Everything You Need to Know About the Turkish Elections
Turkey is headed for snap elections — and Erdoğan's continued quest for dominance is again on the line.
The possibility had hung in the air for some time, but when it happened, it happened surprisingly quickly. On April 18, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the country would be heading for snap elections once again. The day before, Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the ultra-nationalist National Movement Party (MHP) and an ally of Erdoğan, had called for an early election on August 26 (rather than the scheduled November 2019 date). It soon became apparent that Bahçeli had not acted on his own. The following day, Erdoğan and Bahçeli met for about twenty-five minutes to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of a snap election, then declared that an early contest would in fact be held — on June 24.
So why did Erdoğan and Bahçeli call for early elections? What was so urgent that they couldn’t wait until next year? In public statements, Bahçeli and Erdoğan both spoke of the need to facilitate the transition to the new presidential system, which grants the president near-dictatorial powers (the product of a referendum last year plagued by charges of fraud). Yet it became clear that the real motivating factors were rather different: the situation in Syria, where Turkey has become a direct occupying power in the north; economic woes, which could quickly turn into a crisis; and the fear of mounting opposition to Erdoğan’s rule.
Ever since the Gezi Uprising in 2013, Turkey has witnessed a whirlwind of events: popular upsurges, a coup attempt, pivotal elections, changes in the political system, war within the country, war in Syria, bombing attacks. The country has been under an official state of emergency since a failed coup in July 2016, and the country’s economic model hit the fan in 2013.
Erdoğan and his ruling clique have responded to these various crises in the same way: by holding ever tighter onto power and using increasingly oppressive and brutal means to consolidate their standing — a process of outright fascization, if a very fragile one. The upcoming snap elections are just latest attempt by Erdoğan to stabilize his dominance, this time by quasi-democratic means.
The Political Constellation
Thanks to recent changes to the electoral system, presidential and general elections are now held together, and parties are allowed to form electoral alliances. If an alliance garners more than 10 percent of the vote, all parties in that pact are awarded seats in parliament.
This is particularly important for the MHP, which would risk falling short of the threshold were it to enter the election on its own. It’s joined with Erdoğan’s ruling party, the AKP, to boost its viability. Going by the name People’s Alliance, the pact is looking to solidify Erdoğan’s already substantial control over the state and Turkish society.
One of the more formidable groups opposing the People’s Alliance is the Good Party (İYİ Parti), a new formation led by former MHP member Meral Akşener. Initially, observers speculated that snap elections had been called to try to exclude the nascent party. But the Republican People’s Party (CHP), a centrist secular party, came to the rescue: fifteen of its members of parliament changed their allegiance, allowing the Good Party to contest the election. After some negotiation, the conservative-Islamic Felicity Party (SP) threw in its lot with the two parties, all but guaranteeing the Good Party and SP their seats in parliament. Together they comprise a right-wing anti-Erdoğan bloc. The only left party with a chance of passing 10 percent is the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
In the weeks since Erdoğan’s announcement, opposition parties have debated whether to unite behind a single candidate, the better to weaken Erdoğan. The CHP threw its weight behind such a strategy (there was even a meeting with former president and AKP co-founder Abdullah Gül), but its efforts were for naught. That’s partly because opposition parties expect a second round — polls, though notoriously unreliable in Turkey, indicate that Erdoğan will fall short of a majority in the first round (he mostly hovers around 45 percent). In addition, Gül was pressured by state officials not to throw his hat into the ring — suggesting not only that Erdoğan and company are frightened, but also that the Turkish bourgeoisie (which in previous years supported Erdoğan) lacks the guts to risk an outright offensive against the president.
After much speculation and maneuvering, the final candidate slate is as follows: Erdoğan, supported by the AKP and MHP; Akşener, supported by the Good Party; Muharrem İnce, supported by the CHP; Temel Karamollaoğlu, supported by the SP; and lastly, Selahattin Demirtaş, the HDP’s imprisoned former co-chair. Demirtaş ran for president in 2014 and was one of the key reasons for the party’s success in the June 7 elections that year. But he was swept up in Erdoğan’s post-coup crackdown, and has been detained since November 2016.
Of the field, İnce is the favorite to make it to the second round to contest Erdoğan, with Akşener standing a chance as well. Polls also indicate that the AKP-MHP bloc will likely lose its parliamentary majority. But precise predictions are difficult to make at the moment. For one, who knows if the elections will even take place? Erdoğan, after all, is more concerned with consolidating his power than fostering Turkish democracy. And if the elections do go off as planned, they will hardly take place under “normal” conditions.
Heading Toward Collapse?
Erdoğan’s decision to call the elections was in large part a reaction to economic fears: while often hailed as a success story by mainstream western outlets, the country’s economic model is anything but sustainable.
Production in Turkey depends on the import of intermediate and capital goods, meaning that if one side of the story is rapid growth, the other side has always been a high trade (and current) account deficit. The combination of high interest rates (by international comparison) and overvalued/ appreciating currency set up a vicious cycle that the country couldn’t easily break from, partly as a result of neoliberal structural adjustment programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Until 2008, the AKP — which came to power following the 2002 election — deliberately pursued these programs, reproducing the economy’s dependence on foreign capital inflows. This gave rise to a soaring foreign debt stock (with the private sector rather than the government carrying the bulk of the burden).
The Achilles heel of the Turkish model is the responsiveness of the exchange rate to investor perceptions of risk and political stability. Turmoil in recent years has driven the value of the Turkish lira further and further down. Its value against the dollar has dropped 141 percent since May 2013, 41 percent since the state of emergency was declared in July 2016, and 15 percent since the beginning of this year. Every day it drops to new lows. A debt and insolvency crisis seem to be just around the corner. The external debt stock of the private sector now totals more than a quarter of the country’s GDP, and some of the biggest conglomerates are lining up for debt restructuring.
Erdoğan and his party have long been aware of the developing troubles. But in their eyes, last year’s referendum and the upcoming double election are too important to change course. So they’ve been using various band-aid policies to stimulate growth and make the economy appear to be in better shape: a minimum-wage increase, credit expansion, tax cuts and exemptions, debt restructuring offers for the private sector, the employment of a massive public Credit Guarantee Fund to defer insolvencies, a revision in the calculation method of the GDP, and so forth. When Deputy Prime Minister (and former minister of finance) Mehmet Şimşek recently pointed to soaring debt in foreign currency and the depreciation of the lira as potential sources of crisis and called for an increase in the interest rate, Erdoğan immediately scolded him in several public speeches, claiming that “the interest rate is both the mother and father of inflation, and the main reason behind all evils in the economy.”
In sum, the economy is marred by a combination of currency depreciation, soaring debts, increasing inflation and interest rates, and high unemployment. A crisis appears inevitable, but the “final battle” — namely the upcoming election — must be won before a solution can be found. That, at least, is Erdoğan’s gamble.
The Disintegration of the Right Bloc
One of the main reasons for the AKP’s success over the last decade-plus has been its ability to unify, consolidate, and dominate the right-wing bloc in the country. At one time, for instance, Erdoğan was closely allied with Fethullah Gülen, a powerful cleric and the leader of a purportedly moderate Islamist movement. The pair became terminal enemies with the onset of the party’s hegemonic crisis in 2013 — so much so that Erdoğan now blames Gülen for the 2016 coup attempt — and the AKP moved closer to the MHP.
Erdoğan, in other words, has sought to patch up the cracks in his right bloc with new alliances, achieving the widest possible integration of right-wing forces. Yet this approach has only produced new schisms — and with the declaration of the snap elections, the bloc is now heading towards disintegration. Several aspects and tendencies are worth noting here.
First, the incorporation of the MHP into the AKP’s power bloc led to a split in the MHP itself. Former interior minister Meral Akşener, critical of this amalgamation and Erdoğan’s increasing power, sought to become the leader of the MHP. When she failed, she was expelled, with Erdoğan’s help. Now running as the Good Party’s candidate, Akşener seems to have a solid base in parts of the country (particularly coastal cities in the south) where the MHP was quite strong. She is also benefiting from positive international media coverage, which — despite her right-wing politics — has often cast her as the anti-Erdoğan.
A second important sign of the right bloc’s disintegration is the sudden rise of the Felicity Party (SP). The AKP and the SP both have their roots in the National View Movement, an Islamist current that for decades contested elections under various party names. Erdoğan and former president Abdullah Gül broke from this tradition and established the AKP in 2001, presenting themselves as more moderate. While Erdoğan and Gül quickly rocketed to the top echelons of Turkish politics, the SP languished in obscurity. It wasn’t until recently that the SP re-emerged as a serious player, constantly meeting up with Akşener and the CHP to discuss alliances. Akşener and the CHP recognize that the SP could help them peel off conservative Muslims from Erdoğan’s camp.
A third tendency of the disintegration concerns the Kurdish population in Turkey. In previous years, a significant percentage of Kurds voted for the AKP, particularly local capitalists, landowners, and those with conservative religious convictions. The AKP in return promised at least minimal rights for the Kurds and economic prosperity. The advent of the so-called “peace process” in the late 2000s between the government and the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) strengthened AKP support in Kurdish-heavy regions. Yet following the revolution in Rojava in 2012, the Gezi Uprising in 2013, and especially the success of the HDP in the June 2015 elections, the AKP lost momentum and the peace process was abandoned. Open war was unleashed on Kurdish regions instead. In the short run, this scared a portion of HDP supporters into voting for the AKP in the snap election in late 2015. But in the long run, it has only deepened the estrangement of conservative Kurds from the current regime. Turkey’s attacks on the Kurdish-dominated areas in North Syria (Rojava) and this year’s Afrîn operation have cemented that estrangement. In general, even Kurdish parties that are far from cozy with the Kurdish liberation movement have moved away from the AKP.
Together, these disintegration tendencies point towards an end of a unified right under the AKP. This is not to say that Erdoğan and the AKP have lost. Quite the contrary — they will do all they can to keep what they’ve got and will gamble on the power they have accumulated within the state.
And if the AKP’s domination and unification of the right bloc does end, the right bloc could unite again in a different form. The electoral alliance between the CHP, the Good Party, and the SP is a step toward such a process — jettisoning some of the damage imposed by Erdoğan but completely averse to changing the underlying power structure of society or allowing a genuine popular alternative from emerging. These forces are attempting to position themselves as restorationists — shoring up the very fragile neoliberal framework of Turkey and, as such, appeal to the interests of the leading factions of the bourgeoisie.
For its part, the Left must be aware of this dynamic, while also realizing that the crisis within the right bloc opens up space to advance a popular-democratic alternative.
The Kurdish Factor
In the general elections, a significant share of Kurdish votes is likely to go to the HDP. So too in the presidential race. Selahattin Demirtaş is widely respected among Kurds, even those not keen on the HDP or the PKK. But Demirtaş is not likely to make it to the second round — elevating Kurds to the role of swing voters in the runoff. So despite the vitriol and repression of recent years, it will not be surprising if all the candidates and parties seek to embrace the Kurdish vote in the coming weeks (indeed, they’ve already begun to do so).
This holds for Erdoğan as well, even if his actions in recent years will make that quite difficult (just to name a few: his alliances with ultra-nationalist, anti-Kurdish forces; his assaults on Kurdish regions; and the Afrîn operation — which ended in the occupation of the Kurdish-dominated region in North Syria). Whatever means the government uses — whether carrot or, most likely, stick — it remains highly unlikely that Erdoğan and the AKP will garner a significant portion of the Kurdish vote.
As for the HDP, it has not been included in any electoral alliance and therefore needs to pass the 10 percent benchmark to enter parliament. If they do so, the chances of the AKP-MHP alliance achieving an absolute majority will be very low — and Erdoğan’s ambitions will have sustained a serious blow.
The socialist left is not running its own candidate in the elections. Although many will support the HDP and Demirtaş, others will lean towards the CHP; some will support both in a bid for a “united antifascist front.” Given the electoral math, they might vote for the HDP in the general election to help it cross the 10 percent threshold and enter parliament, then likely support whoever runs against Erdoğan in the event of a second round.
While a strong showing of the HDP and the electoral defeat of the AKP and Erdoğan have to be the goal of all revolutionary and democratic forces, the Left must also have a strategy for the days before and after the election. The political-social horizon is radically open. The AKP and Erdoğan may win, in which case they’d likely keep turning up the heat on any oppositional voices in society. If they lose, they would not retreat peacefully. Erdoğan has been regularly mobilizing supporters since the coup attempt, and he would not hesitate to do the same if chaos and uncertainty prevail following the election. Alternatively, the “restorationist” forces could take the stage and mount a push for a different political arrangement that weakens Erdoğan without changing much else — all the while labelling this as “antifascist” or “anti-dictatorial” in order to capitalize on people’s discomfort with the current regime.
Finally, a popular mass mobilization could take the streets, posing a threat to Erdoğan’s dominance. The moment the balance tips and the wall of fear and repression breaks down, even for a moment, all the bottom-up struggles that are now isolated and somewhat repressed could come to the fore again, will all their latent power and possibilities. At this point, the Left’s task would be to raise genuinely popular-democratic demands that distinguish themselves from the “antifascism” of the restorationist forces, on the one hand, and on the other, to build and expand a popular front against a possible paramilitary counter-mobilization backed by the state.
While the results of the elections will be important (assuming they take place — Erdoğan could still nix the contest), history also shows that an electoral triumph won’t be enough to remove Erdoğan from power. He won’t go down without a fight. Turkish big business, meanwhile, is inclined to support a “smooth” transition away from Erdoğan that simultaneously excludes left demands and blocks any move toward a genuinely popular-democratic republic.
The Left therefore faces an uphill battle on several fronts. It must push for the removal of Erdoğan and the AKP without succumbing to the call for anyone but Erdoğan — a path that would simply secure capital’s profits and shore up the foundations of the despotic state.
June 24 is still more than a month away, and the next few weeks will undoubtedly be eventful. But whatever happens, it is safe to say that the battle will not end on election night.