Turkish leader may see ambitions checked by assembly election
Erdogan’s party needs big electoral gains if he is to cement authority
istanbul — On the last day of campaigning ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary elections, Turkey’s main political parties were out in force in the country’s most populous city. Trucks and vans blared catchy party anthems along busy thoroughfares, which were lined with the streaming colored pennants of the competing parties. Squads of volunteers canvassed noisily in parks and plazas.
“This is all part of the normal Turkish chaos,” said Tugba Oprak, an office worker climbing aboard a ferry on the Bosphorus.
But there’s something extraordinary about Sunday’s election. The central figure dominating the headlines before the vote won’t be contesting any of the 550 seats in Turkey’s Grand National Assembly and shouldn’t be involved at all.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is, in theory, a neutral head of state removed from the hurlyburly of electoral politics. In reality, both his critics and supporters say, he’s on a mission to transcend them and craft a Turkish republic in his own image.
His ability to do so hinges on the outcome of this election.
Erdogan, who since 2002 served three terms as prime minister before being elected president last year, wants to scrap Turkey’s parliamentary structure in favor of a presidential system that would give him greater executive authority. For this to happen, his ruling Justice and Development Party, a center-right group known by its acronym AKP, needs a wide margin of victory on Sunday night.
That scenario is in doubt. Opinion polls suggest the AKP will win more than 40 percent of the vote, considerably ahead of the secularist CHP and the farright, ultra-nationalist MHP. But it remains unclear whether they will be able to clinch the 267 seats needed for a majority in government, let alone the 330 seats needed to put constitutional reform to a national referendum – the best chance Erdogan would have to consolidate power as president.
The stakes have risen dramatically after nearly a decade-and-ahalf of AKP dominance, during which significant economic reforms have lifted a new middle class, and much of Turkey’s once entrenched establishment — from the military to the state bureaucracy to elements of the judiciary — has been cast aside.
Critics say the AKP’s embrace of aspects of political Islam in a country that is almost entirely Muslim has steadily eroded the pillars of secularism upon which the modern Turkish republic was built by its first president, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founding father.
If Erdogan is still president in 2019, he would have ruled longer than Ataturk, who died in office in 1938.
“Our goal is to create a new Turkey,” says Muhammed Akar, chairman of the AKP in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir. “The other parties cling to the past.”
Akar sits in a corner of Turkey that in some respects has taken center stage in the build-up to the election. Diyarbakir, a majority Kurdish city, is one of the main bases of strength for the Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, whose emergence in the past year as Turkey’s fourth-largest party threatens the AKP’s lock on power.
To gain any seats in parliament, the HDP would have to pass Turkey’s conspicuously high barrier of entry: 10 percent of all votes nationwide. Until this year, no Kurdish party has attempted such a feat.
But the HDP has surged, despite its direct ties to the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group that waged a bloody, three-decade war against the Turkish state and is considered a terrorist group by both Ankara and Washington. It now frames itself as a leftist party eager to represent everyone in Turkey, especially those who are opposed to Erdogan’s presidential ambitions.
“This election is really about whether HDP passes the threshold,” says Bulent Aliriza of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
If it does, its bloc of seats will come at the expense mostly of the AKP, the only other party with major support in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast. That, in turn, could lead to a scenario in which the AKP could be forced to forge a messy coalition government or even find itself on the outside, as the opposition to a coalition of its rivals.
Tensions ahead of the election have been palpable, with the HDP reporting dozens of violent attacks on its party workers. On Friday, two explosions ripped through a HDP rally in Diyarbakir, killing two people and wounding more than 100 others. Familiar, distressing scenes followed of Kurdish youth protesting angrily against the Turkish state.
The HDP’s charismatic leader, Selahattin Demirtas, called for calm and urged supporters not to react to such “provocations.” In Diyarbakir, many backing the HDP are convinced that if their party does not cross the 10 percent threshold, it would be the result of fraud and vote-rigging.
“There will be four million Kurds on the streets,” says Reha Ruhavioglu, an activist for a local Diyarbakir human rights group.
Beyond Turkey’s restive southeast, analysts say the acrimonious election campaign has exposed other fissures in Turkish society.
The AKP has run a religiously tinged campaign, appealing to the piety and faith of Sunni Muslim voters, including more religious Kurds. In a speech last month, Erdogan even waved a copy of the Koran as he criticized rival parties.
On Saturday, a number of pro-AKP Turkish newspapers ran alarmist headlines, warning of an international “crusade” against Turkey led by foreign media and their co-conspirators in Turkey.
Critics accuse Erdogan and the AKP of using their extraordinary power over state institutions as well as allies in the business community to put pressure on dissidents and political opponents.
“You can’t have a pluralistic society without a free press,” said Murat Yetkin, the editor of the English-language Hurriyet Daily News, which is part of a media group in the government’s cross hairs. “You can’t have a democracy without free courts.”
The uncertainty surrounding the course of Turkey’s democracy extends beyond Sunday’s election.
“I’m worried that no matter the outcome, we’re entering an era of chaos,” said Istanbul-based political scientist Cengiz Aktar.