Turkey Heads to the Polls on June 24
April 19, 2018
Q1: Why did President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decide to go for early elections?
A1: Despite his numerous statements confirming that presidential and parliamentary elections would be held as scheduled in November 2019, President Erdogan readily acceded to the surprise proposal for early elections to be held in August made by his ally Devlet Bahceli, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader, on April 17, and announced, after a hastily arranged meeting with him at the Presidential Palace the following day that they would be held even earlier than he proposed on June 24.
In his explanation of his widely speculated but nonetheless unexpected move, which he clearly believes will give him an advantage in June, Erdogan said that the elections would complete the transformation to a presidential system that had been approved in the April 2017 referendum. In fact, a de facto presidential system has been in effect since August 2015, when Erdogan moved from the prime ministry to the presidency as he continued to exercise decisive influence over the actions of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and parliamentary majority.
Erdogan’s control was further enhanced in the aftermath of the failed July 2016 coup, which led to the imposition of a continuing state of emergency (OHAL) essentially allowing government by decree. Nevertheless, Erdogan chose to underline the importance for him of a formal switch to a presidential system by saying “The transition to the new system of governance has begun to grow more and more urgent in order for new decisions concerning our country’s future to be taken and executed in a stronger manner.”
Despite his firm grip on all aspects of government and the political agenda, Erdogan argued that the elections would help “to overcome uncertainties.” He referred specifically to Turkey’s recent military operation in Syria, wider regional tensions, and “the need for critical decisions in all areas from macro-economic balances to great investments.” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, who seems destined to be Turkey’s last prime minister, followed up by saying that although the government and the ruling AKP wanted to stick to the original 2019 target, “increasing expectations” and “geopolitical developments and security issues” had forced them to this decision.
Moving presidential and parliamentary elections ahead allows Erdogan the opportunity to capitalize on the Afrin operation against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Erdogan has been targeting militarily since the resumption of hostilities in July 2015 between the two elections that year—and to emphasize his nationalist credentials. The new date also makes sense from the economic perspective, as key indicators strongly suggest a general deterioration likely to jeopardize the AKP’s constant message since coming to power in 2002 that its continuation in office ensures economic success.
As Erdogan surely calculated when he played his June 24 card, the abbreviated election cycle further hampers the ability of opposition parties to organize an effective campaign. The move seems specifically targeted at the Good Party (IP), led by veteran nationalist politician Meral Aksener who broke away from the MHP to establish the IP, as a challenger to both the MHP and even the AKP, in October 2017. There is a serious question mark over the eligibility of the IP to participate in the upcoming elections, as the current rules require parties to hold a congress at least six months prior to the election, an issue that will be determined in coming days by the Higher Electoral Board (YSK).
Q2: What are the prospects for June 24?
A2: Although growing economic issues might suggest a difficult test ahead, it is important to remember that Erdogan has an enviable record of electoral success stretching back to 2002 and, barring a major surprise, appears to be set for yet another reaffirmation of his increasingly centralized style of government. However, it is important to note that while a repetition of the 40 percent share of the vote the AKP has received in every election since 2007 will almost certainly ensure a parliamentary majority, victory in the first round of the presidential election requires exceeding the 50 percent-plus-one threshold.
The extraordinary circumstances prevailing under OHAL, which has been extended seven times, most recently on April 18, undoubtedly provide a favorable electoral environment for the government. OHAL has severely restricted fundamental rights and freedoms, especially those of expression and association, while giving virtually limitless discretionary powers to the government with limited judicial oversight. It has sharply reduced the ability of opponents to engage in political dissent, while further restricting the media, most of which, in any case, is favorable to the government. Both the main Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the predominantly Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) have made futile calls on the government to lift OHAL to ensure fair elections.
It has been argued that the changes to electoral laws in March also tilt the balance in favor of the ruling party. In addition to allowing parties to form electoral alliances, which will help the MHP to pass the 10 percent threshold with AKP support, the measures allow the government to merge electoral districts, put security forces in voting centers to “prevent PKK pressure on the 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, will also be affected as those in charge of ballot boxes will be appointed by officials. Finally, though formally independent, YSK, 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.
As Erdogan and the AKP-MHP alliance proceed into an abbreviated campaign that will seek to build on the nationalist fervor and utilize rhetoric on the need to fight internal as well as external enemies that only they can overcome, the HDP and, to a lesser extent, CHP will inevitably confront accusations of association with the PKK. Eleven HDP members of parliament have been forced out of their seats and a number of them, including the two former cochairs, are in jail on terrorism-related charges, while one CHP member is in jail for leaking state secrets. As for the IP, it cannot even begin serious campaigning until the lifting of uncertainties over its participation. However, IP leaders have indicated that in the event of disqualification by the YSK, they would look to form an electoral alliance, possibly with the Islamist Felicity Party or the tiny Democrat Party.
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.
Critical Questions 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.