Two Elections in Two Allied Nations: Mexico and Turkey By Evren Celik Wiltse
Recent elections in Turkey and Mexico require more attention in the US. Both elections have significant long-term implications for the US foreign policy. The US-Mexican border is 2000 miles long, and it compels both parties to work together, in good times or bad. Turkey has been a NATO member since the 1950s. It has been a strategic ally during the Cold War, and still hosts significant NATO bases in Eastern Mediterranean.
Gone are the days when we could comfortably ignore elections in other nations as merely “domestic affairs”. Today, that line between domestic and international is ever more blurred. Some might even say, it was never that fortified to begin with! Whether we like it or not, the presidential races in our southern neighbor that has over 110 million population, and in our only NATO ally in the Middle East (population: 80 million!) matter a great deal.
Despite the long border, the US managed to avoid any major confrontation with Mexico for bulk of the 20th Century. This was largely due to the 71-year single party regime in Mexico, which brought a sense of predictability and status quo to bilateral relations.
In 2000, for the first time an opposition party won the Presidential race in Mexico. However, this victory did not rock the boat in US-Mexico relations, since the victorious party was a pro-business party from the center-right (PAN). Mexico’s new leader being the ex-CEO of Coca Cola, bilateral relations continued at maximum speed. After two terms of PAN presidency (12 years total) the founding party of Mexico (PRI) gained power again in 2012. In short, it was always mainstream, rightwing parties that dominated Mexican politics for decades. That is, until 2018.
June 2018 presidential elections mark a significant turning point for Mexican politics. Not only did a non-mainstream candidate won the presidential race, but also both chambers of the Congress achieved near gender parity. Both these developments indicate serious changes in the coming up years. But how come the establishment with such a long tenure could not win this time around?
To answer this, it might be better to look at the grassroots level. Even though the top executive branch oscillated between shades of right, there has been progressively growing dissent in Mexico at the bottom. Particularly since the 1980s, as the country steered more decisively towards free markets, groups that were harmed in the process began to mobilize against it. These included the rural population, working classes, indigenous groups, and even students and intellectuals.
The inauguration of NAFTA in 1994 was an important turning point for Mexico. It symbolized the elite agreement in Mexico that the country should cast its economic lot with the US. Today, thanks to NAFTA, Mexico’s largest export items include advanced technological items such as flat screen TVs and automobiles. However, not everyone in Mexico is thrilled about the economic model forged under NAFTA.
While NAFTA brought large auto factories to Mexico, it also brought cheap agricultural imports from the US. Moreover, it also allowed American agricultural giants to purchase vast swaths of land in Mexico. For many nationalist Mexicans, this free trade model brought in a rigged economic playing field. While the Mexicans occupied the lowest levels of the economic ladder, the foreign investors reaped the benefits. Free trade agreement with the US and Canada allowed their country to be freely exploited by global giants. All they got in return was lousy paying jobs for Mexicans. Moreover, in a short period of time, a fertile country such as Mexico became a net food importer. The corruption scandals and every growing death toll on drug related violence further fueled discontent.
Despite the compromised politics at the top levels, what is commendable in Mexico is their vibrant democracy endorsed by the middle and lower classes. In the last decades, Mexico was able to strengthen its democratic institutions and credentials. A strong civil society (both urban and rural), investigative journalists and professional/meritocratic federal institutions constitute the pillars of democracy in Mexico today. Together, they could effectively raise their voices and challenge the establishment politics when needed. It is remarkable that a non-mainstream candidate (AMLO) as the representative of the dissident and pro-democracy forces could garner more than 50% of the votes in the 2018 presidential race.
During Mexico’s 2018 presidential race, there were multiple presidential debates on TV and all the candidates were able to campaign across the nation without any overt suppression or distortion from the state authorities. Unfortunately, we cannot state the same for Turkish elections.
In direct contrast with Mexico, the presidential race in Turkey was tainted with state-sponsored suppression and irregularities. Turkey was under an emergency rule since a traumatizing coup attempt in the summer of 2016. Despite such a severe breach in the chain of command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Head of Intelligence maintained their jobs since then. While tens of thousands of low to mid ranking bureaucrats were fired by series of decrees, the masterminds of the coup, and the top military and political structures were never relayed in front of the public eye in a satisfactory manner. Even the timeline of the coup remains blurry. Contradictory statements about the whereabouts of the President, Prime Minister, Cabinet members, and top military and intelligence members obfuscate any transparent and objective analysis of the coup attempt. Court packing and politicization of the entire judiciary branch had completely crippled the sense of justice in the nation.
Unlike the established 6-year presidential elections and the rigidly enforced no re-election principle in Mexico, Turkey seems to be on an election overdrive, and term limits seem to be mere suggestions. There are elections or referenda almost every year, inevitably escalating political tensions and wrecking up the public finances. Meanwhile, Turkish lira keeps suffering a nosedive.
Below chart illustrates the astronomical depreciation of lira since the president announced snap parliamentary and presidential elections in Spring of 2018. Lira lost nearly 20% of its value within months.
The following chart illustrates the overall negative trend in Turkish lira. While many emerging economies gradually lose value against the Dollar over time, none of them suffer as severe depreciation and as high inflation rates as Turkey. Compared to Brazil, Mexico, India, or South Africa, Turkish currency remains the most vulnerable, largely because of the political instability and populist public expenditures during frequent elections.
Economic difficulties notwithstanding, Turkish opposition parties could barely mount election campaigns. The entire public security apparatus was positioned to curb their every move. In many cities, they were denied public forum. One of the opposition party leaders, the Kurdish candidate who had garnered over 6 million votes in the 2015 elections, was in detention for some twenty months. Multiple candidates to the Parliament also tried to run their campaigns from behind bars.
The mainstream media, including the public funded PBS of Turkey, TRT (Turkish Radio Television) effectively blocked the opposition candidates from public sight. They aired the incumbent president’s rallies in their entirety, while giving only seconds of airtime to opposition candidates.
Incumbency is a very strong advantage for parties and leaders. In most elections, regardless of the country, the party in power starts the race with significant advantage. It enjoys name recognition, and uses the resources at its discretion to secure another victory. This explains the early election enthusiasm of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey. They want to lock in the incumbency advantages they have for another 4-5 years.
However, when the same party wins over an over, it also creates a progressively growing constituency that is excluded from the sources of power. The elections in Mexico this summer showed that the mainstream politics in Mexico has excluded a large enough constituency, and no amount of incumbency power could hold back the democratic wave of dissent.
Unfortunately, the story in Turkey is different. Turkey had the same party in power since 2002. However, it lacked the basic minimum conditions for a fair and democratic race to mount a successful challenge. It has been ruled by decrees under an emergency rule for two years. Almost all objective international agencies unanimously state the dismal state of basic democratic freedoms, such as free press and speech. Academics, journalists and intellectuals with democratic integrity are either fired, or behind bars, or face long prison terms in politically motivated trials. Under such conditions, it is hard to talk about democratic political deliberation in the country.
A standard practice of presidential systems, such as having open public debates with all presidential candidates, could not take place in Turkey. The incumbent president refused to share airtime with any of the opposition candidates. One of the constitutional requirements for the seat of presidency in Turkey is having a college degree (Turkish Constitution, Article 101). Yet, even this clear constitutional requirement was neglected in favor of the incumbent.
In short, it was a win for the incumbent regime in Turkey, but the integrity of the race is fundamentally compromised. Basic procedural requirements for free and fair elections did not exist in Turkey for quite a while now. Whether or not the international community accepts such a compromised mandate matters a great deal for the sake of global democracy and US leadership in it.
Anyone interested in US foreign policy issues, particularly in immigration, trade and security issues should pay closer attention to the electoral changes in Mexico and Turkey. Ballot boxes in both countries delivered important messages. Effective foreign policy should be able to take these signals into account.
Evren Celik Wiltse is Associate Professor of Political Science at South Dakota State University.