Early Elections in Turkey: Causes and Potential Outcomes
On April 18, 2018, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced that presidential and parliamentary elections would take place earlier than planned on June 24, 2018. The announcement came in the wake of a meeting with the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli, who had suggested bringing the presidential elections forward from the scheduled date of November 3, 2019 because it would be difficult for the country to “endure the current circumstances” for that long.
So, what are the reasons behind the snap elections in Turkey? And how will President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party fare?
The reasoning behind Erdogan’s call for early elections
President Erdogan has justified his decision to hold elections more than a year ahead of schedule by claiming that “as a result of our ongoing military operations in Syria and the historic events in our region, it is imperative for Turkey to overcome uncertainty as soon as possible.”
Over the past six months he has openly and repeatedly rejected the idea of early elections. However, he faces a number of challenges that have forced his hand, the extent of which could ensure he is no longer president of the republic by the time of its centennial on October 29, 2023 – four months after the end of a new five-year term if the elections proceed in June.
Economic data indicate that the snap elections may have been called in anticipation of a looming economic crisis that could undermine the popularity of the president and his government. However, there are additional factors that may have forced him to take this step, such as the understanding reached with the United States administration on the future of the region east of the Euphrates in northern Syria, and President Trump’s announcement of his intention to withdraw his troops from the area soon. Indeed, these confidential understandings between Ankara and Washington may force President Erdogan to rethink his calculations on the Kurdish issue in Turkey and northern Syria.
A shift in Erdogan’s position on the Kurdish issue will not come as much of a surprise given his reputation for pragmatism but it would bring an end to his alliance with the MHP. A change in foreign policy or on the stance towards the Kurds, or any understanding or reconciliation with Washington, would increase the urgency of elections.
The upcoming elections will be held in accordance with a new law which states that to stand as a presidential candidate an individual requires either 100,000 votes or the endorsement of 20 members of parliament. The new law also allows political parties to form alliances, which will affect Erdogan’s chances of securing both the presidency and a parliamentary majority. The president’s popularity is in decline, despite enjoying substantial support compared to other contemporary Turkish political leaders.
In the past, Erdogan has benefited more than once from the fragmentation of opposition parties and their divergent agendas and inclinations. However, should these parties unite, the upcoming elections could hold some genuine surprises.
The first alliance has been announced between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP, 40–50% of the vote), the MHP (currently less than 7% of the vote) and the Great Unity Party (BBP, an Islamist and nationalist party with less than 1% of the vote).
The opposition parties have begun consultations to form multiple alliances – or potentially even one single alliance – that will guarantee them the largest share of votes. However, they face the problem of having divergent grassroots; the Republican People's Party is a leftist-Kemalist party; the Good Party is nationalist; the People’s Democratic Party is a Kurdish party and the Happiness Party is Islamist.
The leader of the Republican People's Party, Kemal Kılıcdaroglu, has proposed the formation of an alliance based on broad political objectives, rather than party political motives. He announced his readiness to enter into an electoral alliance with any party that agrees with him on a political map after the elections based on annulling the presidential system and returning to a parliamentary one, as well as bringing back balance and neutrality to the judiciary and security institutions.
All parties continue to avoid alliances with the People’s Democratic Party, which the government has succeeded in isolating after accusing it of supporting “terrorism”.
Although the opposition was caught off guard by the announcement of early elections, it has shown for the first time some signs of cooperative endeavor, if not unity, in facing President Erdogan. The leader of the Republican People's Party has asked 15 of its members to resign and join the Good Party – albeit formally – to form a parliamentary block and secure its leader, Meral Aksener, the right to run for president, as she is potentially a strong competitor to Erdogan.
The government has tried to prevent Aksener and her party from taking part in the upcoming elections, citing procedural reasons stemming from the fact that the Good Party was only recently founded, and claiming the party has not fulfilled the necessary legal requirements to participate in the elections.
Potential alliances in the presidential elections
In the constitutional referendum held on April 16, 2017, Turkey's parliamentary system was replaced with a presidential format. In practice, that new system has granted the Turkish president broad executive powers while limiting parliamentary oversight and legislative privileges. In practical terms, this means that a parliamentary opposition bloc can only acquire the strength to offset the president’s executive powers if it includes 400 out of the 600 members of parliament. According to current polls, this goal remains elusive. President Erdogan therefore appears content with the present electoral alliance between the AKP (48 percent of the vote) and the MHP (11 percent), which will allow him to defeat any future parliamentary opposition bloc.
In the presidential elections, Erdogan will probably seek to achieve an overwhelming victory in the first round, while the opposition will focus on making it to the second round by forming a single unified opposition front against Erdogan and voting for whichever candidate opposes him, regardless of their political orientation.
We may therefore consider two potential scenarios:
- All opposition parties unanimously approve one neutral candidate who is not a party leader; so far this scenario seems highly unlikely, as several party leaders have already announced their plans to run for president (such as Good Party leader, Meral Aksener). Moreover, Journalist Levent Gultekin has announced that he will run as an independent, but possibly with the covert support of former president Abdullah Gül and the Islamic Happiness Party. This is a unique arrangement that has the potential to cause much embarrassment – particularly if Gultekin runs without major party support but still tops the others in the polls. This is quite possible given the journalist’s considerable popularity in the country and his various political relationships acquired through his work.
- Each party presents its own candidate – be it the leader or a member – during the first round of elections; in this scenario, all opposition parties would need to agree to provide support for the candidate who progresses to the second round of the elections to face president Erdogan. This appears to be the more likely scenario.
Key remarks on Erdogan’s electoral alliance
The electoral alliance between the AKP and MHP is likely to receive substantial support in the parliamentary elections given the fact that the constituencies of both parties are of similar political and ideological orientations.
However, this is not the case when it comes to the presidential elections. While the constituency of the Nationalist Movement Party will vote for the party in parliamentary elections, it maintains deep-rooted differences with President Erdogan and opposed his acquisition of broader executive powers granted by the new presidential system.
During the constitutional referendum to decide the fate of the political system, the majority of MHP voters did not chose the presidential option, despite their leader’s request for support. (According to polls following the referendum, MHP voter turnout was a mere 11%, and only 2% voted for the new system).
Therefore, many analysts argue that while nationalist voters will vote for the MHP and its candidates in parliamentary elections, they may not support President Erdogan in the presidential elections. The consensus is that nationalist voters are instead likely to support alternative right-wing candidates in the first round, and any candidate standing against president Erdogan in the second – provided they belong to the right and not the left-leaning Republican People's Party. With that in mind, the votes cast by the AKP–MHP alliance in the presidential elections will likely be 5–10 percent lower than in the parliamentary elections.
Election circumstances and potential outcomes
It is important to note that the upcoming elections will be held under direct government supervision and no neutral minsters will be appointed to the Ministries of Interior, Justice and Transportation, as has happened in the past.
The limited election timeframe may lead to the rejection of many opposition candidates’ applications, as there will not be sufficient time for them to seek a judicial review to overturn this decision.
The new electoral system gives the ruling party the responsibility for establishing election monitoring mechanisms and transporting the ballot boxes; also, President Erdogan continues to wield major influence in the media and is able to draw upon the resources of various government agencies to support his campaign.
More importantly, these elections will be conducted under the Emergency Decree Laws, which will significantly restrict the opposition election campaign. As a result, the opposition may find itself in a situation in which it can only hope to unite behind one candidate who can embarrass President Erdogan at the polls.
Nevertheless, given that most polls have placed Erdogan’s popularity at 45%, the elections could still end in a surprise run-off. This would most probably not go Erdogan’s way. Therefore, he can now be expected to ramp up the propaganda, and to spare no effort politically or economically to decisively win these elections in the first round.