The first round of Turkey's highly anticipated elections is scheduled to take place on May 14th. Political analysts have focused their attention primarily on the prospects of the opposition alliance's candidate, Kılıçdaroğlu, emerging as the victor, a genuine possibility as indicated by several recent polls. Nonetheless, concerns are widespread about the consequences if Erdoğan refuses to concede and the ensuing instability. Unlike some presidents who have been known to resist the prospect of losing elections, such as President Trump in the United States in 2020 or Bolsonaro in Brazil in 2022, where the institutions were able to constrain the will of the executive power, Erdoğan has already eliminated checks and balances. Furthermore, the previous occasions when he lost the general elections in 2015 or the municipal elections in 2019 do not provide any reassurance for the coming weeks. In this vein, Erdoğan said on Thursday, “If the interests of our country and our nation are at stake, let alone making the political atmosphere tense, we will destroy the world.” Undoubtedly, he identifies himself with the nation’s interests, which is why the risks of political instability cannot be overlooked.
An idea that has been put forth to lessen the risks of a possible conflict involves extending concessions to Erdoğan rather than punitive measures. This includes granting him full amnesty. Some analysts have even suggested that the Turkish military could act as a guarantor in this agreement, ensuring a peaceful transition of power when Erdoğan leaves office. While these proposals could facilitate a rapid and orderly transfer of power, the key question is whether Erdoğan and his associates would ever place any trust in such guarantees.
The initial issue pertains to the quality of guarantees that the opposition can extend to Erdoğan. It is evident that verbal promises made by politicians do not hold significant value, especially given the hostility between the two sides. A written declaration by the opposition may hold more weight, although it could be dismissed readily in the event of an investigation by the prosecution. One potential solution could be a constitutional amendment that offers immunity from prosecution to former presidents.
Upon enactment, a constitutional amendment necessitates a minimum of two-thirds of the parliamentary votes or a referendum requiring at least three-fifths of the votes. Given the likelihood that the AKP and its supporters will hold a minimum of 40% of the parliamentary seats, it will be feasible for them to obstruct any such initiative. Therefore, it appears quite improbable that a former president could be tried without a broad consensus among political parties.
However, this kind of safety is not to be trusted by a Turkish political leader who is no longer in power. The 15th temporary clause of the 1982 constitution stipulated that the 1980 coup leaders would not be subject to criminal, financial, or civil liability and could not be prosecuted for their actions, a constitutional clause that was added before the army transferred power to civilian rule. This clause was abolished with the 2010 referendum, and the surviving members of the coup leaders, including the then Chief of General Staff General Kenan Evren, who became president in 1982 and held the office till 1989, and the commander of the Turkish Air Force, Tahsin Şahinkaya, were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014. However, both generals died in 2015 while their appeal was pending before the High Court.
One could contend that the convicted generals were brought to trial after the abolition of the relevant constitutional clause, and the outcome might have been different had the clause still been in effect. However, Turkey's recent history casts doubt on the effectiveness of constitutional safeguards. Despite unambiguous constitutional provisions against the removal of judges and prosecutors from their positions, more than four thousand judges and prosecutors were summarily removed from their jobs and arrested in the aftermath of the attempted coup on July 15, 2016. In the meantime, the European Court of Human Rights rulings, which declared these arrests unlawful, were largely disregarded by Turkish judicial authorities and the Erdoğan government.
Another proposal is that the army can act as a guarantor of the bargain. However, this option would require significant empowerment of the army, as its current political capabilities are a shadow compared to its past. It should be noted that the military's strong role in politics in the past was a significant factor in Erdogan's ability to gain support from different sections of society. If the military were to resume its role as a political arbitrator, it could lead to opening the gates of the flood.
In light of recent events in Turkey, it has become apparent that no guarantee, be it political, legal, or constitutional, can assuage the fear of loss and the potential consequences for Erdoğan and his government. The country's history has shown that even with such guarantees in place, they may not be enough to prevent criminal investigations. President Erdoğan is acutely aware of this reality, and it is unlikely that he or his associates would ever fully trust any such offer of impunity, no matter how ironclad the terms may be. So, instead of conceding defeat and retiring from politics, it seems that winning by any means is the only way forward in Erdoğan’s mind.