Turkish vote to decide Erdogan’s fate
ISTANBUL - Turkey’s most hotly contested election in a decade will decide the political fate of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and could alter the political landscape in this country of 77 million people for years to come.
Turks go to the polls on June 7th to vote for a new parliament in Ankara. But the election has gained wider significance because Erdogan has declared the vote a de facto referendum on his controversial plan to introduce a US-style presidential system to replace Turkey’s parliamentary democracy.
Erdogan needs the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to get a three-fifths majority in parliament to change the constitution and grant him wide-ranging executive powers as president. Or the polls could see the president weakened by a fired-up opposition and a Kurdish party, which is attracting mainstream voters who want to put limits on his ambitions.
The consequences of the decision will be felt beyond Turkey’s borders, analysts say. “It is an election that is important for the whole region,” said Veysel Ayhan, president of the Ankara-based think-tank International Middle East Peace Research Center (IMPR).
As an example, Ayhan pointed to the conflict in Syria, Turkey’s southern neighbour, where Ankara supports the opposition against President Bashar Assad. “If Erdogan is strengthened, Turkey will be more aggressive in its support for Syrian rebels,” he said. If Erdogan suffers a setback in the election, opposition parties would push for a new Syrian policy that could end Turkey’s uncompromising attitude towards Assad.
Polls indicate the AKP is on track to win its fourth consecutive victory in parliamentary elections since 2002. Most surveys put the Muslim-conservative AKP at around 40% of the vote, followed by the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) at 25% and the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) at 15%.
The key party however could prove to be the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Turkey’s main Kurdish party. The party’s support is currently hovering around 10%, pollsters say.
That level of support is crucial as political parties in Turkey need to exceed a threshold of 10 percent of the national vote in order to send any representatives to parliament. If the HDP clears the 10% line, it will send at least 60 deputies to the 550- seat parliament in Ankara. If it fails, the vast majority of those seats will probably be mopped up by the AKP as the likely second place party in the mainly Kurdish southeast.
“This could cost the AKP its majority in the house,” Ayhan said.
A parliamentary entry by the HDP would also shake up Turkey’s traditional political order by firmly installing a party representing the country’s biggest ethnic minority of around 12 million people in the assembly. Kurdish politicians say such a success would end decades of refusal by the state to recognise Kurds as a distinct ethnic group.
“The HDP will be a real game changer if it gets more than 10%,” said Behlul Ozkan, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Marmara University. He said the AKP, which has ruled Turkey for more than 12 years, may be forced into a coalition government after June 7th. “That would be a political crisis for Erdogan.”
The 10% threshold was introduced after the military coup in 1980 to keep Kurdish parties out of parliament. Ever since, Kurdish politicians have run as nominally independent candidates who are exempt from the 10% rule. Once elected, the Kurdish deputies formed political groups. The HDP is the first Kurdish party that has a chance to clear the 10% threshold. At present, the party has 29 deputies in Ankara.
Meanwhile, Erdogan wants the AKP to win at least 330 seats, up from 312 at present, to push through constitutional changes for the presidential system. The 61-year-old leader has been campaigning for the AKP despite constitutional rules that say the president should be above party politics.
Erdogan, who remains hugely popular among the AKP grassroots even though he had to give up the post of party chairman when he was elected head of state last year, has shrugged off criticism by the opposition. “They say I am taking sides,” he told a rally in the western Turkish city of Aydin on May 27th. “But I am expressing my opinion. That is my right.”
Observers say the fact that Erdogan has decided to throw himself into the fray of the election campaign is a sign that he is concerned over a decline in support for the AKP, which raked in just less than 50% of the vote at the last parliamentary election in 2011. Erdogan received 52% in the presidential election last year. This time, some polls suggest that the AKP could drop to less than 40%.
“There is obviously panic,” said Yavuz Baydar, a respected journalist. “The AKP’s voter segment is bleeding and the bleeding is not being stopped.”
Non-Kurdish intellectuals and academics have increased the pressure on the AKP and the president by publicly backing the HDP, arguing that sending the Kurdish party into parliament was a good way to thwart Erdogan’s plans for an executive presidency.
HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas has been trying to attract voters who distrust Erdogan. He says the president’s vision for a departure from the parliamentary system amounted to a “constitutional dictatorship”.