When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a presidential and parliamentary election June 24—jumping the gun by more than a year—the outcome seemed foreordained: the country is under a state of emergency, Erdogan has imprisoned more than 50,000 of his opponents, dismissed 140,000 from their jobs, jailed a presidential candidate, and launched an attack on Syria’s Kurds, that is popular with most Turks.
But Erdogan’s seemingly overwhelming strength is not as solid as it appears, and the moves the President is making to insure a victory next month may come back to haunt him in the long run.
There is a great deal at stake in the June vote. Based on the outcome of a referendum last year, Turkey will move from a parliamentary system to one based on a powerful executive presidency. But the referendum vote was very close, and there is widespread suspicion that Erdogan’s narrow victory was fraudulent.
This time around Turkey’s President is taking no chances. The electoral law has been taken out of the hands of the independent electoral commission and turned over to civil servants, whose employment is dependent on the government. The state of emergency will make campaigning by anything but Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its ally, the National Action Party (MHP), problematical.
But Erdogan called for early elections not because he is strong, but because he is nervous about the AKP’s strong suit, the economy. While growth is solid, unemployment is 11 percent (21 percent for youth), debts are piling up and inflation—12 percent in 2017—is eating away at standards of living.
The AKP’s 16-year run in power is based on raising income for most Turks, but wages fell 2 percent over the past year, and the lira plunged 7.5 percent in the last quarter, driving up the price of imported goods. Standard & Poor’s recently downgraded Turkish bonds to junk status.
Up until now, the government has managed to keep people happy by handing out low interest loans, pumping up the economy with subsidies and giving bonuses to pensioners. But the debt keeps rising, and investment—particularly the foreign variety— is lagging. The Turkish economy appears headed for a fall, and Erdogan wants to secure the presidency before that happens.
To avoid a runoff, Erdogan needs to win 50 percent of the vote, and most polls show him falling short, partly due to voter exhaustion with the endless state of emergency. But this also reflects fallout from the President’s war on the Kurds, domestic and foreign.
The AKP came to power in 2002 with a plan to end the long-running war with Turkey’s Kurdish minority. The government dampened its suppression of Kurdish language and culture, and called a truce in the military campaign against the Kurdish Workers Party.
But the leftist Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP) broke through the 10 percent threshold in 2015 to put deputies in the Parliament, denying the AKP a majority. Erdogan promptly declared war on the Kurds. Kurdish deputies were imprisoned, Kurdish mayors were dismissed, Kurdish language signs were removed, and the Turkish Army demolished the centers of several majority Kurdish cities.
Erdogan also forced a new election—widely seen as fraudulent—and re-claimed the AKP’s majority.
Ankara also turned a blind eye to tens of thousands of Islamic State and Al-Qaeda fighters who crossed the Turkish border to attack the government of Bashar al-Assad and Syria’s Kurdish population. The move backfired badly. The Kurds—backed by American air power—defeated the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, and the Russians turned the tide in Assad’s favor.
Turkey’s invasion of Syria—operations Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield— is aimed at the Syrian Kurds and is supported by most Turks. But, no surprise, it has alienated the Kurds, who make up between 18 and 20 percent of Turkey’s population.
The AKP has traditionally garnered a substantial number of Kurdish voters, in particular rural, conservative ones. But pollster Kadir Atalay says many Kurdish AKP supporters felt “deceived and abandoned” when Erdogan went after their communities following the 2015 election. Kurds have also been alienated by Erdogan’s alliance with the extreme rightwing nationalist MHP, which is violently anti-Kurdish.
According to Atalay, alienating the Kurds has cost the AKP about 4 percent of the voters. Considering that the AKP won 49.5 percent of the vote in the last national election, that figure is not insignificant.
The progressive HDP is trying hard to win over those Kurds. “The Kurds—even those who are not HDP supporters, will respond to the Afrin operation [invasion of Syria], the removal of Kurdish language signs, and the imprisonment of [Kurdish] lawmaker,” HDP’s parliamentary whip Meral Danis Bestas told Al Monitor.
The HDP, whose imprisoned leader, Selahatt Demirtas, is running for president, calls for a “united stance” that poses “left-wing democracy” against “fascism.” The danger is that if the HDP fails to get at least 10 percent of the vote, its current seats will taken over by the AKP.
Erdogan has also alienated Turkey’s neighbors. He is in a tense standoff with Greece over some tiny islands in the Aegean Sea. He is at loggerheads with a number of European countries that have banned him from electioneering their Turkish populations for the June 24 vote. And he is railing against NATO for insulting Turkey. He does have a point—a recent NATO exercise designated Turkey “the enemy.
However, Erdogan’s attacks on NATO and Europe are mostly posturing. He knows Turkish nationalists love to bash the European Union and NATO, and Erdogan needs those votes to go to him, not the newly formed Good Party—a split from the rightwing MHP—or the Islamist Felicity Party.
No one expects the opposition to pull off an upset, although the centrist and secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) has recently formed an alliance with the Good Party, Felicity, and the Democratic Party to insure that all pass the 10 percent threshold for putting deputies in parliament.
That electoral alliance excludes the leftist HDP, although it is doubtful the Kurdish-based party would find common ground with parties that supported the jailing of its lawmakers. Of the Party’s 59 deputies, nine are in jail and 11 have been stripped of their seats.
There is an outside chance that Erdogan could win the presidency but lose his majority in Parliament. If the opposition does win, it has pledged to dump the new presidential system and return power to parliament.
The election will be held essentially under martial law, and Erdogan has loaded all the dice, marked every card, and rigged every roulette wheel.
There is virtually no independent media left in the country, and there are rumors that the AKP and the MHP have recruited and armed “supporters” to intimidate the opposition. A disturbing number of guns have gone missing since the failed 2016 coup.
However, as Max Hoffman of the Center for American Progress notes, the election might not be a “slam dunk.” A run-off would weaken Erdogan just when he is preparing to take on a number of major problems other than the economy:
- Turkey’s war with the Kurds has now spread into Syria and Iraq.
- In Syria, Assad is likely to survive and Turkey will find it difficult—and expensive—to permanently occupy eastern Syria. Erdogan will also to have to deal with the thousands of Islamic State and al-Qaeda fighters now in southern Turkey.
- Growing tensions with Egypt over the Red Sea, and Ankara’s new alliance with Sudan, which is at odds with Cairo over Nile River water rights.
- The strong possibility of a U.S confrontation with Iran, a nominal ally and important trading partner for Turkey.
- The possibility—remote but not impossible—that Turkey will get into a dustup with Greece.
- And last, the rising price of oil—now over $70 a barrel—and the stress that will put on the already indebted Turkish economy.
The Turkish president may get his win next month, but when trouble comes, he won’t be able to foist it off on anyone. He will own it.
Conn M. Hallinan is a California-based independent journalist. He is a regular columnist for the think tank Foreign Policy In Focus and holds a PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley.