Erdogan Seeks New Mandate in Electoral Transition to a Presidential System

Turkish voters will cast their ballots in simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections for the first time on June 24. Irrespective of the outcome, the elections will usher in a presidential system in accordance with a new constitution narrowly approved in the April 2017 referendum. Consequently, the main question the electorate will be answering is whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be able to transition from his current position of de facto control over the government to formal stewardship of the country in the new system he has designed. The voters will also determine control of the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA), which remains an important component in Erdogan’s plans for unimpeded use of power by the chief executive in a presidential system, even though it will not have the constitutional authority it had in the outgoing system.

With his surprise acceptance of the call by Devlet Bahceli, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) leader who is now a formal ally, Erdogan brought elections forward by 17 months despite pledging many times not to do so. With a de facto presidential system in place since his 2014 election, buttressed by the prevailing state of emergency (OHAL) which has permitted him to govern by executive order since the July 2016 coup attempt, Erdogan could easily have waited until November 2019. The fact that he chose not to do so is an indication of the overriding imperative of avoiding the electoral dangers posed by a worsening economy. His secondary motive was to catch the opposition parties, especially the newly established Good Party (IP), before they had a chance to mount an effective campaign.

The elections constitute a serious test of Erdogan’s growing domination of Turkish politics. Having first led the Justice and Development Party (AKP) into office in November 2002, as the country was still reeling from the effects of the 2001 financial crisis, Erdogan ascended during the past 16 years of AKP rule from primus intra pares leader to “Reis,” the source of unchallenged supreme authority within the party, while other leading figures faded away, as well as in the country, while political opponents were bludgeoned by his successive electoral successes into effective submission or cooperation. Erdogan’s accumulation of power was greatly facilitated by the impressive economic recovery under his leadership and by the willingness of the parts of the electorate that had not voted for AKP in 2002 to join his voting bloc, which climbed from 34 percent to close to 50 percent, thus helping to ensure a seemingly perpetual governing majority.

Combining oratory and charisma with natural leadership skills, Erdogan was able to establish and sustain a strong bond not only with the religious voters who constituted the core of the AKP electoral base, but also with those outside this group who enjoyed the benefits that came with the improvement in the economy. In this process, Erdogan and the AKP were able to take full advantage of the huge influx of external funds, which facilitated massive investment not only in infrastructure but also in other important areas such as health care, education, and housing, while fueling unprecedented consumer spending. However, as Turkey faced unprecedented financial headwinds, Erdogan began to confront a challenge likely to tax even his considerable capabilities.

On the Campaign Trail

As in earlier campaigns, Erdogan has been barnstorming the country, focusing primarily on his own presidential race but also emphasizing the need to ensure a supportive TGNA. He has tried to galvanize his supporters yet again by utilizing his unique abilities on the trail, along with all the immense advantages of incumbency and the vaunted organizational capabilities and financial resources of his party. In daily speeches broadcast simultaneously on almost all TV channels, Erdogan has spent hours reciting impressive facts and figures from a prompter relating to major infrastructure projects such as high-speed railways, highways, tunnels, airports and housing complexes constructed during the past 16 years. He has also been pointing to the high growth rates as fresh evidence of Turkey’s progress toward becoming one of the top 10 economies in the world, in line with his ambitious plans for what he terms “New Turkey” laid out in the AKP’s 2023, 2053, and 2071 visions.

While devoting considerable time to boasts about Turkey’s recovery under him of its national grandeur and influence in the world, Erdogan has been making regular references to the ongoing military campaigns within Turkish borders, as well as beyond in Syria and Iraq against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its People’s Protection Units (YPG) affiliate, along with his leading role in the Islamic world exemplified by the Jerusalem issue. Stressing his experience as a decisive leader and referring to himself as “Master,” he has also been urging voters to refrain from risking economic and political stability by turning to “Apprentices” as he calls his opponents.

Warning his supporters about the dangers of a return to pre-2002 conditions, which he claims were characterized by poverty and deprivation coupled with restrictions on Islamic headscarves, Erdogan has been attacking his political foes as domestic collaborators who are working with Fetullah Gulen and the PKK, as well as external enemies trying to undermine Turkey’s development and independence. On June 11, he identified them as “The enemy of investments…whose sole promise is to demolish, close down, throw away, dismantle.”

However, while Erdogan is an effective campaigner even when he is not at his best, his campaign has been below his usual standards as his supporters acknowledge. The AKP machine has duly delivered respectable size crowds, but the rallies have been comparatively lackluster. Moreover, the basic message he has been delivering has, in essence, been one of “trust us for more of the same” and has failed to generate the kind of excitement Erdogan revels in.

Competing Alliances

The reconfiguration of the political landscape, prompted by the AKP’s decision to cooperate formally with the MHP in the parliamentary election, while enjoying its endorsement in the presidential election in the context of the People’s Alliance, has complicated Erdogan’s electoral calculus. After the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) moved at the beginning of the campaign to ensure that the IP would be able to participate in the election by temporarily transferring 15 of its members of parliament to the IP to enable it to form a parliamentary group with 20 lawmakers, the two parties then proceeded to form the Nation Alliance as a response to Erdogan’s gambit together with the traditional Islamist Felicity Party (SP). Erdogan’s insistence on bracketing the entire spectrum of the opposition facilitated unprecedented cooperation among his opponents, who are divided by ideological differences but united in their common desire to curb Erdogan and their commitment to the restoration of a parliamentary system. While all three parties are running their own candidate for president, they are backing each other in parliamentary races in the first ever electoral alliance against the AKP. Although the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is outside this arrangement, its strength with Kurdish voters makes it an important implicit partner in the anti-Erdogan front.

Current polls suggest that the total number of votes likely to be cast in the presidential election for Muharrem Ince, the CHP candidate, who has run an unexpectedly vibrant campaign that has galvanized the jaded center-left voter bloc while challenging Erdogan’s ability to control the agenda; Meral Aksener and Temel Karamollagolu, the leaders respectively of the IP and SP; and Selahattin Demirtas, the cochair of the HDP, who is running from prison, could exceed 50 percent. Consequently, while Erdogan seems certain to emerge comfortably ahead of his rivals after the polls close on June 24, he may be forced into uncharted waters in a psychologically bruising and electorally uncertain second round runoff on July 8 against whoever emerges as his leading opponent.

If the Ince momentum carries over to the CHP parliamentary campaign, the IP takes advantage of its participation in the electoral equation as the first center-right party in competition with the AKP since the 2007 elections, and the SP attracts religious voters who may be disillusioned with the AKP and Kurdish reaction to Erdogan’s harsh security policies keeps the HDP over the 10 percent threshold for parliamentary representation it obtained in both of the 2015 elections, the opposition could also win a majority of the seats in the TGNA. However, if the HDP fails to pass the threshold, the AKP-MHP alliance will almost certainly gain control of the TGNA, as the seats that would have gone to the HDP will go to the AKP. The AKP’s anxiety over the crucial HDP variable was confirmed by a leaked video of Erdogan speaking to local party officials at AKP headquarters on June 9 in which he can be heard saying, “Friends, our party organization must conduct very different work on the HDP…Because if the HDP falls below the election threshold it would mean that we would be in a much better place.”

It is worth noting that the extraordinary circumstances prevailing under OHAL, which was extended most recently on the day campaigning began, has made the task of the opposition, especially the HDP, more difficult. In addition to its general suppression of dissent, OHAL has further restricted the media, 90 percent of which, in any case, is favorable to the government. The changes to electoral laws in March may have also further tilted the balance in favor of the ruling party. The new measures have allowed the government to merge constituencies, put security forces in voting centers to “prevent PKK pressure on voters in eastern and southeastern provinces,” move ballot boxes to other districts, and count ballots without official stamps. Monitoring efforts, which came into focus after alleged widespread irregularities in the 2017 referendum, may also be undermined as those in charge of ballot boxes will be appointed by officials. Finally, though formally independent, the Higher Electoral Board, which is tasked with ensuring a fair process, investigating irregularities, and making final decisions during and after elections, may be unavoidably sensitive to prevailing political winds.

Despite the unavoidable restrictions, however, the opposition parties have been able to mount vigorous campaigns, which have developed momentum. Moreover, while media coverage of their activities has been miniscule compared to that of Erdogan and the AKP, their use of social media has provided an effective alternative connection to voters, particularly the young. It is significant in this context to remember that the AKP won the 2002 election despite opposition from mainstream media.

The Economic Achilles Heel?

A survey by Metropoll conducted in April revealed that there were economic concerns even within the ranks of AKP voters identified by their electoral preference in November 2015. When asked about the direction of the economy in the next year, for example, only 63 percent of the AKP voters responded that it would get better. While 53 percent thought that the management of the economy was a success, 26 percent believed the opposite. When asked how their family’s economic situation had changed in the past year, 30 percent said that it had improved compared to 27 percent who said that it had deteriorated. The Gezici survey conducted on June 16–17 revealed that 53 percent viewed economic difficulties as Turkey’s biggest problem.

For his part, Erdogan has been focusing on the economic improvements since 2002, while arguing that he should be trusted to fix the emerging problems after the elections. However, the fact that questions relating to Turkey’s economic and financial stability intensified during the campaign has undoubtedly made him and the AKP vulnerable on their economic management for the first time since 2009 during the global financial crisis. It is important to note that there was a surprise fall in the AKP vote in local elections that year.

The Turkish lira (TRY) fell from 4.04 to the U.S. dollar at the beginning of the campaign on April 18 to 4.92 on May 23, forcing Erdogan to temporarily set aside his firm opposition to interest rate hikes as the Central Bank raised the rate 500 basis points in three increments. However, despite these moves, which raised the costs of indebtedness for companies and individuals, the TRY has remained well above 4.50, putting additional burdens on corporations who have foreign currency debts, while fueling inflation, which rose to 12.15 percent year-on-year as of May 2018. The Istanbul Stock Market, which had been at 112,000 on the first day of the campaign, has also been falling intermittently and is now just over 95,000.

The government has responded with a combination of stimulus measures, including project-based investment incentives, tax breaks for companies and individuals, and incentives for employment. It has announced a $6 billion package containing fiscal measures, including debt restructuring for taxes, social security premiums and fines, bonuses for 12 million pensioners, and amnesty for buildings without deeds. At the same time, having long benefited from the flow of external funds, Erdogan has shifted to attacking the global financial system. He has been making regular appeals to citizens to sell dollars to help frustrate what he has been calling “the foreign exchange conspiracy against Turkey.” Responding to Moody’s downgrade of Turkey’s credit rating outlook and the ratings of 14 banks, he said on June 19, “The economic attacks on our country are conducted through foreign exchange and interest rates. Once we pull through the 24th, if you give this brother of yours the power, you will see how we deal with interest rates and so on.” Two days earlier he said, “The West is looking at June 24, waiting for what? ‘How will Erdogan fall?’ Are we ready to teach a lesson to the West?”

Reading the Electoral Leaves

Predictably, Erdogan has been projecting supreme confidence. He claimed on May 15 that the result on June 24 would be the same as in previous elections. However, it would be surprising if Erdogan was not harboring private concerns. To begin with, the combined vote of the AKP and MHP and the other far-right nationalist Greater Unity Party (BBP), which supports their alliance, is likely to be considerably below the 62 percent they received in the November 2015 elections, primarily because of the expected defection of MHP voters to the IP. There is also uncertainty over the likely preferences of young voters—in particular the 1.5 million who will be eligible to vote for the first time—who were a significant factor in the “no” votes cast by Istanbul and Ankara in the 2017 referendum.

While it is hard to measure through polling by its very nature, there may be a deep undercurrent against AKP incumbency similar to those in the watershed elections of 1950, 1983, and 2002. In a telling jab, Ince claimed that he was now the true representative of those outside the system, as the AKP had become the defender of the status quo, a charge Erdogan quickly sought to dismiss. However, it is possible that there has been a subtle shift in the political landscape, weakening this electoral card in the hands of the AKP which used it as an effective tool of mobilization through constant reminders to its supporters of their past exclusion from power along with the associated discrimination.

The election result will reveal whether “metal fatigue,” which Erdogan first warned the AKP about on May 30, 2017, has affected the capabilities of the party machine despite his sustained effort to reorganize and renew the party organization. Even with the weaknesses revealed by the campaign, Erdogan cannot be blamed if he is fully expecting to survive the electoral challenge on June 24. He has an unbroken succession of victories stretching back to his run for mayor of Istanbul in 1994—he was not leading the AKP when it lost its majority in the June 2015 parliamentary elections—and he may find a way to retain the presidency, albeit in the second round. He could find it more difficult to carry his party, whose leadership he formally reassumed last year after the referendum, to victory in the parliamentary elections. However, it is worth remembering that ruling parties in all democracies eventually begin to lose their grip on power, even if they have been able to defy the laws of political gravity for a long time. Especially because of the current economic downturn, this election could possibly mark the beginning of a major political transition, which Erdogan will find very difficult to accept.

Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Zeynep Yekeler is a research assistant with the CSIS Turkey Project.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2018 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Bulent Aliriza
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Zeynep Yekeler

Research Assistant, Turkey Project