Turkey’s fledgling secularist, nationalist Iyi (Good) Party, whose leader Meral Aksener is thought to be the only politician with a real chance of unseating Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the snap June 24 presidential election, is to be allowed to run in the parallel parliamentary poll, authorities confirmed on April 23.
The decision came after 15 MPs from the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), switched to the centre-right Iyi to bolster its ranks. The move enabled Iyi to get around electoral regulations on new political parties, which it was feared, would rule it out of the parliamentary contest. Referring to the lawmakers that have changed party, CHP spokesman Bulent Tezcan told a news conference: “Our friends will not go down in history as MPs who left their party. They will go down as heroes who saved democracy.”
The election run-up is set to take place with investors fearing Turkey’s economic imbalances could send it off the rails and with watchdog Freedom House ranking the country as no longer even ‘Partly Free’. As well as facing criticism from watchdogs, eurocrats and adversaries in Turkey that he is increasingly authoritarian, populist Erdogan is under fire from opponents who say he is trying to sneak past the finishing post before voters realise the extent of the market about-turn which is set to hit them.
Independent polling company Gezici’s latest opinion survey on the popularity of the parties in Turkey put Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) on 42%, Iyi at 20.02%, CHP at 20.01%, the nationalist MHP (and formal ally of AKP) at 7.3% and the Kurdish HPD party at 9%. If those percentages were borne out in the actual election, the AKP and MHP might struggle to secure a majority, although their ambitions were helped in mid-March when the election law was changed to give parties in a formal alliance that fail to cross the 10%-of-votes threshold the right to parliamentary representation. The passing of the law sparked a brawl in parliament.
Latest numbers from Gezici also indicate that there will be no Erdogan first-round win in the presidential contest for which he would need more than 50% of the vote. Instead the forecast is that Erdogan, a big hit with working-class Turks, will face a run off with popular former interior minister Aksener, who split from the MHP, and quite a close call as to whether he will win or not.
Erdogan, who has dominated Turkey since 2002, is shown by an April 14 poll of 3,864 respondents as having a 3.8pp advantage (45.6% to Aksener's 41.8% with 12.6% of voters undecided in a hypothetical run-off). But there is no doubt at this point as to whether Turkey is in for a two-horse race.
The presidential election is set to be epoch-making for Turkey. Thanks to the official narrow result of the constitutional referendum held in Turkey in April last year—the contested result that involved unstamped ballot papers prompted CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu to lead a 425-kilometre “Justice March” to Istanbul—the country is set to change over from a parliamentary republic to a presidential republic led by an executive president with sweeping powers. There will no prime minister and parliament will have greatly diminished powers. Erdogan says the country needs such a system to prevent terrorism and speed up its economic and other areas of development, but critics have warned that a win for Erdogan could mean the creation of a dictator in all but name, with the president becoming even more powerful than was the founder of modern Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Ever since Turkey’s state of emergency was brought in after the failed coup of July 2016, Erdogan has had the power to rule by decree. The emergency regime was extended for another three months for a seventh time by parliament on the same day the surprise announcement of the elections, brought forward from November 2019, was announced, namely April 18. Its powers have been used over the past 22 months to conduct sweeping purges targeting around 160,000 people alleged to have links to the Gulenist network Erdogan claims was behind the attempted putsch. Tens of thousands have been imprisoned, scores of companies seen as linked to the plotters have been seized by the state and Turkey, meanwhile, has won the unwelcome distinction of being the world’s biggest jailer of journalists.
Explaining his decision to go for early elections, as recommended by the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP’s) junior ally, the nationalist MHP, on April 17, Erdogan said in a speech broadcast live on television that it was necessary for “Turkey to overcome uncertainties as soon as possible amid developments of historical importance in our region as well as the cross-border operation we’re carrying out [against Kurdish militia] in Syria”.
Erdogan also said: “Even though the president and government are working in unison, the diseases of the old system confront us at every step we take… Developments in Syria and elsewhere have made it urgent to switch to the new executive system to allow us to take steps for our country’s future in a stronger way.”
The president has always been known to many analysts as a leader who hates early elections as they dominated the country’s earlier turbulent decades of weak governments. “Erdogan sees early elections as somehow dishonourable,” Fadi Hakura, who manages the Turkey Project at Chatham House told bne IntelliNews on March 30. “He has traditionally viewed early elections as a sign of weakness and indecision—a failure of politics. And one thing Erdogan likes to do is to project strength and determination.”
Given that reading of Erdogan’s usual preferences in calling an election, cynics immediately returned to the difficulties the government would have had in keeping the economy humming right up until the originally planned date for the elections at the end of 2019.