What to expect from Turkey’s elections

What would be your prediction for upcoming elections in Turkey? Is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan going to win everything, and what this would mean for Turkey? Or do you also see the scenario under which he could be politically weakened? Read few comments.

Turkey’s President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Credit: https://www.tccb.gov.tr

A. Kadir Yildirim, Fellow, Center for the Middle East, Baker Institute for Public Policy, Rice University

It is true that there is an air of optimism about the opposition, both within Turkey and abroad. CHP’s presidential candidate has energized the opposition noticeably. While the opposition rallies draw significant crowds, the last one in particular was held in one of the strongholds of secularism (in Izmir). Crowds in Turkey could be somewhat misleading. Not all conservative show up for rallies, but they tend to turn out for vote in larger numbers than seculars in general. So, voter turnout — especially in the middle of the summer — will be a challenge for the opposition. I think the presidential election will go to the second round; With the support of some conservative nationalists and possibly some Kurds shifting from IYI Party and HDP, Erdogan will claim victory in the presidential election. In terms of the parliamentary elections, it may be a bit more risky for Erdogan; a parliamentary majority will rest on the Kurdish’s HDP’s ability to surpass the 10% national threshold.

The re-election of Erdogan will be unlikely to change much for Turkey. I do not anticipate any major changes in Turkish foreign policy when Erdogan wins the election. The main impetus for the early elections was to minimize possible negative electoral effects of a worsening Turkish economy in the horizon. Turkish foreign policy in Syria is shaped by Turkey’s concern with an autonomous Kurdish region within Syria once the conflict in the country is resolved. Until that is achieved, Erdogan has little incentive to change course in foreign policy. European Union membership is rhetorically important for Erdogan and AKP; the membership process (not the membership itself) is an indicator of the AKP government’s democratic credentials, for the party. But it is clear that the process is not going anywhere for a variety of reasons. Neither side, however, wants to be blamed for suspending the process. So, the membership process and accession talks will linger for the foreseeable future with no major progress.

The only possible scenario in which Erdogan could be weakened is if he wins presidency but does not have outright parliamentary majority. While he will still command a lot of executive and appointment power in addition to control over the government budget, a unified opposition in the parliament could block Erdogan’s agenda. However, the key here is a unified opposition. Especially the tension between Turkish nationalists and Kurdish party could be an impediment to such a unified front.

Lisel Hintz, Assistant Professor International Relations, European and Eurasian Studies, University School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University

The parliamentary and presidential elections that will be held in Turkey on Sunday will be neither free nor fair; there is no doubt of this.  Even though they have not been held yet, the combination of the measures that have been taken to undermine the opposition’s chances, previous incidents of electoral interference  under AKP rule, and Erdoğan’s determination to secure the highly consolidated presidency he constructed for himself provide ample evidence of this. First and foremost, the elections will be held under a state of emergency that has been in place since the coup attempt in July 2016. Erdoğan has suggested that he will lift the state of emergency following the elections, which raises concerns about what otherwise extra-judicial actions might need to be justified during the electoral process.

Media access is one way of gauging fair elections, and the overwhelming majority of Turkey’s news outlets – somewhere around 90% – is in the hands of holding groups favorable to Erdoğan – in some cases by members of his own family. Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş, for example, was allocated only minutes of airtime, which he recorded from prison as he has been jailed since 2016. Other politicians remain behind bars as well.

A few other examples: Many polling stations, particularly in Kurdish areas in Turkey’s southeast, have been moved far from their original location. Supposedly moved for security purposes, this disadvantages many voters who are too elderly or ill to get to the polls, or who simply don’t have access to transportation. Elections will be run by government-appointed civil servants, the ability of police and security forces to easily enter polling stations heightens the likelihood of voter intimidation. Evidence of such intimidation and violent provocation even prior to elections, particularly against HDP targets, has been seen in past elections and is surfacing in cases such as Suruç last week. Also, the Supreme Electoral Council’s acceptance of unstamped ballots in last year’s constitutional referendum, new electoral laws allowing unstamped ballots to be counted, and printing of 500 million ballots for 55 million voters also raise concerns about electoral fraud.

The main issue that many voters are concerned about is the looming economic crisis that led Erdoğan to call for elections to be moved up a year and a half from when they were scheduled to be held (November 2019). Many voters have supported the AKP because of the impressive economic growth Turkey has witnessed and the tangible benefits they received as a result. Rising prices for staples like bread and onions concern voters who may not otherwise be aware of the plummeting lira, massive external debt, and vanishing foreign investment due to the government’s influence over the media.

One of the most important factors to watch is whether the HDP will gain enough votes to surpass the 10% electoral threshold. If the party does so, the AKP could lose its parliamentary majority, as it did briefly when the HDP received just over 13% of the vote in June 2015, leading Erdoğan to stall any coalition-formation and then hold fresh elections in November. Although the parliament’s powers will be drastically reduced under the new presidential system, even if Erdoğan wins the presidency, which is highly likely, he could be constrained. This will depend on how many votes are cast for the alliance formed by several other opposition parties (generally opposed to each other but united in their opposition against Erdoğan). Although the HDP is polling around 10%, given all that is at stake as well as the HDP’s previous threat to the AKP’s parliamentary majority, I expect all stops to be pulled out to prevent them appearing to have surpassed the threshold.

Perhaps what is most certain is that Erdoğan will not gracefully walk away from a position of power he designed for himself. His ruling style is one of personalistic authoritarianism, and he believes the presidency belongs to him and, most likely, his son-in-law Energy Minister Berat Albayrak after him. Erdoğan is a strong believer that variously defined external forces seek to undermine his power. If he cannot control the votes at the ballot box, it is likely he will reject any outcome that does not hand him the presidency and either call for new elections or simply point to nefarious foreign agents and the existing state of emergency as justification for staying in power. If removed from power, he and his family would likely face criminal prosecution on corruption charges; this makes Erdoğan’s fight to remain Turkey’s leader not just a political but an existential struggle.

Evren Wiltse, Assistant Professor of Political Science, South Dakota State University

Since 2014, Turkey is on a tense election roller coaster. Almost every year there is an election, and sometimes multiple elections per year. In a sense, Turkey lost its ability to have general elections every four years or five years, as regular democracies do.

After the June 2015 elections, the President did not like the results and forced another snap election only after 5 months. Two years later, in 2017, there was a referendum for a major constitutional change. The ruling party secured the results it wanted on a razor thin margin, but the integrity of the ballots was highly compromised.

In 2018, again we’re faced with elections outside the normal electoral cycle that can –in theory- renew both the Parliament and the President.

Incumbency is a very strong advantage for the parties and leaders who are already in power. This is the consensus finding in political science literature. In most elections, regardless of the country, the party in power starts the race with significant advantage. It enjoys name recognition, and it uses the existing resources at its discretion to secure a victory. This explains the early election enthusiasm of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey. They want to lock in the incumbency advantages they have for another 4 years.

However, when the same party wins over an over, it also creates a progressively growing constituency that is excluded from the resources of power. Over time, this discontented group may also grow to significant levels.

The elections on June 24, 2018 in Turkey is a test for whether the ruling party can still ride on its incumbency advantage, or whether there is a large enough group of discontents to bring some change.

Since Turkey is ruled by decrees under an emergency rule regime in the last two years, there is hardly any free press, speech or democratic political deliberation to speak about. A standard practice of presidential systems, such as having open public debates with all presidential candidates, could not take place in Turkey. Therefore, poll results, or public opinion surveys cannot be considered reliable at this state.

I’m expecting surprising results from Turkey. But am not sure which way the Turkish electorate would lean –for status quo or for change-, given the lack of any reliable means to observe the Turkish public opinion.

Marc Pierini, Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Europe

This dual election is too close to call. Predictions would be imprudent. What is interesting is that the electoral and constitutional reforms introduced by Erdoğan himself seem to have emboldened the opposition and made his victory more problematic.

If the incumbent president wins everything, this will mean the end of rule-of-law in Turkey and perhaps even more repression of free thought, independent media and free civil society.

It will generate more tensions with the European Union and the United States. Even more striking will be the damage to the Turkish economy and currency.

One possible scenario is a victory of Erdoğan as president but with the opposition carrying the parliament. This will lead to a kind of constitutional crisis, especially as the incumbent president said recently that he would not tolerate such a situation.

Asli Aydıntaşbaş, Senior Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations

President Erdogan is already much weaker than before— for a whole list of reasons. The economy is bad and Erdogan’s turn towards illiberal policies is alienating a certain segment of the population.

A very likely outcome is that he would lose the majority in parliament, even if he wins the presidency in the first or second round.

Michael WuthrichAssistant Professor, Interim Director of Middle East Studies, University of Kansas

There are several possible scenarios in the elections. First, the most likely is that Erdogan and the AKP have significantly manipulated the elections to win. All they need to do to receive parliamentary seat majority is to manipulate the southeast provinces just enough to keep HDP under the threshold; thus, even if HDP manages around 9%, the AKP would suddenly gain an additional 60+ seats. Voting irregularities have occurred in that region in the past, which provides cover for unexpected outcomes. Erdogan has changed the electoral laws so that government institutions and security bodies have greater oversight of the election day process. They have also reduced the number of ballot boxes in the southeast, particularly in areas were the Kurdish HDP receives a lot of votes; this, of course, jeopardizes their likely turnout as they have to travel much further to vote. That wasn’t accidental. There are some other more indirect clues too that suggest that the party isn’t as strategically concerned about the outcome as they have normally been when they believe the outcome is in question. Considering the likely consequences to Erdogan if Erdogan lost in an election, it makes one wonder why they are exhibiting such behavior if they think they have a chance to lose. People have covered media bias in Turkey ad nauseam, but this particular manipulation is quite severe and genuinely means that we can already say that the election was unfair from the outset. In this scenario, expect Erdogan to win the presidential election in the first round in the low to mid 50s and for the AKP to receive 45-50 percent of the popular vote while the HDP falls beneath the 10 percent national threshold.

The other possibilities involve some sort of miscalculation by Erdogan about the level of control that they have in the outcome. If he underestimates the ability of the citizens in the southeast to register and secure their vote, this could be a big problem. The opposition parties have been slow to be concerned about the rights of Kurdish voters or the shenanigans that Erdogan’s people might pull in the southeast, but they are starting to care about this. Does Erdogan’s manipulation plan account for these contingencies? Probably, but possibly not. Polling results suggest that it is close, but a strong majority of them suggest that Erdogan would lose the first round and probably a seat majority for the AKP in parliament. Considering that these polls are occurring during state of emergency rule and polling companies have admitted to a huge number of abstainers from participation in the polls, these polls figures are likely over-inflating Erdogan’s and AKP’s vote potential already. Polling under this environment of personal insecurity for participants is actually doing Erdogan a favor if people are taking the polling results seriously—as if they were as accurate as polls in previous years. If Erdogan is taking these polls seriously and doesn’t adjust toward a potentially lower level of support for him and his party, he could be significantly caught off guard by the results if there is any sort of a fair count (with additional ballots added in), for example. If any of these scenarios play out, Erdogan would be looking at a round 2 voting for the presidency against Muharrem Ince, who has proven to be a surprisingly solid opponent, and a loss of parliamentary majority for the AKP.

A mixed result or over-manipulation of the results by the pro-Erdogan people—there are already social media accounts about the AA accidentally releasing images of Sunday’s final vote tally during a late program, but this might be false information. It creates the conditions, however, for a potential social powder keg if the votes come out suspiciously high for Erdogan and his party. The emergency rule and exertions of power displayed by Erdogan of late actually reveal social weakness that suggest decline, not ascension in power. His campaigning gaffs during this election cycle has definitely revealed a loss of the populist mojo he used to be able to wield at will. Yes, he is sitting on top of all the powerful levers, but his ability to easily maintain that position has been eroding. Has it eroded enough to lead to an unexpected result in the election? Probably not, but we will find out on Sunday.

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