Turkey On The Brink During Election Season

With a second round of elections in Turkey just a few days away, the future of the country is looking increasingly uncertain. After more than a decade of majority rule, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan were dealt a huge blow in the June elections. Yet this loss of support was not great enough to force the AKP from power. Following several weeks of failed negotiations between parties, President Erdoğan called for new elections on November 1st with the hope that this time it will result in an AKP majority that would give Erdoğan the necessary political support to establish a de facto presidential system (versus the current parliamentary system), which would give him more power.

There is no indication that this is going to happen, according to Turkish opinion polls. Polling in Turkey is notoriously unreliable as different companies often produce widely different results that align with their political leanings, but the polls published since the election in June have been remarkably consistent. Nearly every poll indicates that the upcoming election will be a repeat of the previous election: the AKP will receive about 40-44% of the vote, the center-left CHP will receive 25-30%, the nationalist MHP will receive about 13-18%, and the pro-Kurdish HDP will receive 11-14%. An outcome such as this is sure to maintain the existing political gridlock.

The reason that the AKP is unable to regain a majority in parliament is largely due to the decline of Erdoğan’s popularity, which was based on Turkey’s strong economic growth under his rule and his advocacy for democratic reform. But since 2013, Erdoğan has grown increasingly comfortable with adopting strong-arm and autocratic tactics as well as adversarial and nationalist rhetoric. Furthermore, his advocacy for creating a presidential system has also turned away many who see it as a blatant attempt at formalizing an autocratic government. The Turkish economy has also significantly weakened in the past two years, with declining foreign direct investments, consistently high inflation that recently reached record low value against the US dollar, and slowing GDP growth. Much of this can be attributed to Erdoğan’s shortsighted policies to maintain his political dominance, such as forcing the Central Bank to keep interest rates unnecessarily low, and targeting corporations associated with political opponents.

Despite this growing disapproval towards Erdoğan, the opposition parties have been unable to form a coalition due to their own political disagreements. No two opposition parties have enough of the seats to form a government, and the difference in policies between the nationalist MHP and the pro-Kurdish HDP precludes a three-party coalition. The AKP, on the other hand, has also been hindered from forming a coalition. Despite the fact that the Presidency in Turkey is a ceremonial and non-partisan office, Erdoğan has continued to play an outsized role in the AKP. It is because of Erdoğan that the AKP advocated for a presidential system in the previous election. If the AKP were to form a coalition it would have to abandon its goal of a presidential system, sabotaging Erdoğan’s political ambitions. It would also open the possibility of investigations into corruption by Erdoğan’s inner circle. The result is an AKP that is handicapped in forming a government and an opposition that cannot form one on its own.

What comes after the election on November 1st depends entirely on President Erdoğan and whether or not he can accept the political reality of the AKP not returning to one-party rule. The most desired outcome by foreign investors is a coalition government between the AKP and the CHP, as it would provide much needed political and economic stability to Turkey. Allowing the parties to form a coalition would likely mitigate any future instability, but it would also require Erdoğan to admit political defeat and curb his ambitions, something very uncharacteristic for him. Erdoğan likely will attempt to influence the formation of a coalition government to be in his favor, but if he overplays his hand it could backfire. Should the parties be unable to form a government a second time and Erdoğan tries either to force a third election or rule without a Parliament in place, the result will be a severe political backlash across Turkey and an increasing weak economic situation.

Additionally, an anti-Erdoğan faction of the AKP could split from the party and form a coalition without Erdoğan and his supporters. Longstanding rumors of growing discontent among some of the members and leaders of the AKP towards Erdoğan and his influence in the party finally spilled into the public domain in March of this year, and it does not appear that the rift has healed. A third election following more political gridlock could be the necessary catalyst for the anti-Erdoğan faction of the AKP to break off and form a fifth party. But depending on the size of the faction, a new political party could create more problems in forming a government than it solves, especially if it is too small to form a coalition with one other opposition party.

Finally, there is the military option. In the absence of a dominant political party or coalition in Turkey, the military may intervene and take control of the government. The Turkish military has conducted several coups in the past during periods of widespread violence and political instability. Despite being weakened in recent years by Erdoğan—who sought to prevent this exact outcome—the military has begun to regain some of its strength following the resumption of combat operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Currently, there does not appear to be any indication the military is seeking to intervene. But should the political situation remain unstable, as the economy worsens, and ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS) and the PKK continue their attacks, members of the military may find it necessary to take over.

With the current political climate in Turkey, it is difficult to imagine a situation following the upcoming elections that leads to a positive outcome. Partisanship in Turkey is reaching critical levels. Either Erdoğan or his political opposition will need to accept defeat for the country to move, yet at this moment neither appears willing to do so. Without a strong majority party or ruling coalition in parliament, Turkey’s weak economic growth and domestic security concerns will likely be exacerbated and the overall stability of the country will be threatened.

Photo by Lifters Pitarakis / VOA (public domain)

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