Turkey’s Elections: Possibility, Peril or More of the Same?
Part I: The Election Landscape
The June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections, originally slated for November 2019, will usher in a new system, approved in a controversial referendum a year ago, which dramatically expands the president’s powers at the expense of parliament’s. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has maintained its majority in government since it came to power in 2002, prepared this system with the expectation that incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would remain at the helm.
Though the AKP has kept its hold on power—despite a speed-bump in previous parliamentary elections in June 2015—several emerging dynamics have created a real sense of optimism among the opposition that the results, this time, might be different.
Changes to the law governing elections, intended to cement the relationship between the AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) that began prior to the 2017 referendum, allow parties to form pre-electoral alliances for the first time. Under the new alliance system, parties involved in an electoral alliance will still have their names and logos on ballot papers, and all votes cast for one member of the alliance will count towards the alliance total. As long as an alliance overcomes Turkey’s 10 percent threshold for parliamentary representation, all component parties will be able to enter into parliament, even if they did not secure 10 percent of the vote on their own.
The benefits of this system to the AKP and MHP and their newly formed People’s Alliance is clear: in return for the MHP’s support in the presidential election, where the MHP has declined to nominate its own candidate, the AKP will assure the MHP—unlikely to reach 10% on its own—representation in parliament.
The opposition has also taken advantage of the new rules of the game to present a united front: the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the newly-formed IYI (Good) Party, and the Saadet (Felicity) Party joined together to form the Nation Alliance.
This growing unity among the opposition stands in stark contrast to 2015, when the different factions of the Turkish opposition were unable to come together to form a majority coalition in parliament, necessitating a rerun of the parliamentary elections and leading to the AKP recapturing its parliamentary majority.
The Turkish opposition has much to gain by working together: under the system used to allocate seats in parliament based on the national vote, the party with the largest share of the vote’s proportion of seats increases the fewer parties in parliament there are. For example, in 2002, when only two parties were able to overcome the 10 percent threshold, the AKP was able to secure 66 percent of the seats in parliament with 34.4 percent of the national vote. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which received 10.8 percent of the vote in November 2015, will be running as an individual party, and will therefore be the only party currently represented in parliament that will be subjected to the 10 percent electoral threshold. If it fell below, however, the AKP would sweep southeastern Turkey by default, making it difficult for the opposition to win a majority.
In the presidential elections, the major opposition parties have each put forward their own candidates. The CHP has selected Yalova deputy Muharrem Ince for its presidential candidate, while Meral Akşener is the candidate for her IYI Party. Former HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş, who gained 9.8 percent of the vote against Erdoğan in presidential elections in 2014, is running as the HDP presidential candidate from prison, where he has been detained on charges of terrorism since November 2016. And while the deeply Islamist Saadet Party has traditionally only polled around 2 percent, its decision to run its leader, Temel Karamollaoglu, could nonetheless provide a destination for AKP voters who have grown uncomfortable with Erdoğan.
The real test of the opposition’s unity will come if Erdoğan fails to win a majority in the first round of presidential elections and a second round is held between him and the top opposition candidate. Opinion polling in Turkey, though notoriously unreliable, suggests that Erdoğan may fall just short of a first-round victory, with some predicting his share of the vote going below 45 percent. Among the opposition candidates, Ince has consistently polled above both Akşener and Demirtaş. If Ince moves onto any second round, for the opposition parties to successfully challenge Erdoğan, they will have to mobilize their bases to go to the polls in support of Ince, even if he is not their party’s candidate.
So far Ince’s candidacy has attracted the most excitement, building off his dynamism on the campaign trail. Compared with the staid CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, Ince has been more aggressive and outgoing in his rhetoric, directly challenging Erdoğan at rallies and in his limited appearances on pro-government TV channels. In addition to standard campaign pledges about better job opportunities and government services, Ince has promised voters a return to normalcy after the polarization and curtailed freedoms of the Erdoğan years. In doing so, he has attempted to seize the mantle of the country’s downtrodden from the AKP, claiming to represent ordinary voters against the new AKP elite in language reminiscent of Erdoğan’s longstanding attacks against the CHP. And, in a move that helps set the stage for courting HDP votes in a second round, Ince also called for increased Kurdish language education and visited Demirtaş in jail.
The formation of the IYI party, out of a dissident faction within the MHP, was initially touted as having the potential to revolutionize Turkish politics by creating a new center-right alternative to the AKP. While Akşener’s campaign has certainly drawn away supporters from Devlet Bahceli’s rump MHP, there is less evidence to date that it has eaten into the AKP’s base. So far, Erdoğan seems eager to focus his rhetorical fire on Ince, and Akşener has received less airtime than the CHP candidate as well. This may or may not reflect the president’s preference for a second round showdown with Ince, but if Ince does move on, Akşener’s support would remain crucial to Ince’s candidacy. While there have been some tensions, Akşener’s campaign to date suggests he would receive it.
However, Erdoğan, who made the choice to move elections up by 18 months, surely would not have done so if he did not think they could be successful. Indeed, Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party have proven themselves capable of affecting the electoral environment to their advantage in previous contests, and though Turkey’s currently struggling economy might be a wildcard, other circumstances appear to be favorable to Erdoğan and the AKP. Moreover, while there have been continued reports of dissent and division with the AKP ranks, similar claims before last year’s referendum appeared to produce little impact at the polls.
Moving up the elections has allowed the Turkish government to capitalize on the security situation in Syria and Iraq. Touting the success of the Turkish military’s operation in Afrin, Syria against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) allows Erdoğan and the AKP to enter the elections from a position of strength. While the road map announced between Turkey and the United States for the future of Manbij may not have been the diplomatic victory the government was looking for so close to the polls, the announcement of a Turkish operation against the PKK headquarters in Iraq’s Qandil mountains offers a new opportunity to foster and capitalize on nationalist sentiment.
Elections will also be held under a state of emergency, which has been in effect for nearly 23 months since the failed July 2016 coup attempt. Under the state of emergency, Erdoğan has used his expanded powers to stifle free speech and undermine Turkish institutions, particularly the parliament and the judiciary. The media—already under threat in Turkey—has been stifled, with media outlets and television channels forced to close and scores of journalists imprisoned. The repressive environment fostered by the Turkish government greatly advantages Erdoğan and the AKP, compounding inequities seen in campaigning and elections in previous electoral contests.
In addition to these heavy-handed measures, which give the government a significant advantage before a single vote is cast, past elections in Turkey have also been marred by inconsistencies in the voting process itself, particularly in the referendum vote in 2017. Controversy over the 2017 referendum vote surrounded the Turkish electoral body’s decision—made while the polls were still open—to allow unstamped ballot papers to be counted. A member of the Council of Europe observer mission stated that up to 2.5 million votes could have been manipulated—a number nearly double Erdoğan’s margin of victory. The new electoral law retroactively affirmed the decision, paving the way for potential manipulation of the vote in the upcoming elections
Other changes to the electoral law seem particularly targeted at Turkey’s primarily Kurdish Southeast, where the HDP secured the majority of the vote in 2015. The law allows ballot boxes to be relocated due to “security concerns,” and allows law enforcement officials greater access to polling places—reportedly in response to voter intimidation by the PKK, but also exposing voters to intimidation of a different kind. The AKP is the primary competitor for the HDP in the Southeast, where it has in the past drawn support from conservative Kurds. That, coupled with the militarization of region following several years of fighting, makes it the most likely place for any tampering of the vote to occur.
Following the 2016 coup attempt, Erdoğan seems to perceive staying in power as a matter of not just political but even physical survival. With previous elections marred by accusations of fraud, albeit on a smaller scale, many observers wonder, simply, if Erdoğan will allow himself to lose.