Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo credit: unaoc / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Elections in Thailand and Turkey did not yield victories for the countries' authoritarian leaders, but only time will tell if they are wins for democracy.

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Geographically, Turkey and Thailand are thousands of miles apart. In the “Democracy Matrix,” a tool that measures the quality of a country’s democracy, the two are almost neighbors. Among 176 countries, Thailand ranked 135th and Turkey 137th — and each was listed as a “moderate autocracy.” On Sunday, voters in both countries went to the polls in hopes of restoring their countries to healthier democracies.

It will likely be an uphill climb because, once you lose democracy to an authoritarian regime — even a “moderate” one — the road back is difficult. 

In Thailand, which has been led by a former general following a coup in 2014, two opposition parties were the decisive winners of the country’s parliamentary election. With 99 percent of votes counted, it is clear that, together, they will have a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives. Of the 500 seats, the “Move Forward” party is slated to hold 151 seats and the “Pheu Thai” party 141 seats. 

By comparison, the two parties associated with the current military government won a combined 76 seats and ended up in fourth and fifth place. 

However, while the result shows that Thais, especially young voters, overwhelmingly want change, it may be hard to come by. 

“Winning elections is not the hard part in Thailand,” tweeted Christopher Ankersen, a professor at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs. “Taking office and staying in office… that is the hard part.”

In this case, even taking office may be a challenge. That is because the next prime minister has to be elected by both houses of the Legislature, and Thailand’s military leaders have the power to appoint all 250 members of the country’s Senate.

This constitutional provision is an excellent example of how authoritarian governments can try to hold on to power. If they win the election, they can claim to represent the will of the people. If not, they have ways to subvert that will. 

However, in light of this overwhelming result, there is a chance that the winning parties will be given a chance to govern… at least for a while. 

“The modern political history of Thailand is people voting for civilian-led parties, only to have the military intervene, either with a coup, or by disbanding the party/charging opposition leaders/forcing politicians into exile,” tweeted Brian Klaas, an associate professor in global politics at University College London. “I hope this is the end of that awful cycle.”

In Turkey, current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to be headed for a runoff election in two weeks because neither he nor his opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, were expected to win 50 percent of the vote. 

This also appears to be a victory for democracy.

However, in the 20 years in which Erdogan has been in power, first as prime minister and then as president, Turkey has become less democratic and backslid toward authoritarianism.

That means that any challenger to his authority faces challenges that candidates in true democracies do not have to overcome. 

Following the last election in 2018, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which observes elections, recommended that “the authorities need to take necessary measures to ensure that the campaign is conducted in an atmosphere free from intimidation and fear of retribution, and to ensure a clear separation between the state and party.”

In other words, the Erdogan government has used its power to stifle his opposition while also cracking down on press freedoms in Turkey. 

“The media landscape is dominated by outlets whose owners are considered affiliated with the
government or depend on public contracts, which limits the diversity of available views,” the last ODIHR report stated. 

It recommended that Turkey’s laws “should be amended to bring it in line with international obligations on freedom of expression and media freedom.”

However, that has not happened, which has given Erdogan an edge that could prove decisive in a runoff.

While the challenges in Thailand and Turkey are different, they illustrate how difficult it is to restore democracy in countries in which authoritarian rulers have taken hold. 

Time will tell if either country succeeds this time around.


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