June 24 Election: Not An Easy Walk for Turkey’s Erdogan
by Iyad Dakka
On June 24, Turkish voters will head to the polls for presidential and parliamentary elections that are being held approximately 15 months ahead of schedule. Popular wisdom among many Turkey watchers is that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan chose to call the elections early, back in April, because economic headwinds could worsen in the coming year, making it more risky to wait until November 2019, when the elections were originally due to take place.
The stakes of this month’s vote are enormous. The elections are the last step before Turkey formally transitions to an executive presidential system of government, which Erdogan was able to narrowly push through via popular referendum last year. The post of prime minister, which Erdogan won back in 2003 after he and his party first came into power, is set to be abolished. The empowered president will have sweeping authority to appoint high-level officials, dissolve parliament, rule by decree and impose emergency laws, like the ones that have been in place since a failed military coup in July 2016. These changes would represent the most profound shift in Turkey’s governance since its creation as a modern nation-state in 1923.
Erdogan has long complained that the previous parliamentary system hampered the decision-making process at a moment when regional and domestic threats require a strong, centralized and streamlined executive branch to rule the country. He knows he can count on a loyal base of supporters who credit him and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, with keeping the country afloat in a sea of regional troubles. Erdogan is also banking on right-wing voters from the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, which formed an electoral bloc with the AKP, known as the Cumhur Ittifaki, or People’s Alliance, to bolster his ranks at the ballot box.
Erdogan’s camp is using a familiar campaign message: Instability and threats, both internal and external, can only be countered with him at the helm. A sophisticated and powerful electoral machine is pushing the narrative that only Erdogan has been capable of beating back the string of crises and overlapping challenges Turkey has faced since he came to power—from the 2008 global financial collapse, to its aftershocks in Europe, to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, to the failed coup, to the uncertainty of the Trump administration.
That message is underpinned by Turkey’s economy, which, despite the macroeconomic and geopolitical risks, has been growing for over a decade thanks to a robust program of structural reforms instituted by Erdogan and his AKP allies since 2002. Although there have been new economic strains in recent months, with a currency that keeps sliding to historic lows, his pitch still resonates with many voters. In 2017, the country was the fastest-growing economy in the Group of 20, outpacing China and India at an impressive 7.5 percent clip. A million new jobs were added to the economy last year. Even the International Monetary Fund, which has warned about the currency crisis, acknowledges that these numbers are impressive.
And many Turks, although uncomfortable with Erdogan’s governing style, may opt to stick with him for fear of ushering in a period of domestic instability. Many Turks still remember, and fear, the “lost decade” of the 1990s, when economic crises, weak governments and a continued presence of the military in politics were the order of the day.
But despite the loyal backing of millions, Erdogan’s electoral position looks less secure today than it did just a few weeks ago. Polls this week predicted that Erdogan would no longer win outright in the first round of the presidential race, and his party is now forecast to lose its majority in parliament. That could change before June 24, of course, but the polls point to some of the obstacles in Erdogan’s way.
A major question heading into the election is whether enough swing voters will choose to punish Erdogan for his perceived power grabs and economic mismanagement.
First, the unification of the opposition gives it a fighting chance to score some surprises on June 24, especially if Erdogan fails to win more than 50 percent of the presidential vote and has to go to a second round. Most of the opposition, except for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, has united under the Millet Ittifaki, or Nation Alliance, which includes the longstanding Kemalist opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, the newly formed IYI Party, and the smaller Felicity and Democrat parties. No opposition candidate from any of the parties can credibly hope to beat Erdogan in the first round, so the hope is to force a second-round showdown, enabling the opposition to coalesce around a single candidate.
The opposition is attempting to frame Erdogan as a power-hungry politician pushing Turkey deeper into authoritarianism, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro. Instead of seeing the fight as one between parties and candidates, the CHP’s presidential candidate, Muharrem Ince, argues that the vote is actually between “those on the side of democracy and those who support a one-man regime.”
The opposition is also pushing back against the notion that Erdogan and the AKP are still viable economic managers, using the stumbling Turkish lira, which has already lost more than 20 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar this year, to attack Erdogan’s credibility. Inflation is now in the double digits and expected to creep upwards. The purchasing power of average Turks is being eroded, and the private sector is seeing profit margins shrink. In a way, the election is a test of how insulated Erdogan really is from Turkey’s economic woes.
For any upset, though, the opposition needs two critical constituencies: former AKP voters who are disillusioned with Erdogan’s creeping authoritarianism, and Kurdish supporters of the HDP who may decide to vote strategically. Here, the question is whether enough swing voters will choose to punish Erdogan for his perceived power grabs and economic mismanagement.
It’s difficult to determine at this point. The opposition claims many people are not being forthcoming in their answers to pollsters, or refusing to answer altogether, for fear of retribution in a country that continues to be under a state of emergency. This sentiment appears to be supported by polling companies. One way or another, this introduces a significant element of uncertainty about how large the swing vote truly is for this election.
It’s also unclear whether the opposition will be able to unify enough swing voters under an “anyone-but-Erdogan” candidate. Opposition parties may be united in their opposition to Erdogan, but they are divided themselves ideologically and along ethno-national lines. For example, will the secularist CHP’s Ince, who like Erdogan comes from a conservative Muslim family and regularly prays, be an appealing candidate for religious swing voters if he makes it to a second round? Alternatively, can Meral Aksener, the energetic female leader of the newly formed IYI or Good Party, find a way to connect with Kurdish swing voters who may resent her background as a former member of the right-wing, nationalist MHP that has been hostile to Kurds?
The answers will go a long way to determining the outcome on June 24—and the future of Turkey.
Iyad Dakka is a fellow with the Centre for Modern Turkish Studies at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa, Canada.