From One Fragile Democracy to Another

Issue 259

Lessons learned in Turkey.

Yasemin Ozer Oct 28, 2020

The U.S. presidential elections this Nov. 3 might be the first day of an arduous vote-tallying process that could drag on for weeks. President Trump has already refused to state that he will concede peacefully if he loses, and regularly claims that mail-in votes, greatly increased this year because of the pandemic, will be fraudulent. As a citizen of Turkey, a fragile democracy with a history of military coups, where election results are contested and fraud is always a risk, I believe Turkey offers useful lessons for U.S. voters.

On March 31, 2019, Turkish citizens went to the polls nation-wide to elect mayors in their cities. As a resident of Istanbul, I cast my vote at the high school in my neighborhood. Istanbul, comparable to New York City in significance as the heart of the country’s economic, social and cultural life, is arguably the most important city to win in any election. The atmosphere was tense and collective anxiety palpable. After the polling stations closed and counting of ballots began in the evening, my family gathered in front of the TV and waited for the results.

As the night progressed and the results of the Istanbul mayoral race transformed into colorful pie charts on our TV screen, Binali Yıldırım, the candidate from the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), endorsed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was slightly ahead of his main rival, Ekrem Imamoglu, from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). With tens of thousands of votes still uncounted in one of the tightest races in recent history, Yıldırım prematurely declared himself the winner of the election and the mayor of Istanbul.

The state media outlet, Anadolu Agency, abruptly stopped broadcasting the vote count while the nation watched in shock. Conflicting statistics and numbers, claims of voter fraud, and a deluge of misinformation led to massive confusion and disorientation. In response, Imamoglu stood in front of cameras to assure his supporters that he and his team were not going to give up until making sure that every last ballot was counted.

As I stayed awake at night nervously waiting for the rest of the votes to be counted, viral photos of members of the parliament and volunteer citizens sleeping on top of ballot bags to protect them were circulating on social media. But the next morning, when I stepped out of my apartment, I was greeted by banners “thanking Istanbul for electing Yıldırım.” Clearly prepared long before the results were announced and put up overnight all over the city, the banners were visuals aimed to demoralize Imamoglu voters and claim a false victory by decorating the city with “evidence.”

Despite the banners, once all the votes were finally counted, Imamoglu had won by a slight margin. I remember my celebration of his hard-won victory being cut short when Yıldırım stated his refusal to accept the results. Istanbul voters had to wait for more than a month in limbo while the Supreme Election Council, the principal state institution in charge of elections, deliberated on the validity of the results. Clearly under pressure from the Erdogan government, the council annulled Imamoglu’s win and decided that the Istanbul election had to be repeated. Despite such an undemocratic ruling, Istanbul voters overcame election fatigue, held on to hope, and showed up once again at the polls on June 23, 2019, to elect Imamoglu as mayor again, this time with a clear margin.

As I look back over those events, I believe there are some strategies that might be applicable to the upcoming U.S. presidential election. The first step is to accept that the election results might take an unusually long time to establish, and even then, they might be contested. In such moments of political uncertainty, widespread confusion and collective anxiety must be expected. Systematic dissemination of manipulative misinformation is a real danger. Therefore, it is crucially important to insist on counting all the votes, check sources and verify information before sharing news, help community members remain hopeful, and manage collective emotions to keep the morale high through phases of uncertainty.

The second step is to try to think beyond a framework of U.S. exceptionalism. Over the last couple of weeks, the more I talk to my American friends, the more I realize that they have a subtle but strong sense of faith that the nation’s purportedly independent institutions will safeguard free and fair elections. Despite evidence of systematic voter suppression and gerrymandering (not to mention the 2000 election, when the Supreme Court voted 5–4 along party lines to stop the recount of votes in Florida and hand the presidency to George W. Bush), there seems to be an unshakable belief that elections cannot be stolen here, and that coups cannot happen in the United States, unlike in the rest of the world.

I understand how difficult it is to grapple with possibilities that seem viscerally impossible. My suggestion to think of the United States as a “fragile democracy” might sound outrageous. Yet in the name of protecting some of the most basic principles of electoral democracy, why not abandon this naive sense of comfort, think beyond U.S. exceptionalism, listen to the citizens of other countries, and be prepared for what used to seem impossible, but now is likely?

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