Dr Said Elhaj*
Millions of Turkish voters are heading to the polls on June 24 to take part in the early presidential and parliamentary elections which are viewed as the most important, sensitive and complicated elections that Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have ever experienced since 2002.
This paper discusses the importance of the upcoming elections and the factors that increase their sensitivity and centrality. It also provides details about the participants both with respect to presidential candidates and political parties’ candidates, including their backgrounds and programs. Finally, the paper presents scenarios and expected results, and their repercussions on Turkey internally and externally.
The paper believes that President Erdogan’s chances of winning the coming presidential election are very high, whether it was at the first round or at the second round. Also, the paper suggests several scenarios for the expected results of the parliamentary elections which seem more complicated.
On April 16, 2017, a popular referendum approved the presidential system in the country by 51.4%, to be applied on 3 November 2019 with the simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections. However, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli, put Turkey on the track for early elections, especially after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan supported Bahceli’s proposal, and the parliament approved it.
There are many reasons for the early election, including:
– Economic factors linked to the growth rate of the Turkish economy and the decline in the value of Turkish lira against foreign currencies;
– An internal policy that revolves around calculations of profit and loss before the opposition, amid the opposition parties’ attempts to provide a consensus candidate for the presidential elections;
– A foreign policy linked with concerns that the regional developments may adversely affect Turkey, especially in Syria and Iraq; and
– Military-security factors linked to the recent Turkish achievements in the field of counter-terrorism, as well as making use of the victory of Operation Olive Branch in northern Syria.
The current elections differ from all their predecessors, especially those that the AKP has run for since its establishment in 2001 and its winning of elections for the first time in November 2002, from several angles. Also, they are of great importance and draw much attention for several reasons, including:
First, they mark the entry into force of the presidential system in the country, which is a very important variable and influences the Turkish political life, especially in terms of changing the system of government/administration and the powers that the President will enjoy. Given that one of the most important features of the presidential system is strong governments that will last for five years according to the Turkish constitution, profit and loss calculations become more important.
Second, holding the presidential and parliamentary elections on the same day, which means choosing representatives of the legislative and executive powers simultaneously, and increases the importance of the voter’s decision and makes it difficult for the losers of elections and voters alike, to catch up.
Third, the country’s very high political polarization.
Fourth, the official and legal electoral alliances for the first time, which will leave a clear impact on the formation of the coming parliament as well as the political life in Turkey in the medium and long term.
Fifth, the large differences between Erdogan and the ruling AK Party on the one hand, and the opposition parties on the other hand, mean that the opposition’s victory in the presidential elections will mean a lot of change in Turkey, both internally and externally.
Sixth, the contexts in which the elections come, especially the economic situation and the talk about an impending economic crisis (regardless of its validity), which may partly affect the decision of some voters.
Participants, Programs, and Strategies
- A) Participants
Eight parties and ten active political parties will participate in the coming parliamentary elections, mostly within two major coalitions:
1) The People’s Alliance: Although it officially includes the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), it is unofficially joined by the Great Union Party, as the AKP put some of its leaders on its own electoral lists.
2) The Nation’s Alliance: It officially includes the Republican People’s Party, the IYI (Good) Party, and the Islamic/conservative Saadet (Happiness) Party, while it is unofficially joined by the Democratic Party, where the CHP and IYI parties included a number of its members on their own electoral lists.
On the other hand, three parties remained outside these two alliances, namely the leftist Vatan (Homeland) Party, the Kurdish Islamic HUDA (Free Cause) Party, and the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which preferred to remain outside the Nation’s Alliance because of its differences with the Good Party on the one hand, and its desire to spare the alliance charges such as supporting terrorism, a charge which has been faced by a number of the HDP leaders over the past few months.
As for the presidential election, there are six candidates, namely:
1) President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as candidate of his Justice and Development Party and the People’s Alliance,
2) Muharram Ince, as candidate of the Republican People’s Party,
3) Meral Aksener, as candidate of the Good Party,
4) Salahattin Demirtas, as candidate of his Democratic People’s Party,
5) Karamollaoğlu, as candidate of the Saadet Party, and
6) Dogu Perincek, as candidate of Vatan (Homeland) Party.
- B) Electoral Platforms
Political parties participating in the parliamentary elections introduced their electoral platforms, which could also be considered as the electoral programs for their presidential candidates, who did not introduce separate or independent programs.
Despite their limited influence on the Turkish voter, these electoral platforms are of remarkable interest, as historic documents for the past of these parties and an assessment of their reality as well as their understanding of Turkey’s problems and the visions and solutions these parties have provided.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) presented its 360-page electoral platform, which included an introduction, a vision and the following main chapters:
- New form of governance
- Strong democracy
- Man and society
- Stable and strong economy
- Strategic sectors and innovative production
- Environment, urban planning, and local administrations
- Foreign policy and national security
- Supplement for major projects
However, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the largest opposition party, presented its 244-page electoral platform, including a brief introduction and five main headlines:
1- Democracy: Right, Law and Justice.
2- Economy: Turkey is a developing producer and distributes fairly
- Education: Free and high-quality education that guarantees work
- Community peace: a fraternal life together
- Foreign policy: stability and status
In addition, the CHP provided the following axes:
- Government administration and services
- A fair working environment worthy of human dignity
- Community sects
- Culture and art
- The right of the city
- Environmentally friendly life
Several similarities and specific differences can be identified between these two platforms – as examples for government and opposition – on the one hand and the electoral programs of other parties on the other. We can say that the Justice and Development Party program focused on the idea of maintaining achievements on the one hand and the merits of the presidential system on the other. However, the Republican People’s Party platform focused on the idea of the crises experienced by Turkey on the one hand and being a better alternative on the other hand.
In a quick reading of the two programs, it is clear that the economic factor is prominent in both of them, especially what is related to the daily lives of citizens such as salaries, end of service allowances, the minimum wages, and the major projects in Turkey.
The gap between the two parties’ visions of the country’s foreign policy is clear. The Justice and Development Party wants to maintain the role of Turkey and its regional and international status; presenting it as a voice for the oppressed, defending the rights of Muslims in the West, and calling for a more fair international order. However, the Republican People’s Party wants a more traditional and conservative Turkish foreign policy, with less initiation and involvement in crises, In a bid to restore stability and prestige to the country’s foreign policy.
It is also remarkable that there are relative similarities in the two parties’ approach to relations with major powers and international and regional institutions and organizations such as the United States, Russia, the United Nations, NATO and the European Union; while the two countries are radically different in policies related to the Middle East and North Africa.
- C) Strategies
The AKP is seeking Erdogan’s victory in the presidential election and winning a parliamentary majority along with its two allied parties to ensure harmony and cooperation between the presidency and the parliament. The AK Party, along with the People’s Alliance, has built its electoral strategy on the accumulation of its past experience and achievements, its alliance with parties close to it intellectually and politically, and the idea of rallying behind a prominent leader and a strong candidate, the incumbent President Erdogan.
The AKP’s campaign focuses on attacking the Republican People’s Party (CHP), as its success in entering the parliament would reduce the chances of the ruling party and its alliance to win a parliamentary majority, in favour of the opposition alliance, while the CHP’s failure to exceed the electoral threshold would be an opportunity for the AKP to increase its number of MPs significantly.
In his election campaign, Erdogan focuses on the candidate of the Republican People’s Party, Muharram Ince, largely ignoring the others: first as Ince is Erdogan’s strongest rival, and second for it is easy to attack Ince’s party (CHP), ideas, history, policies and ideology – which will contribute to the stabilization of the voting bloc for the Justice and Development Party and win part of the conservatives and nationalists in his favour, which cannot be done with some other competitors amid the diminishing chances to compete with him.
On the other hand, the opposition parties tried to offer a strong consensus candidate supported by all of them to rival Erdogan, and the name of former President Abdullah Gul was on the table. Wen they failed to do so, the opposition parties adopted an alternative plan: to provide the largest possible number of candidates from different backgrounds – secular, nationalist, democratic, conservative and leftist – to deduct from Erdogan’s voting bloc and try to prevent him from winning the presidential elections from the first round, hoping to agree on supporting the candidate who will compete in the run-off if it happens.
In the parliamentary elections, the opposition parties and their candidates, especially the Republican People’s Party, focus on the problems and crises faced by Turkey. And hold Erdogan and his party responsible for them, especially with regard to the economy and foreign policy. And thus the CHP introduces itself as a solution and a substitute for a better economy and a less tense foreign policy and make promises to resolve and address Turkey’s various problems.
The opposition raises the banner of change as a motto, considering that the continuation of the Justice and Development Party in the government for 16 years is calculated against it, as they hold the AKP responsible for the current situation of Turkey, which invalidates – in their view – many of the ruling party’s electoral promises.
With regard to the presidency election, Muharram Ince is aware of Erdogan’s superiority in rhetoric and election campaigns, and therefore he has made a quieter discourse despite his aggressive attack on Erdogan. Ince started his election campaign with visiting most of the presidential candidates. In recognition of the nature and mood of the Turkish voter, Ince seemed more conservative than he used to be to attract voters, especially Islamists and conservatives.
Forecasts and Scenarios
In view of all of the above, the next round appears to be crucial in shaping the image of Turkey and its immediate future. Also, Turkish elections will have great repercussions on the Turkish political life, regardless of its results.
The implementation of the presidential system will be a milestone in changing the pattern of governance, the relationship between state institutions, the way they are managed, the form of government and the number of its ministries, etc. Also, they will have a direct impact on domestic and foreign policies as a guarantor of more stable, strong, and rapid decision-making and implementation, which may give impetus to the Turkish foreign policy and strengthen its position in dealing with the various parties. In this context, there are harbingers for this in launching military operations against the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Iraqi Qandil Mountains, as well as the Turkish-American agreement on Syria’s Manbij.
Also, the form of the parliament and its partisan map will change significantly, including at least the seven parties that are officially members of the two election alliances, as these alliances will ensure the entry of the small parties joining them to the parliament. Moreover, the Turkish opposition – represented by the Nation’s Alliance – will have better and stronger representation in the next parliament compared to their current situation; and the opposition parties may win the majority as well.
Of course, the presidential election is more important and more serious than parliamentary elections. Therefore, the presidential election campaign, for example, has overshadowed the parliamentary campaign to a large extent.
Before detailing expectations, it should be noted that Turkish survey companies are not accurate in their forecasts, as many of them suffer from politicization and publish results only to influence and guide the public opinion rather than expressing it. Also, some survey countries are either lacking expertise or lacking tools, or even both of them. To sum up, the results of the Turkish poll are more appropriate to scrutinize and monitor general trends than to judge accurately the mood of the Turkish voter and the expected results.
Some examples of opinion polls on presidential elections can be found in the following table, which includes SONAR, partly affiliated to the Nationalist Movement Party; FORESIGHT, which conducted its poll for Bloomberg; GEZICI, close to the People’s Democratic Party, and usually gives low proportions to Erdogan and the AKP; KONSENSUS, close to the Justice and Development Party; and METROPOLL, which has recently conducted polls in favor of the Good (IYI) Party*:
*This table has been prepared by the researcher.
From this table and the results of other opinion polls, the following conclusions can be drawn:
First, Erdogan is the strongest and most likely candidate and is ahead of all his rivals by a big margin, followed by Ince in most opinion polls.
Second, there is no expectation that any of the candidates – Erdogan in particular – will achieve an overwhelming victory.
Third, there is a remarkable divergence in the expectations of polling companies, especially with respect to Ince’s chances (10 points maximum) and Aksener (12 points maximum).
Fourth, Erdogan is likely to win the presidency from the first round; first, because of the reliability difference between the rating companies listed in the table, second, because there are no strong indications that Erdogan’s popularity is significantly lower than the 2014 presidential election in which he won 52%, and third, because part of the hesitant voters are expected to vote for him in the last hours.
Fifth, however, a second electoral round of presidential election will not be a big surprise, as there is no expectation of a sweeping victory for Erdogan, amid the opposition’s coalescing against him, the objectionable voices within the Justice and Development Party itself. However, the inaccuracy of the polling companies always casts doubts on the results.
If the elections are not resolved from the first round, the run-off will take place two weeks later, on the eighth of July, 2018; and then we will have one of two scenarios:
The first and most likely scenario is that Erdogan will compete with Ince. a scenario that guarantees the stability of all the votes of the Justice and Development Party and an important part of the votes of the People’s Alliance, in addition to a small proportion of the votes of Islamists and conservatives, especially supporters of the Saadet (Happiness) Party despite the decision of the party’s leadership, in favour of Erdogan. In this case, Ince will win most of the votes of the supporters of the Republican People’s Party in addition to the Good Party.
The second less likely scenario is that, Erdogan competes with Aksener, either for achieving the second position or for Ince’s withdrawal in her favour, as she is likely to discount Erdogan’s electoral bloc of conservatives and nationalists. In this case, Aksener can get the votes of her supporters plus an important part of the votes of the Republican People’s Party, and perhaps the Saadet Party, but in this case, most Kurds will either vote for Erdogan or boycott the second round because of the nationalist background of Aksener and her history as a former interior minister.
In both cases, Erdogan’s chances are far more likely than the chances of his presumptive rival in the run-off, which means that Erdogan will continue to hold the post of president by a very large percentage, regardless of whether this comes in the first round or the run-off.
With the importance of the presidency, the parliament is not less much less important in the presidential system; and it remains very important for any president to maintain harmony and coordination with the parliament, with regard to the ratification of the budget, the enactment of laws, and the follow-up of the government work, and other powers.
Some examples of opinion polls on parliamentary elections can be found in the following table for the same polling companies*:
*This table is prepared by the researcher.
** The abbreviations were used to denote the following parties: The Justice and Development Party (AKP), the National Movement Party (MHP), the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Good Party (IYI), the Happiness Party (SP), the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
*** The Vatan (Homeland) Party and the Huda (Free Cause) Party were absent from the table due to their very low expectations and ineffective results. Also, organization of parties in the above table was based on the two alliances.
**** The company gave detailed results to only alliances, not to parties, in addition to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
From the above table and the results of other opinion polls, the following conclusions can be drawn:
First, the AKP is far ahead of the rest of the parties, followed by the CHP, in all opinion polls.
Second, there is a significant decline in the AKP’s rate in the last parliamentary elections (49.5%), and the party seems unable to obtain the majority of parliament alone.
Third, there is a significant decline in the votes of the Nationalist Movement Party (11.9%), and there is a clear divergence in expectations about it because of the recent split which resulted in the formation of the Good Party.
Fourth, there is a remarkable difference between the People’s Alliance and the Nation’s Alliance in favor of the former.
Fifth, in a practical political reading, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) should be added to the Nation’s Alliance, for being close to it in the stance and policies, especially in the face of Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party.
Sixth, opinion polls differ on whether the HDP can overcome the electoral threshold and enter the parliament; and in both cases it will be through a narrow margin.
Seventh, some polls expect the People’s Alliance to win the majority of the parliament, but not a comfortable one as it falls within the standard deviation (margin of error) for most opinion polls.
We can say that the main factor in resolving the outcome of the legislative elections and the form of the next parliament is the result of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, the only party outside the two alliances that has the opportunity to enter the parliament alone, and appears closer in its policies to the Nation’s Alliance.
The reason for this is the electoral threshold law, which requires that any party (or electoral alliance) should obtain 10% of the votes throughout Turkey to enter parliament, otherwise its votes and parliamentary seats will be distributed among other parties according to their voting percentage in each electoral commission, separately.
Because the AKP is the strongest after the HDP in the Kurdish majority areas of the east and south-east of the country, and because it is also the strongest party in other provinces which have strong Kurdish representation, especially Istanbul, the AKP will be the biggest beneficiary of the HDP’s inability to cross the electoral threshold.
Thus, the HDP’s failure to overcome the electoral threshold and enter the parliament will inevitably benefit the AKP, which may have an opportunity to obtain parliamentary majority, despite the decline in the voting rate. On the other hand, the HDP’s entry to the parliament will increase the chances of the Nation’s Alliance to achieve a parliamentary majority, especially if the AKP’s ratio was less than 45%, according to arithmetic calculations associated with the D’Hondt method, according to which the parliamentary results are calculated.
According to the above forecasts, Turkey will be, on the morning of the 25th of this month, in front of one of four scenarios:
First, Erdogan’s win of presidency and the People’s Alliance of parliamentary majority, which is the most likely scenario according to the data so far, but not at safe rates or very high chances.
Second, Erdogan’s presidency win and the Nation’s Alliance (along with the HDP) win of the majority of parliament, a very likely scenario that may be no less likely than the first scenario.
Third, the opposition’s win of presidential elections (Ince or Aksener), and the People’s Alliance win of the parliamentary majority, which is an unlikely scenario.
Fourth, the opposition’s win of the presidential elections (Ince or Aksener), and the Nation’s Alliance of the parliamentary majority, which is also a weak scenario.
Based on these expectations and scenarios, there are some implications, including:
1) There are many differences between the ruling party and the opposition in the electoral programs, backgrounds, ideas and rhetoric, as well as the nature of the presidential system that will be applied with the elections and the powers it grants to the president. However, the results of opinion polls do not provide decisive expectations. Therefore, we can say that any change in the name of the president or his party in Turkey will lead to a lot of changes internally and externally: starting with the presidential system that the Justice and Development Party wants to maintain, and the parliamentary system that the opposition wants to return to, through education, health and other sectors, and ending with the country’s foreign policy, especially with regard to regional policies.
2) The strength of opposition: Regardless of the accuracy of the expectations, the opposition will nevertheless be much stronger than they are now, which will have its implications on the work of the parliament and the balances within it, and the relationship with the institution of the presidential institution, especially under the expected changes in the parliament’s map, as explained above.
3) There is a real opportunity – regardless of its percentage – to the opposition in Turkey for winning the majority of parliament for the first time since 2002, an important development which has many reasons that cannot be listed in the context of this paper.
4) Whether the opposition or the People’s Alliance achieves a parliamentary majority, the Justice and Development Party will have to resort to consensus and compromising to ensure a smooth and harmonious conduct between the parliament and the president. These compromises and concessions will be in favor of the opposition in the case it won a parliamentary majority, and to the AK Party’s ally, the Nationalist Movement Party, in the case the Nation’s Alliance’s won the majority, a development that takes place almost for the first time since the AKP assumed power. The only thing that can prevent this is only to achieve the parliamentary majority alone, a likeliness that has no high chances, as it is based on the failure of democratic peoples.
5) Alliances are not permanent: The existing alliances between the various parties seem to be more temporary than long-term political alliances, especially in the opposition camp, which includes different – but rather contradictory – parties, in ideas, programs and backgrounds. Thus, the map of alliances is expected to change, even partially after the elections and during the work within parliament, especially at the level of the relationship between the AK Party and the Happiness Party on the one hand, and the Nationalist Movement Party and the Good Party on the other.
6) The reserving AKP members: The result of the popular referendum on the presidential system last year showed that there is a trend within the AK Party that has reservations about the referendum, the constitutional amendment and/or the president’s leadership of the party and the government. We can conclude from the results of polls that this spectrum is still present – albeit not organized – and influential in the decline in the percentage of voting for the party.
7) Given the expectations related to the parliament and the possibility of winning a majority by either of the two alliances, albeit slight, it is not expected that government action will be drastically affected or be hindered due to likely conflicts between the presidency and the government. But if that happens, the political blockage is likely to push various parties to ballot boxes again, in early presidential and parliamentary elections, of which a number of politicians and researchers have recently warned. However, this remains a very weak prospect.
In the end, the upcoming elections in Turkey appear to be more important, central and sensitive than all the election events that have taken place in the country since 2002, especially because they are accompanied by the presidential system’s entry into force, and the state of polarization, balances and alliances.
Therefore, there are many variables that are expected to occur, some are self-verified and not related to the election results, and others are directly linked to the election results, the name of the winning president, and the next parliament map. These variables extend along many sectors, issues, and files, most notably Turkey’s foreign policy.
Therefore, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Turkey after the twenty-fourth of July, 2018 will not be Turkey before that date. Turkey is on the verge of a completely new and different stage in its political process which will draw the near future and certainly affect Turkey’s surrounding countries.
*Dr. Said Elhaj is a Palestinian doctor, writer, and researcher in the Turkish affairs. The article was first published on the Egyptian Institute for Studies (EIS).