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Turkey Elections: Challenging Three Common Assumptions

Turkish citizens go to the ballot box Sunday under new rules established as a result of sweeping constitutional amendments passed in a referendum in April 2017. For the first time, Turks will separately but simultaneously elect a president and a legislature. The president will be the all-powerful master of the Executive Branch, with unreviewable powers of appointment and a broad ability to govern through decree; the prime ministry will cease to exist. The amendments were designed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP-led government specifically to enhance presidential powers. That was accomplished but not without creating considerable confusion about the new rules of the game.

The following discussion considers three prevalent assumptions associated with the election and its aftermath, concerning politics, electoral mechanics, and post-election governance.    

Assumption #1: Erdogan is politically unassailable.

This long-standing view needs serious revision. Erdogan’s political Midas touch has been dissipating for at least the past three years. When AKP lost its parliamentary majority in June 2015 after sweeping its three previous elections, many AKP voters blamed Erdogan, the dominant figure in the campaign. When the party regained its parliamentary majority in new elections five months later, it was then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu who led the campaign as Erdogan kept an uncharacteristically low profile.  Erdogan also underperformed in last year’s referendum squeaker, officially approved by an overall margin of less than 2.5 percent. The referendum was defeated in both Istanbul and Ankara, cities where Erdogan and AKP had long dominated, and there is a strong case to be made that it lost overall but for voting fraud.

In 2018, it is clear that Turkey is suffering “Erdogan fatigue” – not surprising considering that Erdogan has ruled Turkey as party leader and strongman, prime minister, or president since 2002. This year’s campaign has frequently featured low attendance at Erdogan rallies, unenthusiastic audiences, weak ratings for his TV appearances, and gaffes (recently, for example, Erdogan kept alluding to being in Diyarbakir during a rally in Bitlis). Erdogan’s partnership with a crumbling Turkish nationalist party, the MHP, has added little to his or the AKP’s base vote – a seeming miscalculation on Erdogan’s part. Meanwhile, his 2015 onslaught against Kurdish-populated cities in the Turkish southeast, plus his invasions of Kurdish-populated areas of Syria and his alliance with the Turkish nationalists, have made him an enemy for a growing number of Turkish Kurds, who only a few years earlier seemed to be his budding allies. 

Even the economy – for years Erdogan’s strongest suit with voters – has become politically problematic. Last month, Erdogan’s defense of his unorthodox view that inflation should be fought with low interest rates – coupled with a pledge to take greater control of monetary policy once re-elected –  left the Turkish lira reeling. However, the electoral impact of that blunder is mitigated, polls suggest, by the ongoing belief of a majority of Turks that foreign conspirators are responsible for the decline in the lira’s value, not the government’s policies. With all polls showing the economy overwhelmingly to be voters’ primary concern, voters still rate Erdogan the leader best suited to handle it; yet, the same polls show the gap steadily narrowing between Erdogan and rival candidates as to who is the best steward for the economy.    

The opposition has remained surprisingly united throughout the campaign; the parties have pursued their separate candidacies but have avoided attacks on one another, with all directing their fire at Erdogan and AKP. Muharrem Ince, candidate of the secular CHP, in particular has aroused great enthusiasm among his backers and has steadily inched up in the polls. With Erdogan leading the pack of six presidential candidates, Ince has emerged as the near-certain runner-up and thus the likely opponent to Erdogan in a July 8 runoff, if Erdogan fails to get more than 50 percent this Sunday. If the opposition wins a majority of Parliament and holds Erdogan below 45 percent in Sunday’s ballot, opposition voters would probably turn out in droves for the July 8 second round. For the two weeks between rounds, Ince would no doubt argue that Turkey would be ungovernable if an opposition-controlled Parliament would have to work with an Erdogan presidency.

Erdogan’s strength should not be underestimated, of course. Many Turks see him as the only plausible leader for Turkey, whether to get the economy in order, to fight the PKK, or to manage foreign policy, including standing up to the West. Most religious Turks adore him and are unwaveringly loyal, grateful for the social respect and stature he has brought them and still resentful of the inferior status they say they experienced during long decades of secular Kemalist rule.  As for Erdogan himself, his determination to win is as great as ever. His greatest fear, no doubt, is the reopening of corruption charges that emerged in December 2013 against him, his colleagues, and his family, should the opposition win a Parliamentary majority, the presidency, or both.

In short, Erdogan must be considered the odds-on favorite, but some of the dynamics familiar to political upsets – the enthusiasm gap being a major one – are clearly present. The roughly 50 percent of Turkey that is fed up with Erdogan is angrier than ever and much of the roughly 50 percent that has supported him in the past is less enthusiastic than ever.

If Erdogan and AKP win their respective majorities, an insecure Erdogan, with authority unchecked, is likely to be more repressive than ever, particularly if the legitimacy of the election is questioned. If Erdogan wins but AKP-MHP fails to win a majority in parliament, Erdogan will do everything in his power to divide and otherwise undermine the “opposition majority.” If an opposition candidate, presumably Ince, upsets Erdogan, AKP anger would be at a boiling point; some partisans would no doubt urge Erdogan not to relinquish power.  In short, whatever the outcome, Turkey is probably in for a bumpy post-election ride. 

“Erdogan has every possible extra advantage in this election: control of the media, control of key municipalities that allot billboard space, support from the leadership of the powerful High Election Council, a new election law that seemingly facilitates fraud, etc. Yet, if he wins the presidential election, it will likely be by the narrowest of margins. And if his party manages to win a majority in Parliament, it will likely be because he manages to suppress the Kurdish vote through extraordinary, if not extra-legal, means. Erdogan is likely to emerge victorious this time but with diminished stature and the perception of increased political vulnerability for him and his party in future elections. And the next electoral battle is already on the horizon: nationwide local elections in spring 2019.

Assumption #2: If Erdogan is unhappy with the parliamentary result, he will call another “snap election.“

In June 2015, when AKP lost its parliamentary majority, Erdogan insisted on new elections the following November; those elections saw AKP regain its majority. The assumption that Erdogan can call another set of parliamentary elections in 2018 without any serious consequence for his presidency is incorrect, however.

There is virtually no prospect such a repeat election would be called this time, thanks to one of the oddest features of the new system: All elections – early and otherwise – must be held simultaneously for both Parliament and the presidency, and the president can be elected only twice (for terms that last a maximum of five years each). Thus, each set of elections marks the end of a presidential term. Were Erdogan to win the presidency Sunday (or in a runoff two weeks later), as most people expect, it defies credulity that he would cut short his term of office after a few weeks or months and subject himself to another presidential election just for the risk of recapturing a Parliament that, while still wielding meaningful powers, will be substantially weaker than it was prior to last year’s referendum. Were Erdogan to take that step, he would leave himself only one more five-year presidential term – or, as the opposition is already starting to argue, none.

Erdogan was already elected once, in 2014. Should he be re-elected in the upcoming vote, that seemingly should be his final term. Should he then call another vote in order to help AKP capture a parliamentary majority – thereby necessitating another simultaneous presidential election — he would be ineligible to run again, at least according to a plain reading of the constitution. 

Erdogan and his supporters have made clear their belief that, following the sweeping changes brought about by the 2017 referendum, Erdogan should be freshly eligible for two new terms.  Should he be challenged, the Constitutional Court would be asked to decide the issue. Erdogan perhaps would win that case in the pro-AKP Constitutional Court, but there would be no apparent textual basis for it.

It should be noted that under the new system the president can call elections – thereby dissolving Parliament – at the snap of his fingers, so nothing can be ruled out with absolute certainty. It is most difficult, however, to imagine him using that power in a manner that cuts short his own tenure.

Assumption #3: Under the new Executive Presidency system, Parliament has no power.

The prevalence of this notion probably reflects more an assessment of Erdogan’s intentions than a close reading of the actual amendments that form the basis of the new system. It is true that under the new constitutional rules the president has wide-ranging power to issue decrees on social, political, and economic matters, but Parliament can overrule those decrees. Parliament’s laws are final; according to the new amendments, the president cannot issue decrees that contradict laws passed by Parliament. In addition, Parliament is constitutionally required to decide issues of war, sending Turkish troops beyond the border, allowing foreign troops to use Turkish territory, and the imposition (or extension) of emergency rule, as well as many other matters.

The president’s ability to veto legislation is minimal under the new system. Parliament can override a veto with a mere majority of its total membership. That only slightly raises the bar from the previous system, under which Parliament needed just the majority of a quorum in order to override. 

For the first time in its history, Turkey faces the possibility of “co-habitation,” that is, having a Parliament dominated by forces that oppose the head of government. If power is divided that way, Parliament could emerge as a more independent body than previously.

In any potential tug-of-war between the president and an opposition-controlled Parliament, the president would have some clear advantages. One of the most important is that the president appoints 12 of the 15 civilian judges in the Constitutional Court, the judicial body that would resolve any disputes between the presidency and Parliament. It is the Constitutional Court, for example, that might have to decide whether a presidential decree illegally countermands a law passed by Parliament. History suggests that the Court judges tend to be responsive to presidential will, especially to that of the president who appointed them. However, the Court does surprise sometimes, particularly when it senses presidential weakness. It also should be noted that judges appointed by Erdogan’s predecessor, fellow AKP co-founder, and sometimes bete noire Abdullah Gul will remain the dominant element on the Court until 2020, barring unexpected vacancies.   

Another major advantage for the president over Parliament is that he can issue his decrees with lightning speed. Should Parliament choose to overturn those decrees, the parliamentary process would be far more cumbersome and time-consuming, as in any legislature.   

Still, if anti-Erdogan parties win a majority of Parliament, that Parliament could make life miserable for Erdogan (assuming he gets re-elected) in many ways. Parliament’s formal power is less than previously, but it is still considerable. The new system enhances presidential power, as Erdogan intended, but that power is far from total. If Parliament really had no power, Erdogan and his team wouldn’t be fretting as much as they are about maintaining their parliamentary majority.

Of course, this discussion of Parliament’s powers is based on what is actually written in the constitutional-amendment package passed in the April 2017 referendum. In the past, Erdogan has not shied from running roughshod over legalities; on several occasions, he has ignored court decisions. And, under emergency rule, he has virtual dictatorial powers – powers far greater than those granted the presidency in the April 2017 referendum. An opposition-controlled Parliament could end emergency rule immediately, however, and thereby begin claiming all its constitutional powers, which, contrary to widespread assumption, are still substantive and meaningful. 

Alan Makovsky is a member of BPC’s Task Force on Managing Disorder in the Middle East and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress

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