Turkey: election 24 June

Summary: Turkey moves to presidential system. Odds on AKP victory, but opposition in with a chance. Importance for the Arab world.

We are grateful for the article below by David Barchard, a writer on Turkish history and politics.

A gigantic phoenix with burning wings flies high over a land of  Ottoman and Islamic symbols, it passes above glorious scenes from Ottoman history, armies, and majestic Sultans. Alparslan, the victor against  the Byzantines at Manzikert and Suleyman the Magnificent are invoked. Finally the phoenix, its wings still aflame, arrives over the figure of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pointing skywards, and the camera pans out to vast new projects, bridges, railways and dams. Such is the party political TV advertisement currently showing on Turkish TV for the president and the ruling AKP in the double elections due this weekend.

The film (it lasts an extraordinary three minutes) is a heady brew of legendary national pride, promises of increased prosperity, and security messages. But it may be a little out of tune with the mood of many Turkish voters as they go to the polls on Sunday, worried by sharply rising prices, a depreciating currency, and a warning from the World Bank that the country’s growth rate is slackening—and a desire to halt its apparent slide into political authoritarianism.

One message implicit in the film and important for the Middle East is that a neo-Ottoman Turkey is becoming the regional superpower in the Muslim world, one able to intervene in neighbours like Syria and Iraq.   So the  elections  come at a time when Turkey has to loom increasingly large in Arab political calculations. In Syria Turkish troops this week began patrolling around Membij with American forces. In Iraq Turkish forces are apparently preparing for the encirclement of the PKK headquarters on Mount Qandil, 90 km south of the border and have persuaded both the KRG and the Baghdad government to acquiesce in this. If Turkey succeeds in what it is doing in both countries, even though this is mainly aimed at subduing Kurdish movements, its regional status will be transformed.

Though  Erdoğan is seen by Arab governments as much more sympathetic to Islamism than his secular predecessors, his ties are specifically with the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey is therefore out of sympathy with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in their dispute with Qatar, and with the UAE and Egypt’s support of Haftar in Libya. These differences could grow. If Saudi Arabia and its allies do endorse new ideas from the Trump administration in Washington on Palestine and Israel, Erdoğan’s position, being governed by Turkish growing regional interests, might well  be very different from theirs.   Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman ambitions also make him a competitor with the Arabs in other areas such as the Horn of Africa.

Regardless of how that plays out, these elections will trigger the end of parliamentary government in Turkey with a shift to something more like the US system or perhaps even the way things are done in the Central Asian republics. The president will appoint ministers from outside parliament and will himself exercise the powers formerly belonging to the prime minister (whose office will be scrapped) and the cabinet. The Assembly will function solely as a legislature detached from the executive.

These changes were narrowly approved in a controversial referendum last year. The theme of civil liberties, a return to parliamentary government, reform of the judiciary have consequently resonated in the speeches of the three main opposition parties, along with crude attempts to outbid the AKP with economic promises. By themselves, none of the three main opposition groups comes anywhere near the AKP, but their candidates have all made a relatively good showing in their election campaigns and strikingly they have all refrained from polarizing language, emphasized civility, paid courtesy calls on each other, and generally distanced themselves from the tough confrontational language preferred by President Erdoğan.

So their hope is that though the AKP is presumed to have the support of between 40% and 45% of the voters, they might be able to force the president to a second round in the presidential contest on Sunday and also deprive the AKP of an overall majority in the next national assembly. AKP spokesmen have already said that if that happens, there will probably be fresh elections as there were in 2015 when the AKP lost its overall majority but the opposition failed to overturn it and Erdoğan took the country to fresh elections which he won.

As usual he has fought an eloquent and highly professional campaign, addressing huge crowds, and been able to bask in the AKP’s nearly complete monopoly of TV and press coverage. But his message is no longer new, many people seem to be growing tired of confrontation. The theme of grandiosity clashes with the growing economic worries of many Turks already mentioned. He has been at the helm for nearly sixteen years and the idea that it is time for a change can be heard quite widely.

Muharrem Ince’s rally in Izmir – a CHP stronghold

Until the election campaign started, public criticism of the president was extremely rare, but with most Turks following the social media, the last few weeks have been an exception. The opposition front-runner is a former teacher, Muharrem İnce, who emphasize that he is both a pious practicing Sunnı Muslim and a social democrat, and wants to be friends with everybody. Not very well known before the elections (he was best known as an unsuccessful challenger to the leadership inside the centre-left Republican Peoples Party CHP), Ince has established himself as a loud but astute campaigner visiting more than 100 cities in a month. It would nevertheless be a considerable achievement if he passes the 30% mark in the first round of the presidential elections.

The two other main opposition figures trail further behind. Mrs Meral Akşener, a doughty nationalist lady orator and former interior minister, has probably established her new ‘Good Party’ permanently on the landscape, but she would do well to get 15%.

A government oversight enabled Selahattin Demirtaş, the jailed leader of the left-wing pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), to campaign for president from the cell where he  has been held in solitary confinement  for a year and a half (along with eight other MPs and 68 mayors) and to enjoy a right to ten minutes of political air time. His speech from the cell showed a thinner tense figure –but there was thunderous applause from his party’s Istanbul rally as he spoke. There could be almost no discussion of his imprisonment before the polls. The elections have shown that other opposition leaders and the party’s rank and file strongly disapprove of it. A more crucial point is that if the HDP does still win more than 10% of the national vote and so clear Turkey’s high barrier for entry into parliament, the AKP’s share of parliamentary seats and any majority it has will fall. The HDP’s prospects of doing this now look much better than a few weeks ago.

President Erdoğan should be able to get more than 40% easily, but he does face a serious challenge. Several polls show his support  to be eroding. In a presidential second round in which the main opposition parties combined against Erdoğan behind a single candidate, as it seems they all would, the outcome might be close or even doubtful.

For this reason pessimists among the opposition predict privately that – as with the referendum last year – the election could produce an AKP victory, but one tainted by allegations of unregistered votes or other irregularities. Ballot papers no longer have to be authenticated with a stamp and tighter rules are in force for observers.

Still, given the AKP’s massive superiority over its challengers and its organizational prowess,  the betting has to be firmly  on a victory for the AKP and President Erdoğan finally achieving the presidential executive power he has sought for a decade, even if no phoenixes fly in glory overhead. In which case he will surely press on with his ambitious agenda in Syria and Iraq.

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