Erdogan in bind as opposition forms alliance for elections

Polls indicate the alliance is on track to win enough votes to deny Erdogan’s own bloc a majority in parliament.
Sunday 06/05/2018
Leader of Turkey’s Iyi (Good) party Meral Aksener (L) and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), in Ankara, on April 25. (AP)
Closing ranks. Leader of Turkey’s Iyi (Good) party Meral Aksener (L) and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), in Ankara, on April 25. (AP)

WASHINGTON - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finds himself in a difficult situation less than two months before snap elections as the opposition is overcoming deep divisions to form an alliance to try to win a majority of seats in parliament and possibly unseat Erdogan as head of state.

Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey as either prime minister or president since 2003, is confronted with a four-party bloc bent on rolling back some of his key policy decisions, including a plan to switch from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government.

Polls indicate the alliance is on track to win enough votes to deny Erdogan’s own bloc — formed by his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the small conservative Great Unity Party — a majority in parliament.

Members of the alliance for the June 24 parliamentary and presidential poll called on Turks to teach Erdogan a lesson at the ballot box. “We regard this as an election of vital importance,” opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said.

The new alliance groups Kilicdaroglu’s secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), the nationalist Iyi (Good) party, the Islamist Felicity Party (SP) and the centre-right Democratic Party (DP). A central goal of the alliance is to help the SP and the DP win seats in parliament by circumventing Turkey’s 10% rule for representation in the chamber: In an election alliance, only the bloc as a whole, not its individual parties, has to win more than 10% of the vote to enter parliament.

Polls say the alliance could get about 40% of the vote, similar to the result expected for the AKP-MHP bloc. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which is running on its own, could get another 10%, which, when combined with the alliance’s tally, could cost Erdogan’s AKP its majority.

“There is panic in the AKP,” Murat Gezici, a respected pollster, said in an interview. He said the country’s economic situation, which shows signs of overheating amid a sharp drop of the Turkish lira against major currencies, high inflation and unemployment as well as a growing current account deficit, is a major reason for Erdogan’s woes.

“Many voters think the AKP has not kept its economic promises in recent years,” Gezici said. He estimates that some AKP voters could switch to the Iyi, which tends to appeal to a similar voter segment. The result would be a boost for the opposition.

Erdogan could encounter similar problems in the presidential poll, also scheduled for June 24, with a run-off July 8 if no candidate takes more than 50% of the vote in the first round. The parties in the new opposition alliance promised each other to unite behind the strongest anti-Erdogan contender on July 8, a development that could spell trouble for the 64-year-old head of state, Gezici said.

He added that 15% of AKP voters and 75% of MHP voters do not want to support Erdogan. “In a second round, Aksener would have a chance to beat Erdogan,” he said, referring to Iyi party leader Meral Aksener.

Hopes for a united opposition candidate against Erdogan were shattered when Abdullah Gul, a former president, declined to enter the race, citing criticism levelled against him, especially in the CHP. Gul irked the AKP by expressing concerns about the course of the country under Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian leadership. Coming from Gul, who enjoys respect among AKP voters despite leaving day-to-day politics in 2014, the charges enraged the ruling party.

With Gul dropping out, the CHP, the biggest opposition party, is fielding Muharrem Ince, a long-time member of parliament known as a combative and effective orator, as its presidential candidate. Erdogan also faces Aksener, the head of the SP Temel Karamollaoglu and the former HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas in the presidential race.

Demirtas’s candidacy is largely symbolic because he has been in pre-trial detention since 2016 for alleged support for Kurdish separatists. He faces more than 140 years in prison if convicted.

However, Demirtas, a charismatic 45-year-old lawyer who shot to fame with a strong showing in the presidential election in 2014, could sway part of the Kurdish vote, which is estimated at about 20% of the total Turkish electorate of 55 million people. He is also popular among non-Kurdish parts of the Turkish left.

Demirtas could very well hold the key to the election outcome, said Burak Kadercan, an associate professor at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island. Many conservative Kurds previously voted for Erdogan but a crackdown on Kurdish politicians such as Demirtas and a military intervention into Syria to push a Kurdish militia away from the Turkish-Syrian border may weaken that support.

“Demirtas, given his popularity, faces a historical opportunity,” Kadercan wrote on Twitter. By offering support to the new opposition alliance, Demirtas could bring a broad anti-Erdogan front together, Kadercan argued, admitting that such a strategy carried risks for Demirtas: The former HDP chief could anger militant Kurdish hardliners and could face life in jail if Erdogan defeats the opposition.