Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to get ahead of a downward curve in Turkey’s fortunes. He has – probably – done enough to win this new snap vote
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has called snap elections at the request of his ultra-nationalist ally, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), in a surprise move forced upon the government by the situation in Syria and economic worries.
Despite repeated assertions made over many months to the media and to his lieutenants within the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that elections will be held at the scheduled time, November 2019, Erdogan agreed to go to the voters following a public call on Tuesday from Devlet Bahceli, leader of MHP and Erdogan’s de facto coalition partner.
“The cross-border operations in Syria, and the historical events centring around Syria and Iraq, mean it has become a must for Turkey to surmount the uncertainty as soon as possible,” the Turkish president said, referring to the “uncertainty” of the country being in a transition phase between a parliamentary system and the new executive presidency system voted through in last year’s referendum.
The elections are due on 24 June, and Erdogan’s abrupt move to solidify his power rests on a strategy of avoiding risks that could impact on the AKP in the near future.
Erdogan wants to seize the day and ride the nationalist wave rising from Afrin
Critics note that 66 days is hardly enough time for the Supreme Electoral Council to prepare for both Turkey’s new two-tier presidential vote and the parliamentary election that will take place at the same time. This is the first time Turkey is holding elections under the new system. Typically, Turkey’s 58 million voters tend turn out in large numbers due to the very polarised nature of the domestic political scene. However, holding elections under the state of emergency imposed after the failed coup of July 2016 has long been a point of contention because of the restrictions on freedom of assembly and campaigning.
There are several reasons for Erdogan and MHP to opt for elections 17 months ahead of schedule:
1. ‘Seize the day’: Erdogan’s electoral coalition with Bahceli managed to reach the 51 percent needed to win the April 2017 referendum (despite reports of irregularities in Kurdish areas). After experiencing a dip in polls following that vote, the coalition has more recently seen its support grow in the wake of the Turkish incursion into the Syrian town of Afrin; a loud nationalist drumbeat in the public arena has accompanied this surge. The two parties have already pledged to enter the upcoming presidential election in a coalition, and they currently hover somewhere between 42-52 percent in the opinion polls. Erdogan wants to seize the day and ride the nationalist wave rising from Afrin.
2. Looming economic problems: The Turkish economy is showing serious signs of vulnerability that the government can paper over for a few more months – but not all the way to November 2019. Turkey currently suffers from Erdogan’s chosen model of high growth, one which has yielded high inflation, high interest rates, high government spending, high unemployment, and a high current account deficit – all made worse by Turkey’s inability to attract foreign investment. The Turkish president remains very hands-on in the economy and he believes that government spending on major infrastructure projects will provide enough stimulus in these difficult times. In private meetings and in public, Erdogan has refused to acknowledge the correlation between Turkey’s democratic backsliding and its poor investment climate – and he has publicly chastised lieutenants like deputy prime minister Mehmet Simsek for such comments. The reality, though, is that Turks are keeping savings in US dollars, major corporations are moving funds abroad, and the construction sector – the apple of the Turkish president’s eye – is in a dire state. Economists predict that tough times lie ahead, despite a recent stimulus package and Erdogan’s announcement that the major Istanbul airport project will be followed this year by the construction of a new canal in Istanbul. The AKP’s economic strategy will likely be to pedal hard for a few more months and flood the country with cash in the form of government hirings, incentives, a credit guarantee fund – and hope that things will improve after the elections.
3. State of the opposition: As usual, Turkey’s opposition is divided. In theory, opposition parties enjoy enough votes among themselves to mount a real challenge to the AKP-MHP bloc. But in reality they are politically fractured, ideologically diverse, and face real legal hurdles that makes it difficult to organise. Turkey’s secular main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), does not yet have a candidate to run against Erdogan, and now has just a few weeks to find someone who is enough of a name to stand. The right-wing Iyi Party, led by former deputy speaker of the parliament, Meral Aksener, may or may not be able to enter the elections under the party banner – depending on the ruling by Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council set to be issued in the next few days. Once hailed as Turkey’s Emmanuel Macron, Aksener has failed to galvanise the conservative public and, with Turkish nationalist credentials, is an unlikely candidate to attract the 10-15 percent Kurdish vote, including the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and the conservative Kurdish vote that has traditionally gravitated towards the AKP but is now looking for a new home. Meanwhile, the pro-Kurdish HDP is still polling at 10-12 percent but faces enormous challenges and legal obstacles after being targeted by the government as a “terrorist” outlet and an ally of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Its former chairman, Selahattin Demirtas, is in jail facing decades of imprisonment in 99 cases against him. In addition, Turkey’s post-coup crackdown saw the incarceration of around 6,000 HDP party officials, half a dozen elected members of the parliament, and 85 Kurdish mayors. The AKP-MHP strategy will likely be to put further pressure on the pro-Kurdish party in an effort to push it below the 10 percent threshold – which would deny it parliamentary representation. In short, the AKP’s strategy to win the elections might rest in large part on delivering a knockout blow to their opponents.
4. New election laws: Opposition members also complain that Turkey’s new election laws make it extremely difficult to provide the types of checks at the polling stations that had been the hallmark of Turkey’s elections since the late 1940s. Turkey’s recently passed and much contested election law allows security forces to be stationed close to ballot boxes (a problem in Kurdish villages) and for the local electoral board to move ballot boxes to different districts if they feel it is necessary. Publicly available voter lists are expected to be announced by the Supreme Electoral Council next week but the opposition will have almost no ability to verify the voter registry for so many voters. Other provisions include the election board splitting up registered voters in a particular building (making it impossible for the residents to monitor voter lists and raise concerns about potential fake voters). Another major point of contention with the new law is the provision that allows election officials to accept unsealed ballots as valid, raising fears of ballot-stuffing among the opposition. Coupled with the state of emergency, this new legal structure and the composition of the newly appointed Supreme Electoral Council make it difficult to provide the types of electoral check and monitoring that had been characteristic of Turkish elections and, according to the opposition, provides the AKP and MHP with an edge.
Given this backdrop, including the parlous state of the opposition, Erdogan currently seems well positioned to win the 51 percent needed for his re-election as president. But then, Turkey’s strongman will still have to deal with the mess in Syria, tense relations with the West, a possible economic collapse, and a polarised society which will continue its demand for the authorities to lift the state of emergency.
All said, elections are still two months away. Two months is a long time in Turkey.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.