Why are elections so tight almost everywhere? It’s a metaphysical mystery of our time. This week’s election in which Turkey’s autocrat was reelected by a wafer-thin majority is only the latest reflection of societies being so evenly divided that mischievous higher powers seem to be messing with our minds.
Are they? I do have a theory. But first, the data and the dilemma.
Some would see close contests as a victory for democracy and the battle of ideas—and in some cases that might be true. But the more bitter the battle is, the more nefarious are outcomes close to the 50 percent mark. They deprive everyone of true mandates at a time of major conflict that few saw coming.
Fascism had Mein Kampf, and communism had Das Kapital, but no one wrote The Authoritarian Manifesto. It was by stealth that a major global movement arose, mobilized the magnetic field of history’s vile dictatorships, and declared war on liberal democracy.
This movement despises liberal democracy’s idea that openness, human rights, minority protections, and checks on power are as important as majority rule to ensuring order, prosperity and a decent way of life. It preys on the lesser angels of people everywhere, tempting them with the comforts and certainties of closed societies, tribalism, and strongman rule.
When such revolutionaries win by a sliver—or, indeed, lose by only a sliver—it is asking for trouble. The problem is exacerbated when one finds stark socioeconomic divisions with the populist right supported by what is in effect the underclass. That yields ironies like the right in many places arguing for redistribution instead of the more usual capitalism.
The latest case of an even split is Turkey, where in Sunday’s presidential runoff the authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdogan won reelection with 52 percent of the vote, versus 48 percent for more liberal challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
The Islamist Erdogan has done vast damage to Turkey: it is a former aspiring true democracy where generals, politicians, activists, and journalists now often find themselves in jail; where courts are cowed, and the media is run by cronies of the president. As he has demonstrated, the president has vast powers to damage to the economy. Yet for half the Turkish people, that seems to be just fine.
Something similar happens in the United States, where every election in recent memory shows an electorate cloven approximately in half.
In this century’s U.S. elections, the winning side in the nearly binary contests won with 51 percent in 2020, 46 percent in 2016, 51 percent in 2012, 53 percent in the 2008 “landslide,” 51 percent in 2004, and 48 percent in 2000. Twice, of course, the side with fewer votes won under the convoluted and globally unprecedented Electoral College system, but that’s another matter.
Former President Donald Trump tried to get the last election, which he lost, cancelled. If he wins the Republican nomination again—which he might do on a clear authoritarian platform—he’ll probably get about half the vote.
In France, the centrist and essentially liberal Emanuel Macron twice handily defeated Marine Le-Pen for the presidency, but that is because the right-wing opponent was singularly loathed for perceived extreme racism. The result was that many right-wing voters could not abide their natural candidate and switched sides. In the last four French elections not involving Le Pen or her equally toxic father Jean-Marie, the winner received 52 percent in 2012, 53 percent in 2007, 53 percent in 1995 and 54 percent in 1988.
Could it be a Western thing? It seems not: the winner of Brazil’s binary presidential election won just under 51 percent last year, 55 percent in 2018, less than 52 percent in 2014, and so on.
And what of parliamentary systems? Countries that have such a multiparty system can be devilishly difficult to figure out, because of the many nuances between parties. But in those that do not allow a minority government, binary blocs tend to form, with the same magical result.
A case in point is Israel, where the plethora of parties and interest groups can be bewildering—but in fact everyone knows which of the two sides each party is on: an alliance of centrist and liberal parties which together with Arab ones want to preserve a Western liberal democracy, versus nationalist and religious ones whose vision of Israel is something much closer to a cross between Turkey and Iran.
So dire is the latter vision for the country that the ground may currently actually be shifting, but that is for the future; until now, every election in recent memory yielded something close to a tie. In the 2022 election that returned Benjamin Netanyahu to power, his populist-right bloc received just over 49 percent of the votes.
You won’t hear that much when he crows on “Meet the Press” about a “clear mandate”—one that he has used to try to install authoritarian rule, appointing the judiciary, overriding the courts, and so on. The result was revolt by the one-half of the country that accounts for a staggering majority of its GDP, and the plan is now in limbo amid some talk of civil war.
All over the world, from Asia to the Americas, close inspection reveals the same thing. This appears to be the norm. If we see a seriously lopsided victory, that’s generally a sign that the vote is rigged and the whole thing is a farce. There’s no need to name the countries: they know exactly who they are.
These vexingly tied election outcomes are fair, but not so square. None bestow a deep and true legitimacy but rather one of the technical, procedural kind. That it’s a recipe for unease and instability is clear. The question is why do populations almost always split straight down the middle? In the name of rational humanism, what is the thing in human nature that drives this irksome, ruinous trend?
I can think of a number of reasons for it.
Perhaps once a political movement achieves an edge it subconsciously stops trying—a reflection of how simply exhausting it is to persuade people. That could be so; but it seems too simple.
Perhaps it is because the issues these days are so confoundingly complex that many people cannot grasp them, making the result in any binary vote random—sort of the way male and female offspring are basically random, breaking even in the result. That’s quite likely in some cases, especially in referendums.
But I think the most likely reason is also the most nefarious. Maybe grand choices, due to forces that elude our understanding, tend to tap into aspects of the human condition that are by nature somehow evenly split.
I refer to states of being and fundamental characteristics that can pull at each of us at times with equal force. Appreciation versus anger. Optimism versus pessimism. Wisdom versus folly. And, yes, good versus evil.
Maybe the whole thing attaches to a struggle as old as humanity itself, which worms its way somehow in almost every story told: the never-ending war, at every level of endeavor, between our better and lesser angels.
Dan Perry is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. He is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press. Follow him at danperry.substack.com.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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