Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) said on April 17 that it will consider a request from ally and nationalist party MHP to bring forward landmark presidential and parliamentary elections to late August from November 2019.
The major move towards early polls, anticipated by many pundits, initially drove falls in the Turkish lira (TRY), stocks and bonds, but by the end of trading it seemed that only the benchmark index of the Istanbul stock exchange was clearly affected. Following the elections, Turkey will switch to an executive presidency under which the head of state will have sweeping powers, while the post of prime minister will be abolished and parliament will play a much diminished role.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has wielded the power to rule by decree since Turkey introduced its ongoing and much-criticised state of emergency following the failed putsch in July 2016, has until now not indicated that any proposals for early elections would be considered and on March 30 bne IntelliNews reported how Erdogan hates early elections as they dominated the country’s earlier turbulent decades of weak governments.
“Erdogan sees early elections as somehow dishonourable,” said 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.”
If Erdogan agrees to holding the elections 15 months earlier than scheduled, there may be criticism that he is trying to secure votes while the economy is still humming—lately analysts have pondered whether his unconventional ‘Erdonomics’, which are set against interest rate cuts even though the economy appears to be overheating and the TRY is depreciating at a worrying rate, could lead to some kind of economic meltdown. Responding to market pressure for monetary tightening in the face of Turkey’s economic imbalances, Erdogan on April 12 lashed out at international investors and warned anyone in the financial system “attempting to wage economic terror against our country” that they would be held accountable and “pay the price”.
Erdogan to chair elections meeting
Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag responded to the proposal from MHP leader Devlet Bahceli to bring forward the elections to August 26 by saying an announcement would be made after an April 18 meeting to be chaired by Erdogan and involving Bahceli had taken place.
“The AKP has a tradition of holding elections on time, and we had stated that the vote will take place as scheduled. But authorised party organs should evaluate this and it will be debated,” Bozdag said in a press briefing held at the parliament in Ankara.
Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci remarked that Bahceli’s call for early elections is “a positive step for predictability and sustainability” for the economy, according to state-run Anadolu Agency. “Turkey needs to set up the new system and set out on its voyage for the future,” Zeybekci was quoted as saying.
Bahceli himself said that securing early elections was an urgent matter as Turkey should hurry to switch to the executive presidential system. “It is a must to spoil the game of those who are aiming to stir chaos,” he said. “The time has come to spell the end of speculations on whether there will be an early election or not. There is no other solution left.”
Electoral leg-up for MHP from new legislation
One factor in Bahceli’s thinking may be new electoral laws approved in mid-March by MPs, though not before a brawl between lawmakers had taken place. Tempers boiled over because the legislation allow the AKP to enter into a formal alliance with the MHP, thus enabling the smaller party to take parliamentary seats even if it fails to cross the threshold represented by 10% of the vote. Another controversial change grants the right to count ballot papers not bearing an official stamp.
Reflecting on the possibility of early elections, the Republican People's Party (CHP) deputy chairman Bulent Tezcan said: “We’re always ready. Turkey’s problems can only be solved by the nation’s will.”
In Turkey, August 26 marks the anniversary of the beginning of a crucial and victorious military offensive over Greek forces in 1922. It was one of the final and most decisive battles in the Turkish War of Independence that followed the failure of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The MHP may think that holding the elections on that day could help it and the AKP draw on rising nationalism driven by the Turkish army’s military incursions in Syria in pursuit of Kurkish militia forces.
President ‘will need assurance he can win’
The April 2017 referendum that approved the executive presidency, following a row over the counting of unstamped ballots, saw Erdogan win only narrowly. For a first-round victory in the next presidential contest he will require a clear majority.
“Early elections have been mooted for some while but they’re only a realistic possibility if Erdogan is assured he can win, and win in the first round,” Nigel Rendell, a senior analyst at Medley Global Advisors in London, told Bloomberg by email. “This looks a high-risk strategy for him at the moment.”
If 2018 does become the election year, investors will be concerned that Turkey’s structural economic reforms and other matters of priority, such as the fight against sticky double-digit inflation, will be placed on the backburner by the AKP, an Islamic-rooted party that has been in power for 16 years.
Indeed, Erol Bilecik, head of the Turkish Industry and Business Association (Tusiad), told Bloomberg on April 17 that “we as the business world under Tusiad don’t think that having elections earlier than their planned time is the right thing.”
He added that businesses were expecting 2018 to be a “year of structural reforms and fight against inflation, but early elections will present a period of reversal for structural reforms and fight against inflation. Our position has been open and clear in this respect that we would like the elections to be held in their planned times in 2019”.
Under the planned executive presidency, the president will have sweeping powers. He will prepare the budget, appoint high-level officials, including ministers and some top judges and dissolve parliament. Under the current power-sharing arrangement, it is only parliament that can declare a state of emergency which curtails basic rights and freedoms. But that power will also switch to the president under the executive system.