With Early Election Looming, Erdogan Could Be Taking a Reckless Political Gamble

It's difficult to understand how the result would be different from the June 7 election. But in the meantime, the president hopes to rule Turkey without a coalition.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Erdogan waves to the crowds during a rally in Istanbul, May 30, 2015.
Erdogan waves to the crowds during a rally in Istanbul, May 30, 2015.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plans for an early election in two or three months, in the wake of the breakdown of coalition negotiations, could turn out to be a reckless gamble. Erdogan hopes to establish a government based on his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has ruled Turkey since 2002.

It is difficult to understand why Erdogan thinks he has better chances of success than in the June 7 election, when his party lost its parliamentary majority. Granted, the struggle against Kurdish separatists, which is exacting a daily price in soldiers and civilians’ lives, may increase votes for the AKP. But the economic cloud that threatens to dispel the economic achievements of the last decade could drive voters away.

Erdogan understands the anti-Kurdish sentiment in Turkey, and even encouraged it after the collapse of the reconciliation talks with the Kurds. He fostered the nationalist-religious spirit in the last election in order to counterbalance the nationalist party and take votes from it.

Despite this, his party won little more than 40 percent of the votes, while the nationalist party won 16.5 percent. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) unexpectedly won 13 percent, succeeding not only to enter parliament but to deprive the ruling party of the absolute majority it needed to set up a coalition.

According to a poll published released in Turkey on Wednesday, the HDP seems poised to increase its strength and become the third-largest party, further jeopardizing the chances of a one-party government.

Erdogan still has the absence of an alternative leadership on his side. The leaders of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party lack the charisma and confidence required to mobilize enough votes to challenge the AKP.

The anti-terror gamble

If Erdogan intensifies military activity in Turkey and attacks Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) strongholds in Iraq, he could be seen as the right man to lead the struggle against terror. But if terror acts increase in Turkey, making the army appear helpless, it could have the opposite effect.

Perhaps Erdogan could learn from the bitter experience of former Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, who in 1974 ordered the invasion of Cyprus, for among other reasons because he thought it could help him win a decisive victory in the early election.

The result was the exact reverse. Ecevit lost and was forced to join the coalition government formed by his rival, Suleyman Demirel. History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it could indicate the risks involved in early elections.

The American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State organization, also known as ISIS or ISIL, does not view early elections favorably. Erdogan may have been a thorn in the coalition’s side in the last three years, with his refusal to let the powers use Turkey’s airports to attack Islamic State. But now that Turkey has joined the Arab and Western alliance and the West’s airplanes are using Incirlik Air Base for strikes in Iraq and Syria, a new government could spoil the agreements.

If Erdogan’s party fails to muster the required majority for a one-party government, the powers may find themselves scrambling from one Turkish party leader to the next to obtain permits and agreements for a joint military operation.

These scenarios currently depend on the certainty of early elections. But according to the Turkish constitution, if the largest party fails to form a government, the president must task the head of the second-largest party, the CHP’s Kemal Kilicdaroglu, with forming a government. The president may also announce early elections and set up a provisional government himself until the elections. This decision must be made by Sunday, when the deadline for forming a government expires.

Even if Erdogan decides today to charge the second party leader with forming a government, it would be impractical as Kilicdaroglu is unlikely to be able to form a coalition within three days.

Turkey will apparently be led in the next three months by an interim government and the questions troubling the Turks will focus on the moves and decisions Erdogan will make in this period, under the election pressure.

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