free’. Given this dramatic background, the results of the recent mayoral elections are somehow unexpected, but there are some factors that may explain this outcome.

First, the country’s economic situation. After years of fast pace GDP growth, in 2018 Turkey entered in a period of economic troubles, characterised by a strong inflation and a debt crisis, provoked, according to economists, by an unorthodox policy by Erdogan’s government on interest rates. Therefore, it may be tempting to read the election of İmamoğlu as a way to manifest discontent towards the current government’s economic policies. As the DEMOS project advances, it will be therefore interesting to assess the relationship between a country economic situation and the presence of populists governments. Further, DEMOS may also be a testing ground from a recently formulated hypothesis, the ‘social contract of democratic backsliding’, which the Istanbul mayoral elections seem to corroborate. According to the proponent of this theory, in fact, the democratic legitimacy of populist regimes is founded on a contract in which, in exchange for significant advantages in political competition, the government commits itself to deliver economic welfare to its citizens. Thus, when the government is no longer capable to fulfil its promise it will be unavoidably lost people’s support and hence the power. Yet, this idea seems to disregard the importance of the checks and balances which characterise contemporary constitutional democracy. Therefore, in the course of the project we shall seek to assess to what extent constitutional reforms in populist regimes made difficult for opposition parties to grasp the power and to what extent populist parties can be said to enjoy some form of  democratic legitimacy.

Secondly, international actors also have played a role. Albeit with some hesitations in the beginning, the Council of Europe, and above all the European Court of Human Rights (‘the ECtHR’), have tried to push Turkey to improve its human rights and rule of law record. Recently, on 16 April 2019, with the long-awaited decision in Alparslan Altan v. Turkey, the ECtHR for the first time declared incompatible with the Convention a common Turkish emergency practice, hopefully signalling the end of an excessively lenient approach that followed the attempted coup of July 2016. But also NGOs and the academic world, by routinely condemning Erdogan’s actions and by being present at the farcical trials instructed against political opponents, have helped to foster the resistance of the Turkey civil society,  the ultimate real winner of this last round of elections, who did not feel abandoned in its struggle against the government.

One of DEMOS's objectives is indeed to assess how international organisations, and above all the European Union may contribute to halting the democratic decay in European countries. And, the lesson that we need to learn from the Istanbul elections is that the EU should firstly be worried about delivering economic and social benefits to all of its citizens. To that extent, we do agree with Piketty that is necessary to shift the focus of EU institutions from financial and budgetary objectives to social justice.

*Simonelli holds a PhD in Comparative Constitutional Law from the University of Siena. He  currently  works as a Researcher on the DEMOS Project as a member of the University of Barcelona team. His current research interests focus on judicial independence and the impact of populism on accountability mechanisms.

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