Turkey’s Elections: Possibility, Peril or More of the Same?
Part II: Post Election Scenarios
A Clear AKP Victory
Though polling in Turkey has been heavily politicized and inconsistent, recent results suggest that Erdoğan and the AKP could once again win within their previously established margin of electoral manipulation. If the HDP exceed the 10 percent threshold but the AKP-MHP alliance maintained a strong base of support, the People’s Alliance could emerge with a narrow majority in parliament. Similarly, if the HDP fell below the threshold, the People’s Alliance could still achieve a majority even if a significant number of its supporters defected to the opposition alliance. Erdoğan could also potentially win the presidential election without resorting to vote rigging if the opposition failed to coalesce behind a single candidate in the second round.
Were Erdoğan and his party to win an election in which the opposition largely felt the vote count itself had been fair, then the election itself would be unlikely to dramatically change the trajectory of Turkish politics. Turkey’s democratic veneer would be preserved, and, despite mounting frustration, a majority of Erdoğan’s opponents would probably be content in the short term to continue contesting his power according to the rules of a rigged game. In the long term, though, the course of this competition would still be shaped by many of the same factors at play today, including the health of the Turkish economy, Turkey’s foreign relations and the evolution of the Kurdish conflict both at home and regionally. With elections off the table for the foreseeable future Erdoğan would have more flexibility in all of these realms – but the past sixteen years offer little reason to think this would lead him to pursue more accommodating policies.
A clear-cut victory would still leave Erdoğan facing a deteriorating economic climate, strained relations with Western partners and an ongoing war with PKK-linked forces. He would still be dependent on the support of nationalist partners in parliament and the military, and on a deeply entrenched anti-Western narrative to explain away any setbacks he or his country experienced. More importantly, Erdoğan would remain Erdoğan, suspicious of the United States, resentful of foreign pressure, and committed to consolidating his power in the face of real and imagined threats.
Following an electoral victory, Erdoğan would likely rely on the same mix of pragmatic concessions and aggressive defiance that have characterized his foreign policy in recent years, coupled with the mix of selective reconciliation and punitive crackdowns that have characterized his domestic rule.
Relations with Washington would remain dependent on Syria policy, as well as the status of other outstanding bilateral issues such as Turkey’s S-400 purchase and imprisonment of U.S. citizens and consular employees. Were the current roadmap on Manbij successfully implemented, and were Washington to follow through with President Trump’s stated desire to withdraw U.S. forces from Kurdish-held territory in Syria, this could create the conditions for a less contentious relationship. At the same time, continued U.S. pressure, including the threat of congressional sanctions and restrictions on weapons sales, could lead to Turkish concessions that would also ease tensions. However even in this relatively optimistic scenario, new sources of disagreement could quickly arise to replace the crises that have been resolved, particularly as Washington tries to impose a new sanctions regime on Iran.
In the long run, Erdoğan likely seeks to maintain a functional relationship with the West while also increasing his regional power and capacity for independent action by improving ties with Russia and others. This will require a delicate balancing act whose feasibility in turn depends on the degree to which Washington and Europe seek to limit Erdoğan’s room for maneuver. Sanctions, for example, could eventually put Erdoğan in the position where he was forced chose whether to maintain Turkey’s current alignment or take his chances with new partners.This sets the stage for a prolonged game of chicken between Erdoğan and his erstwhile allies over the coming years, in which deft diplomacy by all parties will be necessary to avoid a collision.
In the coming months, the Turkish economy will also be a central factor shaping Turkey’s foreign relations. More than any concrete policy choices by Western governments, market forces might serve to constrain Erdoğan’s choices. In the past month, Erdoğan’s announcement that he would take a more active role in setting Turkish fiscal policy after the election prompted a sudden drop in the lira and fears of a deeper crisis. Subsequently, on both occasions when the Turkish central bank, acting contrary to Erdoğan’s unorthodox economic views, raised interest rates, it helped boost, or at least stabilize the lira. As longstanding structural factors put greater stress on the economy, its resilience will depend on Erdoğan willingness to maintain a degree of economic orthodoxy and rule of law. At a time when an electoral victory has further eroded institutional checks on Erdoğan’s personal power, these decisions will force Turkey into uncharted territory where a degree of pragmatism can only be hoped for.
Worsening economic conditions, combined with continued anger over corruption and restrictions on basic freedoms, could still create a growing desire for opposition outside of the political process. Following the enthusiastic reception of CHP leaders Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s Justice March, there have been growing calls for the party to take a more forceful approach to resisting Erdoğan’s authoritarianism. Another electoral defeat might steadily strengthen the appeal of these calls. Similarly, the energy surrounding Meral Akşener’s candidacy will not necessarily dissipate quickly after an electoral defeat, and could fuel a desire for continued opposition through rallies and protests.
Erdoğan’s government, in turn, will face a series of choices in responding to future political challenges. The more aggressive it is in stifling dissent or attempting a broader social transformation of Turkish society, the more quickly it risks generating a backlash. While Erdoğan has certainly proved his willingness to deal decisively and uncompromisingly with threats to his rule, he has also shown a capacity for restraint. In responding to CHP’s Justice March, for example, Erdoğan defied predictions by allowing the march to continue – admittedly accompanied by some pointed threats – seemingly operating under the accurate assumption that it would ultimately come to a quiet conclusion. Even in the lead-up to the election, Erdoğan has been eager to preserve as much democratic legitimacy as is compatible with achieving the outcome he wants. To the extent that Erdoğan feels post-election political disputes do not threaten his hold on power, he will likely refrain from needlessly provoking resistance.
Finally, the more explosive risk involves the PKK. Amidst recent conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the situation within Turkey itself over the past year has remained relatively calm in comparison to previous years, and there have been no bombings in Western Turkish cities since December 2016. But military setbacks on other fronts could lead the PKK to intensify its campaign within Turkey. There are indications that the PKK hopes to position itself as the leader of a violent resistance movement against Erdoğan that would draw support from beyond its traditional Kurdish constituency. No matter how unrealistic a strategy this would be, it certainly has the capacity to prove destabilizing.
Conversely, there has been considerable debate over whether Erdoğan, after winning reelection, could restart some form of peace process with the PKK. This question has often been discussed in binary terms, where the decision to restart peace talks is sometimes seen as tantamount to the talks’ success. Yet another entirely likely possibility, though, is that Erdoğan could launch a new overture or carefully circumscribed process that, like his previous efforts, goes nowhere.
While there are some factors that could make success easer after an electoral victory, many of the same challenges would remain, and others have been exacerbated. In 2009 and 2015 popular opposition to the compromises that a successful peace would require were central to derailing the government’s efforts. Erdoğan now has more control over the media, which he could use to shape popular opinion as needed, yet he also has to contend with widespread popular anger fueled by three years of fighting and nationalist rhetoric. The failure of the previous peace negotiations have also intensified suspicion on both sides, which was already at poisonous levels in previous negotiations. If the PKK is facing military setbacks in Iraq and Syria its leaders may have added incentive to make compromises, but on the other hand if it senses that Erdoğan is politically weak or Turkey is becoming more fragile and isolated, they could seek to press the advantage. It is also possible that Erdoğan would launch an initiative aimed at shoring up support among conservative Kurds through unilateral moves on cultural rights while deliberately avoiding any engagement with the PKK. Yet with fighting across the region making Kurdish opinion increasingly polarized, such an effort, even if undertaken in good faith, would not necessarily resonate among the PKK’s nationalist constituency.
It is, in short, telling that even if the coming elections turn out exactly as many had initially predicted, there is still enormous uncertainty about what comes next for Turkey. An AKP victory may well maintain the status quo, but the status quo is a tense and turbulent one.
A Fraudulent AKP Victory
There is ample reason to fear fraud, whether widespread voter suppression in the southeast or manipulated returns. Many in Turkey have concluded that whatever happens, Erdoğan will not allow himself to lose, and that the results of the first round of the election could simply provide a yardstick for how much rigging was needed to ensure victory in the second round. In the case of a blatantly fraudulent election, the political fallout would largely differ from that of a more legitimate win in relation to the opposition’s reaction. The question remains how empowered the opposition would feel to challenge Erdoğan after he announced victory.
In the lead-up to the election, the opposition has undertaken a joint effort to deploy poll monitors across the country and provide them with the technology to rapidly communicate vote counts or suspicious activity. Were evidence of irregularities to emerge after the vote, Ince has already announced he will show up in front of the office of the Supreme Electoral Council in Ankara and call on his supporters to join him.
Would the opposition then consider further steps like boycotting parliament or launching more sustained public protests? If a sense of resignation prevailed, and the opposition avoided any further action, then the results of a stolen election would be little different from the results of a legitimate one. Similarly, if protests proved short-lived and were met with restraint, they would strain but not shatter the quasi-democratic equilibrium that has endured in recent years. A parliamentary walk-out, in turn, would make Turkey’s veneer of democracy much harder to sustain, but it is not clear it would lead to any immediate upheaval in the political situation. The government would almost certainly declare the walk-out illegitimate, citing it as evidence of the opposition’s disregard for democracy, then continue to govern the country with the majority they have.
In the worst-case scenario, widespread opposition protests would be met with sustained violence from either police or organized groups of AKP supporters. There have been a steady stream of warnings from opposition sources about the government’s ongoing efforts to arm loyalists, as well as threatening statements from government officials and low level physical violence during the course of campaigning. The government has consistently conflated all opposition, and particularly popular mobilization like the Gezi Park protest, with armed coup attempts and even foreign invasion. Accusations of treason and repeated claims that Erdoğan’s opponents are conspiring with malign forces to destroy Turkey have also created a climate in which violence against protestors is much easier to imagine.
This dynamic could also prove particularly explosive in southeastern Turkey were the HDP to be forcibly kept under the ten percent barrier. Already the government’s decision to relocate ballot boxes in the region has served to disadvantage HDP voters, while Erdoğan recently escalated his rhetoric against the party by welcoming the possibility of Demirtaş’s execution. If, amidst Turkish military operations in northern Iraq, post-election protests erupted in predominantly Kurdish regions, this would only fuel the government’s paranoia and provide added justification for crackdowns elsewhere. Such protests might also work to Erdoğan’s benefit by creating a split in the opposition coalition by alienating more nationalist factions in the CHP and IYI party.
If post-election protests were violently suppressed, followed quite possibly by a wave of arrests targeting opposition political figures, it would further exacerbate Turkey’s diplomatic and economic challenges, while deepening the country’s social divisions. Even a largely symbolic western response, limited to rhetorical censure, could still produce a diplomatic backlash from Erdoğan. Violent attacks on protestors would only fuel the desire to take a tougher line with Erdoğan in Washington and build support for the passage of congressional measures limiting arms sales and targeting individuals within the Turkish government responsible for human rights abuses. Even if both sides remained committed to maintaining a functional relationship moving forward, this would inevitably increase the difficulty of doing so.
A Surprise Opposition Victory:
A victory in parliament would presumably embolden the opposition, raising expectations going into the second round of presidential voting. At the same time, it would also enhance Erdoğan’s determination to prevail as well. At this point the ability of the opposition to act on their unified rhetoric and work together in parliament would serve as a valuable barometer of their ability to coalesce in the subsequent presidential vote. The rhetoric of Erdoğan and his loyalists would also serve as an important indication of whether the rest of the race was likely to proceed fairly.
And if an opposition candidate, presumably Muharrem Ince, actually won the presidency? Erdoğan famously promised that if the Turkish people told him “enough” he would step down. In admittedly much different circumstances, this happened once before in Turkey’s history. In 1950, to the surprise of both domestic and foreign observers, President Ismet Inönü lost an election and stepped down after ruling the country as an often-brutal dictator for the previous decade. If Ince unexpectedly won the presidential election, he would face no end of political challenges. And yet he would almost certainly benefit from the desire, shared by many within the AKP, for a return to normalcy following the polarization of Erdoğan’s rule. That Ince has denied any intention to put Erdoğan on trial at least hints that, in the case of an opposition upset, Turkey might be able to escape the cycle of vengeance that has plagued its politics over the last half century.
In recent weeks, a number of articles in the Western media have highlighted the increased enthusiasm among Turkey’s opposition and argued that there is now a very real chance the opposition could win, particularly in the parliamentary election and perhaps even in the second round of the presidential elections. Either outcome would still be a surprise, though an opposition victory in parliament might prove less transformative than anticipated.
The degree of cooperation shown by the various opposition parties to date has impressed many observers. Opposition leaders have insisted that, unlike 2015, they would move quickly to form a coalition if the AKP-MHP alliance fell short of a majority. And yet, even were this to happen, the odds would be heavily stacked against them. The deep ideological divides within the opposition, most notably between the IYI party and the HDP, would prove open to exploitation. Assuming an opposition controlled parliament refused to extend the state of emergency, Erdoğan’s new presidential powers enable him to issues decrees that essentially have the force of law unless specifically contravened by parliament. Assuming Erdoğan took a liberal interpretation of this power, this would give him considerable authority to continue ruling the country. Erdoğan would also then be in a position to blame parliamentary opposition for any subsequent problems the country experienced, particularly if the economy continued to deteriorate. Pro-AKP columnists have already suggested that the risk of losing parliament lies in the fact that Erdoğan’s rivals would not behave like a legitimate opposition but rather use their power purely to sabotage Erdoğan and the country. This would lay the groundwork for Erdoğan to call new elections, as he did successfully in 2015. Such a move would theoretically force him to run for president again, expending one of his two remaining presidential terms, but it would still leave him with five years to develop a workaround for this newfound problem. Alternatively, Erdoğan could simply rule by decree while disregarding parliament and count on compliant courts and government officials to back his unconstitutional assumption of power.