Discover more from Public Sphere
How Autocrats Win Elections
Rulers like Erdogan and Orban have learned how to tilt the playing field -- so the contest isn't fair.
Going into the elections of 2023, Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan looked vulnerable. The Turkish economy was in shambles. Inflation was running north of 50 percent; unemployment was around 10 percent. The government's response to a Feb. 10 earthquake in the Eastern part of the country was widely seen as inept. Yet, on May 28, he prevailed over his opponent, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, by a 52-48 margin in the second round of voting.
Going into the elections of April 2022, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban also looked vulnerable. Many observers thought Orban might lose his parliamentary supermajority, which allows constitutional changes without any input from the opposition party. Inflation was running at 8.5 percent; an economic crisis loomed due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Orban made enemies with Ukrainian President Voldoymyr Zelensky, the most popular European leader in a generation, and allied with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Yet, Orban's party, Fidesz, outperformed the polls and won by a 20-point margin, expanding its supermajority in Parliament.
Both of these elections were free. There wasn't widespread fraud. These votes certainly weren't like the Duma elections of 2011 in Russia, where rampant ballot-stuffing was caught on camera. However, the votes in Hungary and Turkey weren't fair. The opposition in both countries, despite putting aside their differences and attempting to run unifying (though uninspiring) candidates, were playing on a field tilted against them.
In Turkey, the television and print media is effectively under Erdogan's control. In one month, Erdogan got 32 hours of television coverage, while his opponent got 32 minutes. A potentially strong opponent, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, was sentenced to jail in December and banned from politics for insulting members of Erdogan's party; the judiciary is widely seen as under Erdogan's control. In the run-up to the elections, Erdogan also gave huge amounts of economic aid to the population: he increased the minimum wage, canceled interest on student loans, offered low-interest mortgage loans, offered a $10 billion aid package for tradespeople, and did an about-face on his prior stance on retirement, allowing 2 million workers to collect pensions early. Given Turkey's severe economic problems, the sustainability of these policies is highly questionable.
In Hungary, Orban also has near complete control of the media. A 30-minute pre-election speech by Orban was broadcast nine times in 24 hours on state television. His opponent, Petr Marki-Zay, got five minutes of airtime. Orban neutralized the Ukraine issue by portraying himself as the candidate of "peace and security" in the speech, keeping Hungary out of the war and the cheap energy flowing; his media dominance meant that his opponent had no meaningful platform to refute his claims. Before the elections, Orban doled out $5.35 billion in tax rebates, tax cuts, wage hikes, and added a "thirteenth-month" pension bonus, pushing up the budget deficit as the economy slowed due to inflation and the war.
Ahead of both elections, many in the West hoped that these elected autocrats would be voted out. For example, the cover of The Economist read "Erdogan must go" and "Save Democracy." But in the end, the votes were something akin to the ironic Samuel Johnson quote about second marriages as "the triumph of hope over experience."
Please consider becoming a member of Public Sphere. You can always get lies for free; the truth costs $5.83 a month, so in the long run, it's a lot less.
The opposition, despite doing all the things that political scientists say they should -- forming a big-tent coalition and running inoffensive candidates -- had no chance of winning. The opposition wasn't perfect: Kılıçdaroğlu made a lame attempt late in the campaign promising to kick out refugees and Marki-Zay struggled to balance such a wide left-right coalition. But in the end, it didn't matter what kind of campaign was run or whether the perfect candidate emerged.
Illiberal leaders like Erdogan and Orban can win elections, but without outright fraud or the sorts of fake referendums that happened in Saddam Hussein's Iraq with him winning 99.9 or 100 percent of the votes. It's enough cover that voters can think that the opposition has a chance, but in the end, Lucy won't let Charlie Brown kick the football.
This coming autumn, Poland is holding parliamentary elections. There are considerable questions over whether the ruling populist-nationalist party, Law and Justice, can maintain its parliamentary majority, as it polls slightly under the majority threshold. On May 29, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a bill creating a commission to investigate Russian influence, which would have the power to bar public officials from office for ten years. Much of the public sees this law as a potential way to bar the opposition from politics under spurious pretenses of Russian influence. This law has been criticized by the European Union and the U.S. (Duda said he would propose amendments softening the law, in an attempt to mollify critics.) Poland's ruling party is nowhere near as efficient as the lawyers of Hungary's Fidesz and isn't as autocratic as Erdogan's government. Still, Turkey and Hungary show there is a playbook for autocrats to win elections by their own rules -- and not much of an answer for how to stop it.