On June 24 Turkish citizens will vote for both presidential and parliamentary elections on the same day for the first time. These elections are crucial for Turkey. First, the vote will complete the transition started with the April 2017 constitutional referendum and mark the transformation of Turkey from a parliamentary system into a presidential republic a year and a half ahead of schedule. The constitutional amendments will provide the next Turkish president with extensive executive powers, including the power to appoint the cabinet and vice-presidents as well as senior judges, and to issue decrees with the force of law. Second, the elections will test the popularity of President Erdoğan, the main architect of the new system in Turkey, and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has run the country unchallenged since November 2002. After 16 years of AKP rule, is the time ripe for change in Turkey?
Political coalitions – which allow smaller political groups to strengthen their performance at the ballot boxes – represent a first important change for this electoral campaign. While the People's Alliance between the AKP and the National Movement Party (MHP) has united for both the presidential and the parliamentary elections, the Nation Alliance is limited to the parliamentary vote. The latter succeeded in putting together four heterogeneous opposition parties – the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the newly-formed Good Party led by the former MHP member Meral Akşener, the Felicity Party (SP), and the Democrat Party (DP) – united around the primary aim to stop AKP’s longstanding grip on power. The choice to run for the presidential elections with single candidates makes their different political agendas clear. Yet someone could argue that it could also be seen as an electoral strategy to drain as many votes as possible away from Erdoğan’s traditional constituency. While President Erdoğan called for snap elections in the hope of obtaining an easy victory in both parliamentary and presidential competitions, in the opposition parties’ discourses the election is turning into a vote for or against Erdoğan’s rule.
Undoubtedly Erdoğan remains the most popular politician in Turkey, but he is facing the greatest wave of opposition since the AKP’s first election victory. All opinion polls show him ahead of the other presidential candidates. Yet numbers will make the difference. While some polls register support for Erdoğan as over 51 percent, a survey released in May by Metropoll showed that the president had 45.9 percent support, and the combined opposition vote amounted to 44.5 percent. Should that be the case, Erdoğan’s victory on the first round might not be assured. If Erdoğan does not succeed in gaining more than 50 percent of votes, he will run against one of the other candidates in the second turn on July 8 and the oppositions could have a chance of challenging the current president. Muharrem İnce, the CHP candidate, seems to have more chances than the other contenders to run for a second round. However, although he has already secured the support of Akşener in case he should run against Erdoğan, the CHP candidate has to prove his ability to gain support from the other political parties, and in particular from the Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) that is not part of any alliance, as well as to draw away conservative and nationalist voters. Certainly Akşener, thanks to her nationalist background, would be better positioned than İnce to attract Erdoğan’s voters. However, she will not easily be a magnet for the Kurdish vote.
Erdogan is aware that the Kurdish vote may tip the balance of the next parliamentary election, as it did in June 2015. Traditionally one of the main components of the AKP’s electorate, the Kurdish voters today are disappointed about Erdoğan’s alliance with the nationalists. If the HDP overcomes 10 percent electoral threshold, the AKP could lose its majority in the National Assembly. Conversely, if it fails to do so, HDP seats will go to the party that came second in the election district. That would most likely benefit the AKP, which is also strong in the eastern and the southeastern Kurdish majority provinces.
What will happen if Erdoğan and his party do not follow the same path at the ballot box, that is to say if the parliamentary majority is not in line with the president? Cohabitation might open a phase of political uncertainty and instability, likely paving the way for new snap elections.
An important factor that could impact Erdoğan’s performance is the economy. Over the past fifteen years Turkey’s economic growth and development has been one of Erdoğan’s main assets, as average annual income has risen from $3,500 in 2002 to more than $11,000. However, today’s faltering economy could turn into a liability for the president. Over the last two years the Turkish lira has lost more than 30 percent of its value, foreign investors have been reluctant to enter the country, and the international markets' confidence in the Turkish economy has decreased. Getting the economy back on track will be certainly one of the main challenges of the post-electoral scenario.
A further element to take into account in the electoral calculus is the desire of Turkish society to move towards a normalisation of political life after almost two years of emergency rule that has restricted political and social spaces. However, it remains to be seen if President Erdoğan’s promise to lift the state of emergency, should he win the elections, will benefit him at the ballot boxes.
While it is likely that the election results will not reflect the opinion polls, there is a sizeable part of Turkish society that would like to see a change in domestic politics. Certainly, if Erdoğan wins, he will continue to shape Turkey for years to come.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)