For the first time in four years, Turkey will elect a new parliament on June 7. Turks and Turkey watchers everywhere are already debating the potential outcomes, particularly regarding how many seats will be controlled by Turkey’s current ruling party, the AKP. Of greatest concern is whether the AKP will be able to elect the 376 parliamentarians necessary to unilaterally pass a new Turkish constitution.
For the past several years, former Prime Minister and now President Erdogan has been trying to transform Turkey’s parliamentary government into a presidential system. His vision for this new brand of government is devoid of the checks and balances constraining presidents in other countries, like the United States. While Erdogan has been unsuccessful in his efforts so far, since becoming president, he has been lobbying for constitutional revisions more seriously than before.
This election is particularly important for slowing Turkey’s slide toward illiberalism, authoritarianism, and one-man rule under Erdogan. Though there are a multitude of factors that could come into play, there are three things that are guaranteed to have an outsized impact on the results and aftermath of this election: the Kurdish vote, the potential for election fraud, and the AKP’s internal politics.
The Importance of the Kurdish Vote
During the 2011 parliamentary elections, the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or “HDP,” candidates ran as independents in order to avoid the 10% election threshold that a party must meet in order to have its winning candidates seated. This resulted in thirty-six HDP candidates joining parliament, constituting about 6.5% of parliamentary members.
The HDP’s relative success in last summer’s presidential election has given it the confidence to run party-affiliated candidates this election cycle. If the HDP were to win at least 10% of the vote, and make up at least 10% of the new parliament, there is virtually no chance the AKP would simultaneously win 376 or more seats.
In the past, the AKP’s conservative politics and willingness to address some of the long standing grievances of Turkey’s Kurds has resulted in considerable Kurdish support for the party. The HDP’s popularity has, as such, largely come at the expense of the AKP.
The flipside is that if the HDP fails to gain 10% of the vote it will substantially boost the seats the AKP can secure. The HDP’s failure to break 10% would mean that any seats won by HDP candidates would pass to the party that won the second most votes in that area, which in past elections has almost always been the AKP. At the moment, most polls have put the HDP below the 10% threshold.
Free and Fair Elections?
Even if the HDP does break the threshold, the AKP would still be the largest party block in parliament. Nevertheless, according to rumors, the AKP leadership, and Erdogan in particular, are not leaving the results to chance.
These rumors originated with Turkey’s “deep throat” Fuat Avni, an anonymous and largely accurate source that spreads insider government information via Twitter. Avni claims the AKP has put together a plan to rig the upcoming election by buying votes and infiltrating opposition parties. He also accused the AKP of planning to shut down the two main opposition parties ahead of the election, which the AKP has vehemently denied.
Though past Turkish elections have been considered free and fair, local elections that took place last March triggered numerous accusations of fraud. It is too early to judge the accuracy of Avni’s claims, but the outcome of last year’s elections suggest there is significant possibility some fraud may occur.
Allegations the AKP may shut down its two main rivals is somewhat more dubious. Such an overtly aggressive act would doubtless trigger demonstrations and riots, contradicting Erdogan and the AKP’s strategy of accumulating power through slow and ostensibly legal means. That being said, the fact such a scenario has been floating around the highest levels of Turkish government suggests the AKP is deeply insecure about how it will fare in the elections.
If Erdogan does secure another parliamentary majority, there is no guarantee his continued consolidation of power will remain unchallenged. Erdogan’s authority faces two significant threats, an economic downturn and barely concealed resentment from within his party’s own leadership.
Turkey’s once booming economy, which was largely responsible for the AKP’s wide appeal, is in a precarious position. The lira’s value has sunk to record lows against the U.S. dollar and economic growth has slowed considerably.
There has been noticeable tension between Erdogan and Turkey’s top economic officials, including the deputy prime minister responsible for economic matters, Ali Babacan. Erdogan has become infamous for insisting ad nauseum that Turkey’s economic ministers cut interest rates, a strategy that runs in the face of conventional economic theory. This has forced Babacan to strike a precarious balance between political pressure coming from the presidency and economic pressure from international investors.
Doing damage control for Erdogan’s unconventional economic policies, as well as his other controversial statements, have caused visible strain in Erdogan’s relationship with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Davutoglu is not, however, the only top AKP official to publicly clash with Erdogan. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc and the head of the Turkish intelligence agency, Hakan Fidan, have directly and indirectly challenged Erdogan’s political supremacy.
These tensions indicate that Erdogan’s wish to consolidate power in the office of the president, even within his own party, is not a fait accompli. Without a constitutional overhaul, official power within the Turkish government will remain with the parliament and prime minister.
For these reasons, if even a small faction of AKP politicians and parliamentarians decide to break with Erdogan, the president will have less power to impose his political will. Though this scenario may not provide much hope for significant political change in Turkey, until an opposition party can match the AKP’s electoral success, the best opportunity for checking Erdogan’s power lies within the AKP itself.