Turkey’s Critical Election

With only days to go before legislative elections in Turkey on Sunday, 7 June, the political uncertainty of its possible outcomes are filling newspaper columns. This is a change from the past two elections where a victory for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was almost a foregone conclusion.

Justice and Development Party (AKP) electoral rally in Ümraniye, İstanbul, for the 2015 Turkish general election. Photo: Nube Cake, via Wikipedia

As Turkey goes to the polls, two issues dominate. The first is the question of changes to Turkey´s constitutional order, replacing the present parliamentary system with a presidential one. Official polls closed ten days prior to the election (as is custom) and predictions indicated that while the ruling Justice and Development Party, in its third consecutive term since 2002, is likely to win again, it will fall short of the desired seats required to change the constitution. Unaccustomed to political compromise, this will come as a blow to the AKP and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It is an outcome that he is not likely to take gracefully. The second cliffhanger is whether the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), an offshoot of the Kurdish movement, will cross the 10% national threshold allowing it to enter Parliament. How these two issues will play out and the dynamics between them is the cause of much speculation.

Having won the first directly elected Presidential contest in August 2014 with a comfortable majority, President Erdoğan, could rest on his laurels. After 11 years as Prime Minister for the governing AKP, he is now in the formally ceremonial and non-partisan role of President. Nevertheless, he has been campaigning relentlessly on behalf of the AKP. Although official campaign posters picture the AKP´s leader (and former foreign minister) Ahmet Davutoğlu, the latter does not exude Erdoğan´s populist charisma, so it is Erdoğan who, Koran in hand, is leading the party´s efforts while insisting he is simply “on the side of the people.”

In fact, he has a vested interest in the outcome: The election will determine the limits of his power as President. Should the AKP win 330 seats (3/5 majority) in the parliament, the party will have gained the minimum number of seats required to take the proposed constitutional changes to a referendum. In the unlikely event that they receive 367 of the 550 seats in Parliament, the party will have enough seats to change the constitution single-handedly and move from today´s prime ministerial system to a French style executive presidency. Even today it is difficult to perceive how Erdoğan´s power has been reduced in the (formally apolitical) role as President. And as long as the prime ministerial and the presidential office are both held by the AKP, there is little to suggest that his role will be diminished. However, should the party fall out of favour, Erdoğan´s personal power in a Presidential system will remain intact for the coming four – and if re-elected for a second term, nine – years. In the latter scenario, power will have been concentrated in his hands for a record 21 years!

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