This article was published in Arab News on May 13, 2018.
Turkish democracy at a crossroads
The Turkish Parliament has decided to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24, with some political analysts saying this will be the final act for the nation’s democracy.
The process started with a surprise statement by Devlet Bahceli, the chairman of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which is lending strong support to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) despite the fact they are not coalition partners. Bahceli made his statement in a weekly meeting of his party’s parliamentary group. His proposal was to hold the elections on Aug. 26, more than a year ahead of schedule. The first comments on this surprise initiative were that he was worried about the continued fragility of Turkey’s economy. If the elections were to be held on the scheduled date, the deterioration could have continued and this would erode President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s share of the votes, meaning Bahceli’s party would also suffer since it can only survive if the AKP wins.
Another reason for his initiative may have been the splitting of his own party. Meral Aksener, who was expelled from the MHP because of a disagreement with Bahceli, decided to establish a new party. Former Minister of the Interior Aksener’s Iyi Party was faring well and Bahceli may have feared that she might attract more members from her former party and its power base.
Two hours after Bahceli made his statement, Erdogan, who was addressing his own parliamentary group, ignored this important proposal and mentioned three times that the elections were going to be held either on the scheduled date of November 2019 or in the spring of that year. While political analysts were trying to find an explanation for this contradiction, Erdogan and Bahceli held a meeting the following day and decided to hold the elections on June 24, two months earlier than Bahceli had proposed. What happened during those 24 hours remains a mystery.
Now the debates are focused on the possible outcome of the elections, rather than the reasons for the change in dates.
Temel Karamollaoglu, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-like Saadet Partisi, tried hard to bring together the opposition parties and nominate former incumbent Abdullah Gul as their common candidate for the presidency. But Gul noticed there was no unanimity among the opposition to support him. When Aksener insisted on running as her party’s presidential candidate and some disgruntled voices spoke up in the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Gul declined the offer. He announced his decision after he received a visit from the chief of joint staff of the Turkish army Hulusi Akar and Erdogan’s chief adviser Ibrahim Kalin. Many in Turkey believe that he should have announced his decision before this visit.
CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has made two crucial decisions that will affect the results of the elections: He lent Aksener’s party 15 members of parliament, on a temporary basis, to help it participate in the elections; and he nominatedMuharrem Ince, an eloquent orator, as the CHP’s presidential candidate, rather than standing himself.
Irrespective of the future of democracy in Turkey, forthcoming elections are a crucial crossroads.
If none of the presidential candidates gets more than 50 percent of the votes, there will be a second round, and the opposition parties will probably come up with a single candidate in this round. It is only in that case that they may pose a threat to Erdogan.
Kurdish votes will play an important balancing role in these elections: The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party has the potential to win about six million votes. But if it remains under the threshold of 10 percent, its votes may add around 60 seats to the ruling party because the votes of parties that are under the threshold are distributed proportionally to the leading parties.
There have been several allegations of election fraud during previous elections and, now that the judiciary is further politicized, there may be more allegations this time. Foreign observers reported in past elections that the opposition parties had to run under unequal conditions, with the time allocated to them in TV programs being less than the ruling party. There will be more foreign observers to monitor these elections because of mounting complaints about deficiencies in democracy in Turkey.
The ruling party’s chances of winning the elections in the first round seem to be 50-50 for the moment. The outcome will therefore depend on how the government and the opposition, and the country’s economy, performs in the build-up to the vote.
Irrespective of whether it is the final act, the forthcoming elections have to be considered a crucial crossroads for democracy in Turkey.