Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would consider calls from his far-right nationalist ally to hold game-changing presidential and parliamentary elections earlier than the scheduled date of Nov. 3, 2019. The call by Devlet Bahceli, the head of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), to bring forward elections — possibly to Aug. 26 — sent tremors through the political establishment, with opposition parties scrambling to come up with credible presidential candidates and tactical alliances that might deprive Erdogan of a second term.
Until now, Erdogan had angrily denounced mounting speculation about snap polls amid deepening financial troubles and growing unease of his authoritarian grip on power, saying the elections would be held as planned. But in an apparent shift, a poker-faced Erdogan told reporters today he was meeting with Bahceli tomorrow in Ankara. “We will evaluate [these] matters there,” he said. Erdogan noted he had nothing further to add other than that he had already aired his views on early elections. But he stopped short of saying these remain unchanged, thus implying he might be open to persuasion.
Government spokesman Bekir Bozdag reinforced predictions that early elections are on the cards. He said, “The [ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)] has a tradition of holding elections on time, and we have stated that the vote will take place as scheduled. But authorized party organs should assess this and it will be debated.”
The presidential elections are poised to fundamentally transform politics in Turkey. Whoever wins will be endowed with sweeping powers. Under the new rules that were narrowly approved in a April 2017 referendum marred by allegations of fraud, the post of the prime minister will be abolished. The president will have the authority to appoint Cabinet ministers, and most significantly to issue decrees with the force of law. The president will also appoint 12 of the 15 judges in the Constitutional Court.
The prevailing consensus is that should Erdogan plump for early polls, it is because of the economy that until recently is the AKP’s biggest trump card. But rising inflation, unemployment and a widening current account deficit coupled with the meltdown of the Turkish lira has taken its toll. Erdogan’s obsession with keeping interest rates as low as possible has added to pressure on the Turkish currency. Recent polls suggest that the economy ranks as the No. 1 worry among those surveyed. A study carried out in March by respected polling company Metropoll showed that 27.4% of respondents said the economy was the country’s main problem, while only 1.3% blamed the Kurds and 1.8% foreign powers, which are frequently cited by Erdogan as an existential threat.
Minister of Economy Nihat Zeybekci’s reaction to Bahceli’s comments has reinforced the view that the economy will be a determining factor in any decision to hold early polls. “Turkey needs to put the new [executive presidential] system in place … this [would be] a positive step with regard to economic predictability and sustainability,” he said.
Another reason that Erdogan is likely to agree to early parliamentary and presidential polls is that he wants them to take place ahead of municipal elections that are due to be held in March.
Sezgin Tanrikulu, a lawmaker for the main opposition secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), told Al-Monitor, “Our data shows us that the AKP could lose Istanbul, Ankara, Mersin, Antalya and some other big cities. The last thing Erdogan wants is to head into presidential and parliamentary elections after suffering that kind of humiliation in the municipal election.”
An early signal of just that kind of outcome came when the “no” votes prevailed in the April referendum in Istanbul, Ankara and the country’s third-largest city, Izmir.
Control over the municipalities offers endless opportunities for networking and patronage of a kind that could favor candidates of the parties that control the municipalities, and Istanbul and Ankara are key in this regard.
Finally, Erdogan, who despite 15 years in power continues to command around half of the popular vote, wants to deny his rivals time to organize. The government extended today the emergency rule slapped on in the wake of the failed 2016 coup for a seventh time and for a further six months. This means that if the elections are held in August, they will be conducted under emergency rule, which favors the government — and potential cheating — critics say.
There are two contenders: one confirmed and the other potential, who could dethrone Erdogan. The first is Meral Aksener, a feisty former interior minister who broke away from Bahceli’s party to form her own. Some pollsters reckon she could draw enough CHP, nationalist and disgruntled conservatives’ votes to defeat Erdogan in a second round of balloting. But under Turkey’s electoral laws, any party that competes in parliamentary elections or fielding a presidential candidate needs to have held a party congress six months prior to the election. This would disqualify her Iyi Party. She could run as an independent presidential candidate provided she gets 100,000 notarized signatures to do so. Aksener could overcome such hurdles, but can she win over the Kurds who make up an estimated 18% of the electorate?
Most analysts concur that the Kurds hold the key to power and Erdogan’s recent rampages against them locking up hundreds of their elected lawmakers and mayors, and ordering a crushing military assault against their brethren in the northern Syrian region of Afrin, means few — if any — will vote for him. In any case, the main pro-Kurdish bloc, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), is almost sure to field its own presidential nominee just as all the other opposition parties likely will.
Many reckon the HDP may nominate Selahattin Demirtas, the party’s former imprisoned co-chair who ran a successful campaign in the 2014 presidential run garnering an impressive 10% of the vote. “For now there are no legal obstacles to him running even from jail,” said Tanrikulu, though he declined to comment on who the CHP would pick as its candidate.
Despite his popular appeal among non-Kurdish voters, Demirtas cannot pull into second place. So the big question is what sort of candidate the Kurds would vote for should Erdogan fail to win in the first round. “Definitely not Aksener,” said Garo Paylan, an HDP lawmaker from Istanbul. “Even if we told our base to vote for her, at least half would disobey us — if not more,” Paylan told Al-Monitor, citing her record as interior minister in the 1990s at the height of government abuses against the Kurds. “I certainly would not vote for her.”
The only figure of any stature who currently fits the bill is the other potential contender Erdogan most fears: Abdullah Gul, the AKP’s co-founder and former president. A fervent backer of a peaceful solution to Turkey’s Kurdish problem and membership of the European Union, Gul can draw pious conservatives and liberals alike. If he were to pull in second, many secular voters could well back him, if only to stop Erdogan.
Gul does not have his own party, so if he were to take the plunge he would most probably do so with Saadet, the small Islamist party, whose septuagenarian leader, Temel Karamollaoglu, has been making waves with his scathing salvoes against AKP repression and the military campaign against the Kurds in Afrin. Running for Saadet gives Gul the benefit of not splitting ranks with the Islamists and deflecting potential accusations by Erdogan that he “betrayed the cause.”
Gul’s biggest obstacle is Gul himself. His reluctance during his seven years as president to criticize an increasingly dictatorial Erdogan has reinforced his image as an overly cautious, risk-averse milksop. “He is simply too scared to stand up to Erdogan’s bullying. I have little hope that he will step up to the plate,” Paylan said.
A political analyst, who declined to be identified by name for fear of retribution concurred, saying, “[Gul] is like a hunter who sits in the hunting lodge and waits for others to shoot the stag for him and bring it to his feet, whereas Erdogan is like a feline, who goes out and hunts his own prey.”
Yet it was Gul — not Erdogan — who mustered the guts to challenge Recai Kutan, the leader of Saadet’s predecessor, Refah, in 2000 over its narrowly focused Islamism, and to then split away to set up the AKP. It was also Gul who in 2007 decided to run for president, facing down Erdogan’s objections and the threats of a military coup. Gul could yet recover his steeliness, going back to the party he weakened and build it back to its former strength, and most importantly, doing the same for Turkey — or so Gul loyalists desperately hope.
akp, turkish elections, presidential elections, meral aksener, chp, mhp, abdullah gul, recep tayyip erdogan