Analysis

Just Before Turkey Election, Challengers Are Making Erdogan Sweat

His reelection is a near-certainty, but polls suggest that the president might not avoid a runoff with his closest rival and could be forced into a coalition

Thousands of supporters gathered to listen to Muharrem Ince, the leader and presidential candidate of Turkey's main opposition party the Republican People's Party (CHP) as he gives an address during a campaign rally in Izmir on June 21, 2018.
EMRE TAZEGUL/AFP

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A liberal, poetry-writing, 54-year-old former physics teacher with a sense of humor, available for the position of president. It could have been an internet dating profile, were Muharrem Ince not already married with children.

Ince, the presidential candidate of the pallid Republican People‘s Party, has rapidly become the opposition’s hope, upsetting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political calculations and making him sweat. Ince is running an intensive campaign, putting in three public appearances a day.

On Sunday, when the millions of votes are counted, we’ll find out whether Turkey has undergone a political upheaval, or if Erdogan’s fortifications merely cracked a little. Public opinion polls fail to predict a clear result. They show Erdogan is expected to win some 50 percent of the vote, compared to 25 percent for Ince and 12 percent for Meral Aksener, the head of the Good Party.

But the polls also suggest that Erdogan might not cross the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff election against his closest rival. If that happens, the president will have to contend not only with Ince, assuming that he comes in second in the first round of votes, but also a bloc of rival parties that have undertaken to support a candidate who isn’t Erdogan in the event of a runoff. This will be a new front, in which the political power of the Justice and Development Party that Erdogan heads with the rightist Nationalist Party will face a four-party opposition bloc. Erdogan still has an advantage in the presidential election, but may step on a land mine in the parliamentary election taking place simultaneously for the first time.

Theoretically, the results could bind Erdogan’s hands. In order to set up a government with no coalition partners, his party must win at least 301 of the 600 parliament seats. But to pass all the laws and implement his policy he needs at least 330 seats. And if he wants to introduce more constitutional amendments, in addition to those passed in 2017, which turned him into a president with unprecedented powers, he will need the support of two thirds of the parliament. Hence the tremendous effort the opposition parties are making to achieve a significant parliamentary victory, assuming Erdogan wins the presidency.

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A successful result for them would give them enough seats to compel the Justice and Development Party to form a coalition government. At best they would get two-thirds of the seats, enabling them to introduce constitutional amendments. The opposition achieved such a result in 2015, when Erdogan’s party won only 40.9 percent of the votes and had to form a coalition with its rivals. The move failed mainly due to Erdogan’s objection to any concessions and finally he announced early elections in November 2016, in which his party won 49.5 percent, giving him a significant majority in the parliament due to the seat allocation system.

If the opposition parties get a parliamentary majority, Erdogan could repeat his 2015 maneuver and announce new elections again. This time, however, the risk is much greater.

The threat of the lira

This is because a new, threatening player has entered the arena — the Turkish lira, which has fallen to an unprecedented low and created a foreign currency problem. Private citizens and Turkish investors are making every effort to take their deposits out of the country or to buy dollars and gold instead of the lira. While the central bank raised the interest rate to halt the 10-percent inflation, Erdogan is demanding to lower it to encourage development and growth.

Erdogan pledged in his campaign to supervise the monetary policy and lower the interest rate. This scares investors and international financial institutions, which fear the Turkish economy’s deterioration. Erdogan, who owes his main success to extracting Turkey from the economic crisis in the early 2000s and to the policy that led to impressive annual growth, now finds his economic magic somewhat dimmed.

Turkey’s involvement in fighting against the Kurds in northern Syria is helping Erdogan to mobilize the nationalist movements’ support. He also enjoys extensive public support. But increasing voices are questioning the wisdom of the warfare in Syria, which generated a rift between Washington and Ankara. Also, 4 million Syrian refugees, who constitute a heavy economic and social burden on Turkey, have become a political bargaining chip in the hands of the nationalist parties, which are demanding to return the refugees to Syria.

Erdogan had assumed that pushing up the elections would take opposition parties, and especially the new Good Party, by surprise. The latter almost didn’t qualify for the elections because it didn’t have the required number of parliament seats. But this move was thwarted by the Republican People’s Party, which “loaned” the Good Party 15 MPs, enabling it to contend. Although this is not a big party, it can threaten Erdogan’s ally the, far-right Nationalist Movement Party, from which it split.

The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, which crossed the difficult 10-percent threshold in the previous election, was crushed by Erdogan when he arrested and imprisoned most of its leading figures, including its leader Selahattin Demirtas. Erdogan believed the Kurdish minority would not be a threat this time. But Ince, his rival, cleverly made inroads to the Kurdish community by visiting Demirtas in prison and promising to develop the Kurdish region.

Erdogan in response also visited the Kurdish region, but the hostility toward him remained deeply rooted, following the savage war he waged against the Kurds in southeast Turkey. His Justice and Development Party has a supporting Kurdish bloc, estimated at 1.5 million votes, and the latest polls give the pro-Kurdish party 9 percent, less than the minimum required to enter the parliament. But most of the Kurdish votes will be divided among the independent Kurdish candidates and the Kurdish party, so the opposition will be able to count on them both in the presidential and parliamentary elections. If Erdogan decides at some stage to hold early elections, he may face a rigid political bloc that could weaken him further.

The election outcome will be enormously significant to the government’s continued policy and to Turkey’s status in the Middle East and the world. This is because Turkey has developed over the last five years into a regional power and its policy will influence the war in Syria, Iran’s regional power and the extent of the United States’ and European Union’s involvement in the region.

A strong opposition may not only attempt to restrict Erdogan’s extensive constitutional power, but to sabotage decisions regarding the state’s day to day management. It could stall and prevent legislation infringing on human rights and demand that Turkey withdraw from Syria and desist from military involvement there.

In contrast, if Erdogan achieves the majority he aspires and establishes his status as a strong president who does not succumb to political pressures, he will disperse the fears of political instability, which are deterring foreign investors at this stage.

This would be bad news for Turkey’s liberal factions, who have suffered a crushing blow since the abortive coup in July 2016. Journalists, academics and administration officials suspected of disloyalty could be dealt another dose of edicts and persecution. Companies whose owners are associated with the opposition would not be assured of keeping their businesses, and may be subject to more harsh measures, like the ones Erdogan took when he closed down large corporations in the past two years.

At the same time, Western countries always prefer doing business with authoritarian leaders, especially in the Middle East. For them a strong Turkish president is quite good news, despite the deep differences between Erdogan and European Union leaders and the U.S. president.