Would President Recep Tayyip Erdogan actually allow himself to lose an election? And could pressure from Turkey’s Western allies help ensure that he does? These are two of the most pressing questions confronting Turkish political commentators in the years leading up to Turkey’s 2023 presidential elections. They also mirror the still unanswered questions surrounding the origins of Turkish democracy 71 years ago. Looking back on this history doesn’t offer any certain predictions about the future, but it can help better frame the stark challenge Turkey is facing today.
In 1950, just a decade or so after he inherited uncontested authoritarian rule from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkish President Ismet Inonu beat back opposition within his own government to hold free, multiparty elections. He expected to win. When he didn’t, he dismissed offers from his security services to reverse the result and simply stepped down. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, with fascist dictatorships ruling the Iberian Peninsula and Communist dictatorships ruling Eastern Europe, this act of liberal statesmanship appeared truly remarkable. Indeed, it may have appeared all the more remarkable to those who had experienced the brutality of Inonu’s policies — whether Kurdish villagers who lived through the 1938 Dersim massacre or Istanbul Christians who had been exiled after failing to pay a confiscatory wealth tax in 1942.