Pivotal Election in Turkey: A Referendum on Erdogan That May Birth New Regime

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A poster with a picture of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, displayed in Istanbul. May 26, 2015.Credit: AP

The parliamentary elections in Turkey, which open Sunday morning, are considered the most critical in the history of the Turkish democracy because they could determine for the first time a new regime.

If President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party manages to garner at least 330 of the parliament’s 550 seats, he can start designing a presidential regime in which he will have extensive executive powers. If, however, the Kurdish party, the Democratic People’s Party, is able to cross the voter threshold to 10 percent of the seats, Erdogan’s aspirations could be postposed and Turkey will continue to function according to the existing regime.

Thus, this election is a vote of confidence for Ergodan even more than it is a parliamentary election. In their honor, Erdogan has crossed almost every red line of his function as a national leader. He actively participated in his party’s election rallies, he took potshots at and humiliated his rivals, he threatened the media, he laid the legal groundwork to act against his opponents, and he built himself a larger-than-life image so no one can question his leadership. “They say I am a dictator. Who’s a dictator here? There are 90 parties in Turkey and 20 of them are standing for election. What kind of a dictator is he whom they can curse in their media? If I were a dictator, could they curse? Could they insult? You cannot do that in a state controlled by a dictator,” Erdogan said, explaining his democratic doctrine at an election rally Friday in Ankara.

The Justice and Development Party has been ruling almost unlimitedly for more than 12 years. If the elections were to be classified by their importance, then the election that brought the party to power in 2002 could be considered the most important. They produced results that streamlined the Turkish economy, which had been up to its neck in a deep economic crisis, and they put a stop to the political chaos in Turkey, which had been torn until then between non-functioning coalitions. At its height, the party chalked up impressive victories, such as in the 2011 elections, in which it won 49 percent of the vote.  This year, too, the polls predict the party will take 40 to 45 percent, an impressive figure if the polls are not wrong. But what is enough for the party is not enough for the president, who wants not only to expand his powers but to give the entire country not only a new regime, but a new character.

Erdogan’s achievements in this area are not minor. The removal of the army from politics, a shakeup of the education system and a reform of the justice system removed the shackles from his government. Not all those steps are considered bad or contrary to the foundations of democracy, even his opponents agree. But will Erdogan want to bring Muslim religious law into the constitution? Will religious education be obligatory? These are things that worry the liberals in Turkey.  So far, the liberal movements have been able to depend on the constitutional court to stop the president’s initiatives, but if the constitution is changed, even that court will not be able to stand in the breach.

The answers to these questions depend a great deal on voter turnout and on the Kurds, who are a fragile fulcrum this time. As opposed to previous years, this year the Kurdish party will be running on a national ticket rather than fielding independent candidates. That could mean a fight for the hairsbreadth of a victory, a victory that would mean at least 55 representatives entering parliament at the expense of the Justice and Development Party, while a Kurdish failure would magnify even further the power of the ruling party.

But “the Kurds” are not one homogeneous bloc. They do not all vote the same way. Some oppose the Kurdish party and many support the ruling party or opposition parties. If the Kurds succeed and four parties operate in parliament instead of the current three, Erdogan could find himself facing opposition line-ups that could foil his initiatives, constitutional amendments and economic strategy, which has recently clashed with the Turkish central bank.

Meanwhile, even if his partly does not achieve the necessary majority to pass constitutional amendments, with or without a referendum, it does not mean the Erdogan will hole himself up inside his grandiose new palace and read books by the light of chandeliers that cost millions of dollars. He will continue to direct the prime minister as if the latter were an official in his bureau. He will not hesitate to use the executive powers the constitution gives him already, including the power to appoint the prime minister, declare a state of emergency, summon parliament when needed and direct the government and the National Security Council if circumstances warrant it. And warranted circumstances, as we know, are in the eye of the beholder.

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