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Concerns rise as Turkey debates postponing elections for a year amid earthquake recovery

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Debates in Turkey over whether the government can postpone elections scheduled for June as the country grapples with the aftermath of two major earthquakes that hit its southeastern region on Feb. 6 have sparked concerns about the country’s already ailing democracy.

The official death toll in Turkey from last week’s earthquakes stands at 31,974, with more than 80,000 injured.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Monday called for the postponement of the elections, citing the need for the government to focus on recovery efforts. However, experts and opposition politicians have criticized the idea as unconstitutional.

“The constitution is very clear. Elections can only be postponed in the event of war. Since there is no war, elections cannot be postponed,” main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu told the Yetkin Report news website on Tuesday.

According to Article 78 of Turkey’s constitution, only parliament can postpone elections for a year at the most, and that is in the event of an officially declared state of war. The earthquakes, as tragic as they were, do not meet these criteria.

Kılıçdaroğlu said if Turkey is a state governed by the rule of law, it is not possible to postpone the elections.

Rumors of a postponement began circulating after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed his commitment to completing reconstruction work in the earthquake-stricken region within a year.

Journalist Fatih Altaylı claimed on Feb. 13 that the elections might be postponed for at least six months, possibly a year.

Elections were originally scheduled to be held in June 2023, five years after the 2018 elections. President Erdoğan had also expressed his intention to hold the elections on May 14, a plan that now seems uncertain.

Jailed former Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş took to Twitter on Feb. 13 to criticize the move, saying that “the people will not allow such a decision” and that the earthquake is not an excuse for a “transition to dictatorship.”

“Neither the YSK [Supreme Election Board] nor the president can postpone the elections. If there is a [provision in the] constitution, no decision by the YSK or any other body has any effect. Our constitution is above both the president and the YSK,” opposition Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), spokesperson İdris Şahin said. 

Ali Yıldız, a Brussels-based lawyer and founder of The Arrested Lawyers Initiative, told Turkish Minute that “neither the declaration of a state of emergency nor a disaster justifies the postponement of elections.” 

“The YSK does not have the power to adopt such a decision,” Yıldız said, underlining that only the parliament can postpone the elections, and it can only do so in the case of war.

Yıldız reminded even when Turkey was waging war against allied powers for its independence between 1920-1922, the elections were held and parliament continued its function during the war.

“Today, the only thing [left] to call Turkey a democracy is the transition of power through elections,” Yıldız said, adding that if the election is postponed despite the very clear provision in the constitution, it may lead to the end of the timely transition of power through free elections. 

“It is a very dangerous way to go,” he said.

Turkey was ranked 147th among 179 countries in the Swedish-based Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute’s liberal democracy index, placing among the bottom 20 percent, according to the V-Dem report published in March.

Turkey is among the 10 countries that “autocratized” the most, together with Brazil, India, Poland, Serbia and Hungary, according to the “Democracy Report 2022.”

The report classified Turkey as an electoral autocracy and placed it among the countries with toxic levels of political polarization.

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