Turks have had so many votes in the past few years that it seems amiss not to have an election of substance this year. Well, maybe that omission will be remedied. Speculation has become rife that Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will bring forward the presidential and general elections due in November 2019.
It’s easy to see why. With his instinctive populism and his ability to galvanise any crowd, Erdogan almost always looks like he is on an election footing, but Turkey watchers are picking up on a whole swathe of extra clues that he is about to press the button for real.
“Many signs have appeared, I think there will be an early election bombshell,” declared polemical columnist Ahmet Hakan, with confidence.
One such indicator emerged back in January when the leader of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli, announced he would unequivocally back Erdogan for reelection.
“Along with other political, economic, and diplomatic developments, the seemingly premature timing of Bahceli's declaration suggests that snap elections could be in the offing,” offered Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey research programme at the Washington Institute.
This month, many picked up on recent controversial changes to the electoral law as a new sign that Erdogan is preparing for an imminent vote. Financial analysts say the resulting fears of an early election stoked panic in the Turkish markets after the approval of amendments to allow Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) to unite in an electoral alliance with the MHP. This means that the ailing MHP can get into parliament even if it falls below the previously mandatory threshold of 10 percent of the national vote, ensuring the presence of extra tame lawmakers obliged to support Erdogan.
The law changes also give Erdogan other advantages. Ballot boxes will now be supervised by a civil servant rather than representatives of pesky rival political parties. In addition, the law validates unstamped ballots—which were controversially counted during the knife-edge referendum in April last year on creating a superpresidency and scrapping the role of prime minister. Together, all these changes strengthen Erdogan’s grip on future elections, making it harder for him to lose and, his critics point out, making electoral fraud easier.
Election fever is also helped by Erdogan’s rise in the popularity stakes after Turkey’s military incursion into Afrin in Syria to curb the territorial ambitions of Kurdish militia buoyed by driving out Islamic State. That he ordered this in defiance of the US—which backs the Syrian Kurds, has armed them and refutes Erdogan’s claims that they’re linked to Turkish “terrorist” separatists—burnishes his tough guy credentials at home.
‘Coffin as a soapbox’
At the funeral of a Turkish soldier killed fighting in Afrin, Erdogan “used a coffin draped with the Turkish flag as a soapbox, and the mosque courtyard as a rallying ground,” wrote columnist Celal Baslangic. That is a sure sign that he plans to capitalise on the fighting across the border by calling an early election, Baslangic maintained, “because he now gets the strength to fight for power from war and bloodshed.”
Then there is the economy, the real driver of Erdogan’s success over the years. Turkey is still defying predictions of economic collapse due to overheating and Erdogan has to maintain a balancing act between populist measures and keeping the show on the road until the elections. How long can he keep this up?
Erdogan maintains he won’t call early polls, but Murat Ucer and Atilla Yesilada of GlobalSource Partners believe that would be a miscalculation. “We claim that the AKP is operating under two false assumptions that by social and economic populism, it will claw the back the lost votes in late 2018 or early 2019 [and that it’s] possible to stimulate the sagging economy through fiscal means until the November 2019 general and presidential elections,” they asserted in a joint report. “Soon AKP will grasp that these goals are not achievable, at which time it will deploy all means at hand to curry favour with voters and head for the polls.”
The opposition remains feeble and divided, and emergency rule—still in place though it was announced as long ago as after the abortive coup in July 2016—means that even if it were capable of an effective campaign the opposition’s wings are clipped.
What better time for an election? One dream date is around July 15, two years to the day after Turks of all political colours spilled into the streets at Erdogan’s command and foiled a coup attempt blamed on followers of a shadowy Muslim cleric, the exiled Fethullah Gulen.
This would have the added bonus of avoiding the aftermath of difficult local elections due next March, when the AKP risks losing control of Turkey’s big cities, which voted “No” in the referendum. Losing the cities, where the party’s Islamist predecessors first triumphed in the 1990s, would be hugely symbolic and would surely dent Erdogan’s confidence going into a high-stakes presidential election.
“Erdogan sees early polls as dishonourable”
But, there’s always a ‘but’. Erdogan hates early elections of the sort that dominated earlier turbulent decades of weak governments. “Erdogan sees early elections as somehow dishonourable,” says Fadi Hakura, who manages the Turkey Project at Chatham House. “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.”
Erdogan needs to keep the elections where they are in order to show that he is confident—especially at a time when he might be feeling less so. Recent research shows that more people are dissatisfied with their economic lot and even the combined strength of the AKP and the MHP is not yet polling above the 50% needed for Erdogan to avoid a potentially tricky second round vote. His illiberal behaviour has long lost the liberals who first helped bring him to power, hence his embrace of the nationalists, and even many in his own party are increasingly displeased, while too afraid to rebel.
The stakes are high. Whereas under old arrangements he could have ruled as premier ad infinitum by just getting 30-40% of the vote, as president he has to win more than half. If he loses, he will be gifting unimaginable powers to an opponent.
Since he can’t afford to lose, it could be argued that he needs all the time he can get to lock in maximum gains. And maybe there is no need to rush, after all. Erdogan already effectively uses all the powers the reformed presidency will give him (under the state of emergency he can rule by decree). There may be many reasons for AKP support to tail off, but there really is nowhere much for it to go. The divided opposition shows no signs of becoming a powerful force. Former Interior Minister Meral Aksener’s Good Party (IYI Parti) is polling well but to win she would need to grab all the nationalist votes possible while also gaining both the socialists and the Kurds—can they trust her rightwing history?
In fact, the Kurds, who could swing a final round vote, haven’t anyone to turn to now that their dream of direct democratic representation has been dashed, and despite everything could still return to the AKP as the least bad option.
The economy might deteriorate, but one year is unlikely to be long enough for it to tank to the extent that it loses Erdogan significant votes to parties who provide no economic answers.
Hakura points out that recent economic policy, rather than playing to populists, has gone the other way in order to stave off a recession. “Prior to any election Erdogan tends to introduce fiscally advantageous measures to critical constituents among the electorate, yet so far what we have seen is that consumption taxes have gone up to curb consumer spending, the easy credit programme is being wound down and interest rates have not been lowered. These measures if anything hurt his key constituencies among the electorate. They’re more like austerity measures to rein in the budget deficit for now,” he says.
Nothing is certain. With Erdogan pretty much unhindered in the driving seat, he could change his mind on a whim. Some economists argue that the financial environment will force him to.
But so far the ducks are not yet in a row for early polls, even though they are swimming in broadly the right direction.