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When Erdogan Hints At Not Accepting Defeat, He's Playing With Fire

President Erdogan and his allies have spent the final weeks of the campaign questioning the political legitimacy of their opponents' eventual victory ahead of the May 14 election. When the vote does come, the risk of setting off a veritable civil war is real.

Campaign posters of opposition Republican People's Party, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and opposition leader Kemal Kilicdarogluon electoral posters in Istanbul on May 3

Levent Gültekin


ISTANBUL — There’s a Turkish saying about how the words and sentences about a certain topic are worse than the topic itself. In other words, talking about something may be worse than it actually happening. The topic that I’m going to write about now is a little like that. And yet, the problem doesn't go away by not talking or writing about it.

Süleyman Soylu, Turkey’s Interior Minister, recently compared the upcoming May 14 elections to the coup attempt of June 15, 2016.

Can you comprehend this? The man who will be in charge of the security of the ballots is presenting the elections as a coup attempt before anyone has gone to vote.

Binali Yıldırım, another heavyweight of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), equated the elections to Turkey’s war of independence after World War I.

Yet another AKP official, Nurettin Canikli, claimed that Turkey would cease to exist as a nation if the opposition wins the elections.

Finally, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself said that a victory of his main opponent, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, would only happen with "the support of Qandil," a reference to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK which Turkey recognizes as a terrorist organization, and based in Iraq's Qandil Mountains.

All of these statements are a clear challenge to the nation’s will.

I believe the night of the upcoming elections will be one of the most critical nights in the history of modern Turkey.

Because the current government is turning this into something more than just elections by declaring that their own success at the polls is a matter of life or death for the country.

​Rising tensions

The statements above are the sort that support those who believe the AKP won’t be giving up the power even if they lose the elections.

In case victory comes with a small margin, there will be doubts.

Moreover, the Supreme Elections Council (YSK), the ultimate authority regarding the elections in Turkey, also made some unlawful decisions that would raise such concerns; including that cabinet ministers can run for parliamentary seats without resigning from their positions.

The current system for the presidential elections allows victory with 50+1 percent of the vote, which makes each vote very meaningful. In case victory comes with a small margin, there will be doubts about the authenticity of that margin.

All of these unfortunately raise the tensions around Sunday's election night.

Poster of Turkey's President Erdogan in IstanbulPoster of Turkey's President Erdogan in Istanbul

Depo Photos/ZUMA

Danger on the horizon

Let me stop beating around the bush and say what I really want to say.

I have talked to many people in recent days including retired politicians and bureaucrats. All of them are worried about civil conflict on election night. They are worried by the whispers from behind the scenes regarding some unlawful steps the government may take on election night.

I don’t know if these worries are grounded, whether the ruling administration would make a decision that will set Turkey afire.

However, we may face great danger if the government makes an unlawful move via the Elections Council or deny the outcome by claiming “this is a coup.” It would take just a spark.

All of us, but especially those in power, should acknowledge this fact: There are no winners in a civil conflict and violence; the greatest loser in these kinds of unwinnable conflicts would be Turkey itself.

Opposition's responsibility 

Therefore, the opposition has great responsibilities, too.

The data which they’ll provide from the ballots must be as accurate as it can be without the slightest room for doubt.

It’s the data to be shared by the opposition that can ultimately help convince skeptical groups in society about the election outcome, whether the government would be victorious or the opposition.

I hope the government won't make a crazy decision at the expense of the country.

The reliability of that data also ensures legitimacy for the next government in the eyes of the world.

Such a debate of legitimacy may be able to prevent the government from taking such steps. The opposition parties should have their strategies prepared in case they face a possible unlawful move.

Neither the optimistic view that the government wouldn’t go this far, nor the mentality of “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” eliminates the danger.

If the opposition starts a debate on foul play in the elections without concrete data, that too would increase the possibility of civil conflict as much as the government attempting to manipulate the election outcome by using words such as “coup” or “war of independence.”

I truly hope the government won't make a crazy decision at the expense of the country.

I hope the opposition will be able to demonstrate the capability, intelligence and responsibility to prevent any unlawfulness.

Otherwise we all lose.

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Updated Nov. 30, 2023 at 12:10 p.m.

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