One poll remains deadlocked while another has seen the population vote for a change of direction
It’s been a long two decades of dwindling freedoms in Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But his control is teetering on a ledge. The election couldn’t have come at a worse time for Erdogan, with his questionable response to the earthquakes and soaring inflation winning him a fresh batch of critics. Last Sunday Turkey headed to the polls. And the winner was… nobody. With neither former Index Tyrant of the Year Erdogan nor opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu reaching the 50% threshold needed to win the presidency, it’s back to the voting booths again.
In the week before the election, PEN Norway’s Turkey adviser shared a stack of interviews with Index, which made for sombre bedtime reading. Eleven representatives from the country’s major political parties discussed the state of free expression — or lack thereof — which Jemimah Steinfeld wrote about.
In one interview, Zeynep Esmeray Özadikti, who is a candidate for MP from Turkey’s Worker Party, wrote about the silencing of the LGBTQ+ community, hoping that if she as a trans woman is elected, it will be an important step: “In Turkey, the LGBTI+ community cannot use their freedom of expression in any way and are criminalised. Rainbow-themed products are banned, rainbow flags are seized in protests, Pride parades and indoor meetings are banned. Associations and organisations working for LGBTI+ rights are targeted and threatened.”
We could fill a whole magazine with stories about Turkey’s rocky relationship with free expression, starting with the repression of LGBTQ+ rights and Kurdish communities, and moving onto the scores of journalists who have been locked up. In our latest issue, our Turkey contributing editor Kaya Genç took a deep dive into one example of a newsroom going against the propaganda-led mainstream, Medyascope. If you want up-to-the-minute news on what’s going on in Turkey, their website is a good place to start (thank goodness for Google translate for those of us who haven’t yet set our Duolingo to Turkish).
In the run-up to the election, Turkish youth have been scouring YouTube for information that doesn’t come with a side-helping of propaganda, and the Turkish government has pulled out all the stops in silencing journalists reporting on the earthquakes, rather than focusing on… well… disaster relief. They haven’t shied away from blocking social media platforms either.
What happens next is important. If Erdogan wins, what will such a close call do to the state of Turkey’s freedoms? The first-round vote landed at 49.51% for Erdogan and 44.88% for Kılıçdaroğlu, and let’s remember who’s got the media on their side. The second round of voting is set for 28 May, and while Index would absolutely never ever back a specific candidate, we are hoping to see democracy prevail over autocracy.
Further east, and another country is undergoing a seismic change at the hands of an election held last Sunday. Where Turkey is in political limbo, Thailand is out the other side. Or is it? The country has had a military-backed government since the 2014 coup, but Sunday’s vote sent Thailand spinning off in a new direction, with the progressive Move Forward Party’s Pita Limjaroenrat likely to take the driving seat of a coalition. The party is breaking Thailand’s big taboo with plans to reform the monarchy, which is all the more poignant considering the democracy protests that started in 2020, when demonstrators asked for exactly that to happen. Under the current lese-majeste law, criticising the monarchy usually comes with a stint behind bars of up to 15 years. Thais asked for democracy. They asked for progression. They asked for the right to insult the king without spending over a decade in jail. And if all goes smoothly from here, that’s exactly what they’ll get.
But it is a big “if”. Not only will the House of Representatives (members of which were given their places through Sunday’s election) vote on who will be prime minister, so too will members of the Senate, who were selected by the military. And that’s where the story of Thailand’s democracy could come unstuck.