With snap election, Erdogan moves to consolidate power till 2028

By calling early elections, Erdogan is calculating that he can avoid seeing a possible crash before Turks go to the polls.
Sunday 22/04/2018
Turkish men are seen in front of poster flags of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, in Istanbul, on April 19. (AFP)
Shifting politics. Turkish men are seen in front of poster flags of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, in Istanbul, on April 19. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is rushing the country to early elections in a move designed to catch a divided opposition off-guard and to benefit from the wave of patriotism following Ankara’s military incursion into Syria.

Despite ruling out early elections for months and insisting the vote would be as scheduled in November 2019, Erdogan, on April 18, announced that parliamentary and presidential elections would be on June 24, the situation in neighbouring Iraq and Syria having “made it essential for Turkey to overcome the uncertainties ahead as soon as possible.”

Turkey sent its army into the northern Syrian region of Afrin in January to push Kurdish rebels from the border area and has threatened another incursion into northern Iraq to press Kurdish fighters there. Polls indicate up to 90% of Turks support the Afrin operation.

The election is to cement a switch from a parliamentary to a presidential system in Turkey that started with a referendum, narrowly won by Erdogan, last year. The new rules open the way for Erdogan, who has been Turkey’s leader for 15 years, to govern for another two 5-year terms — until 2028 — with expanded executive powers. The role of parliament would be reduced and the position of prime minister would be abolished.

Ankara says the new system will be more efficient and is urgently needed to deal with challenges at home and abroad. Erdogan adviser Ilnur Cevik, writing in the English-language Daily Sabah newspaper, said questions included what “future course do we take in Syria, how do we handle the Iranian expansion in the Middle East, what do we do with Iraq, how to proceed in the fight against terrorism, how can we build new bridges of understanding with the United States and how do we go ahead with the uncertainties that govern our relations with the European Union?”

Erdogan critics said the June poll represents a power grab by the president. “This is a raid-like election and a coup d’etat,” Tekin Kumbasar, a painter in Istanbul, said in an interview.

The secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), the biggest opposition bloc in parliament, said the fact that the June 24 election will take place under a state of emergency, in force since a failed coup against Erdogan in 2016 and just extended by parliament, was undemocratic. “You cannot have elections under emergency rule,” CHP spokesman Bulent Tezcan told the NTV broadcaster.

The West is also voicing concerns. “During a state of emergency, it would be difficult to have a completely free, fair and transparent election in a manner that’s consistent with… Turkish law and Turkey’s international obligations,” US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

Emergency rules give the authorities wide-ranging powers to arrest government opponents and to ban rallies, critics say. The European Union said in a report that growing authoritarianism and an erosion of the rule of law meant that Turkey was rapidly moving away from EU values.

The election announcement came one day after nationalist leader Devlet Bahceli, who supports Erdogan, proposed an August date for snap polls. Observers said Erdogan and Bahceli want elections as soon as possible to prevent a newly formed right-populist group, the Iyi Parti (Good Party), from establishing itself in all parts of Turkey.

Opinion polls indicate the Iyi Parti could score enough votes to enter parliament. Iyi Parti leader Meral Aksener, a former interior minister, said she is running as a presidential candidate against Erdogan.

Another possible candidate is former President Abdullah Gul, who could run for the small Islamist Saadet Partisi (Felicity Party). Gul, who was head of state from 2007 until Erdogan took over the top job in 2014, is a former political partner of Erdogan who has become critical of the government’s authoritarianism.

Saadet leader Temel Karamollaoglu said he wanted to talk to Gul about a possible candidacy. Gul, 67, is widely respected among conservative voters and could become a serious challenger to the 64-year-old Erdogan, if he decides to run.

The CHP and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), whose co-leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag have been in pre-trial detention since November 2016, have not announced who will run for them in the presidential poll.

The opposition’s lack of preparation gives Erdogan a head start. He told officials of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that he would formally begin his re-election campaign within days, news reports said. The opposition says there is no level playing field because Erdogan is using the state apparatus for electoral purposes and because most mass media are owned by pro-government companies and businessmen.

Candidates need more than 50% of the vote to win outright in the first round of the presidential election. If there is no clear winner, the two top candidates enter a run-off two weeks later. In the parliamentary election, the AKP is set to stay the strongest party with around 40% but it is uncertain whether the AKP can retain its majority in the chamber.

Observers said the economy played an important role in Erdogan’s decision to go to the polls early. Despite high growth rates, rising inflation, a falling exchange rate of the lira against the dollar and the euro, growing unemployment and signs that major Turkish companies are facing difficulties point to a coming crisis.

By calling early elections, Erdogan is calculating that he can avoid seeing a possible crash before Turks go to the polls.