Until the morning of 17 April, those who talked about early elections in Turkey were described as insane or as seeking factional interests and targeting the stability of the country. Therefore, the proposal made by Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli, to bring forward the elections to late August, came as a surprise to everyone. The MHP is not only an ally of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), but is also known as the driving force behind all the early elections in Turkey since the 1980s. Early elections certainly aren’t good for the health of the democratic system, neither in Turkey nor anywhere else.
Over the seven decades of the Turkish democracy, the country witnessed two military coups, a failed coup attempt and a number of direct and indirect military interventions in political life. Turkey also experienced fragile coalition governments that were unable to manage the government and state affairs properly. This means the option of early elections were traditionally associated with a flaw in governance mechanism and considered treatment through moxibustion when the political class is unable to find a less painful treatment.
However, despite the lack of any signs indicating a crisis, Bahceli succeeded in persuading President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that early elections were necessary and in the best interest of the country. Thus, after a brief meeting between Bahceli and Erdogan, the president confirmed the call for joint parliamentary and presidential elections on 24 June (on the grounds that the date proposed by Bahceli was not appropriate, since it was in the middle of summer vacation). The original date for the elections was after the president’s term is over and after the current parliament’s term is over, i.e. November 2019, and since the transition to the presidential system, approved by the April 2017 referendum, is not complete until after the presidential and parliamentary elections, holding the elections in June would mean shortening the transitional phase by about 15 months.
Erdogan does not need early elections, as after returning as head of AKP, and given the level of understanding between himself and the Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, the president is exercising the same authority he would have when the transition is made to a presidential system. However, it is clear that the president is convinced that the long transitional period between the parliamentary and presidential systems has created a state of concern on the political and economic levels and left a negative effect on the value of the Turkish lira. It also has a negative effect on the confidence of rivals and enemies in the stability of the country and its ability to face regional challenges. In addition to this, there are some in the AKP who believe that the high economic growth figures from last year, the considerable fall in the unemployment rate and the satisfaction with the results of the Afrin operation, reinforce the president’s electoral chances as well as the chances of his party. Waiting until 2019 would mean a decline in the effect of these positive developments, as well as the emergence of unexpected negative political and economic surprises.
Once the early elections were announced, circles within the AKP began talking about the results of the elections with a great deal of self-confidence. Over the past few months, Erdogan visited most of Turkey’s provinces, speaking at the party’s local branch conferences and worked on promoting his fighting spirit. Despite the fact that the opposition parties have welcomed the early elections, they are certainly not completely prepared to fight this battle, especially since there are about 65 days left until the elections.
Unlike the leader of the Iyi Party, which broke away from the MHP and which still does not have deep roots in the country’s provinces, none of the opposition parties agreed on a candidate for the presidential elections. It seems that the Republican People’s Party, the main opposition party, is in the midst of a bitter internal dispute after one of its MPs announced his candidacy for presidency without discussing it with his party’s leadership. Regardless of the controversy surrounding the style of President Erdogan’s leadership in the last few years, there is no potential candidate in the political arena that could pose a serious threat to the president’s chances of winning the election.
However, there are indications that excessive self-confidence will not help the AKP win, neither in the parliamentary nor presidential elections. There are major obstacles to overcome before the party can succeed in maintaining majority seats in parliament and the president succeeds in returning to the leadership of the country in light of the new governing system. The referendum regarding the constitutional amendments that approved the transition to the presidential system exposed the reluctance of a considerable part of the conservative middle class to support the proposed changes by the AKP. Persuading those who had reservations about the constitutional amendments and supporting the Justice and Development Party and its president is one of the most important challenges of the elections, especially in the major Turkish cities.
The challenge of the declining supportive Kurdish votes is no less important. Traditionally, the AKP wins about 50 per cent of the Kurdish vote, while a similar per cent of the Kurdish vote goes to the Peoples’ Democratic Party, which has a nationalist Kurdish orientation, similar to the PKK. There are growing indications of the renewed conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state that erupted in the summer of 2015, which would mean the AKP would no longer have the same number of supportive Kurdish votes, neither in the southeast part of Turkey nor in the cities with large numbers of Kurdish people. An alliance between the AKP and MHP would not necessarily help the efforts to restore Kurdish supporters. There is considerable scepticism among a number of AKP leaders that the alliance with the MHP could offset the decline in support from Kurdish voters, especially after Meral Aksener and a group of MHP cadres split from the party and established the Iyi Party.
However, the biggest threat to the AKP’s electoral changes concerns the position of former president Abdullah Gul and whether or not he will run in the elections, backed by a number of former AKP officials and most of the opposition parties. If Gul decides to step foot on the presidential battlefield, it could cause a painful rift in the conservative camp, which is the largest electoral bloc in the country, and make predicting the results of the election very difficult. What is astonishing about the excitement surrounding speculations regarding Gul’s position is that he has become a source of hope not only for the conservatives opposed to Erdogan, but also for the left and traditional secular centre-left. Meaning Turkish politics no longer revolves around the battle between the conservative camp and the Kemalist left camp, but also the battle within the conservative camp itself.
In the end, regardless of the fact that the elections will be early elections, there is no doubt that this is a crucial election by any measure. This is not only because it represents the threshold for a transition to a new system that Turkey has not known since the founding of the republic. Had the presidential system been applied in the 1950s or 1960s, it would not have attracted the attention of so many. However, today, Turkey’s weight and influence is many times greater than it was four or five decades ago. Due to this, as well as other similar reasons, there is no longer a big divide between Turkey’s domestic and foreign politics. Regardless of the situation, no one should ignore Erdogan’s inherited abilities to fight the election battles and rise to the challenge.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 26 April 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.