Without a unified opposition, Erdogan stands to achieve his goal

Erdogan will do his utmost to leave nothing to chance.
Sunday 29/04/2018
One-man rule. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) poses for photographs with pupils, dressed in traditional costume, during a school visit at the Presidential Palace. (AP)
One-man rule. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) poses for photographs with pupils, dressed in traditional costume, during a school visit at the Presidential Palace. (AP)

Turkish politics is in fast-forward mode, moving quickly towards the decisive, ultimate choice on whether it wants to be an autocracy or a democracy.

In announcing snap elections for June 24, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan once again caught a fragmented opposition unprepared. All four opposition parties are stuck in identity politics and they are constantly having second thoughts on a united democracy ticket. “They are like a bunch of dogs chasing their own tails,” as a colleague said.

The odds in favour of Turkey’s strongman remain virtually unchanged from the day he called elections. As the Economist put it: “Armed with emergency powers, in control of nearly all media outlets and state institutions and enduringly popular with conservative voters, Erdogan is expected to win easily in a contest that no one expects to be fair.”

Add to this changes to the electoral law: Parties are now allowed to create alliances to enter parliament, members of the security forces can be present at polling stations if invited by a voter and Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council can merge electoral districts.

Clearly, the changes favour Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), as it seeks to consolidate power after 16 years in government and vest greater power in Erdogan. At best, they are likely to turn Turkey into a two-party system, enabling those in power to subsume the far-right Nationalist Movement Party. Once this happens, all that would stand between Erdogan and unmatched, unrivalled power would be a rubberstamp parliament.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) may have been hoping for a two-party system but that doesn’t change the question mark it poses for a Turkey in political crisis.

The elections, therefore, will be the penultimate test for the opposition. So far, it seems the opposition is united only in the notion that Erdogan is the problem.

There has been an attempt to strongly challenge Erdogan. There had been frenzied efforts to nominate former President Abdullah Gul as sole challenger to Erdogan for the presidency before Gul ruled himself out, citing a lack of “consensus” over his nomination.

Hopes for a united front to challenge Erdogan did not last long. CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu had been standing firm but the Iyi’s Meral Aksener copped out. She claimed she had about 20% of the vote and her right-wing party could not afford to lose support by collaborating with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party. Credible surveys suggest Aksener has no more than 7% of the vote but sees herself as a larger-than-life figure.

For all Kilicdaroglu’s support for Gul as a single opposition candidate, sections of his party acrimoniously objected. Some leading CHP members tried to nominate themselves as candidates. In what may now appear a flawed tactic, Kilicdaroglu exercised his prerogative to nominate the party’s candidate and initially kept the position open for Gul. This seems to be a relatively weak proposition and, in light of Gul’s withdrawal, may weaken its position.

It seems as if Erdogan will face four challengers — one from each of the opposition parties. If Erdogan wins the first round of the presidential vote with more than 50% of the vote, the game will more or less be over. If he does not, he will have to face the challenger with the second-highest vote tally — Erdogan versus a single candidate.

Erdogan will do his utmost to win outright in the first round and he is eager to leave nothing to chance.

Gul had presented the one serious threat to Erdogan, appealing to supporters of the AKP, the party they had founded together. Perhaps recognising this, Erdogan discreetly sent his chief adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, and top commander, Hulusi Akar (a friend of the youthful Gul), to the former president’s office to “convince” Gul not to run for election.

The opposition, meanwhile, is concentrating on winning a majority in parliament. The hope is that it can utilise the change in electoral regulation on political alliances. There is still time to build these cross-party linkages. Parties have until May 9 to declare alliances.

That said, given the climate of fear and the lack of a single, unifying challenger to Erdogan, Turkey’s president seems poised to achieve his dream — supreme ruler.