Turkish voters are set to go to polls after incumbent President Recep Tayyip called for snap elections scheduled for 24th June.
The presidential and parliamentary elections are crucial for Erdogan to maintain control over a reformed government where he will be the most powerful leader since modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Attaturk.
Situated at the nexus between Asia and Europe, Turkey divides the Black Sea from the Mediterranean. Nearly all of the country is in Asia, comprising the oblong peninsula of Asia Minor — also known as Anatolia (Anadolu) — and, in the east, part of a mountainous region sometimes known as the Armenian Highland. Turkey’s control of the straits of Bosporus, Dardanelles and Sea of Marmara, the only outlet from the Black Sea, has been a major factor in its relations with other states.
The Anatolian peninsula, comprising most of modern Turkey, is one of the oldest permanently settled regions in the world. According to Biblical references from the Acts of Apostles 11, a city in the southern of Turkey, Antioch (now Antakya) is the birthplace of the first Christian community. In 324, Constantine I chose Byzantium to be the new capital of the Roman Empire, renaming it New Rome. Turkmen tribes invaded Anatolia in the 11th century CE, founding the Seljuq empire; later, during the 14th century the Ottoman Empire began a long expansion, reaching its peak during the 17th century.
Following the Armistice of Mudros in 1918, the victorious Allied Powers sought to partition the Ottoman state through the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. The Turkish War of Independence, initiated by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his colleagues against occupying Allies, resulted in the abolition of monarchy and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, with Atatürk as its first president. The common threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War led to Turkey's membership in the NATO in 1952, ensuring close bilateral relations with Washington.
Since the liberalisation of the Turkish economy in the 1980s, the country has enjoyed stronger economic growth and greater political stability. Turkey joined the EU Customs Union in 1995 and started accession negotiations with the European Union in 2005. However, conflict in Cyprus has hindered Turkey’s accession to the EU. The Syrian Civil War saw a large influx of refugees into the country which complicated international responsibilities while striving for favourable realpolitik.
In 2016, a failed coup resulted in the imposition of a state of emergency which has since been extended on numerous occasions till now. The incumbent President Erdogan won, with a very small margin, a referendum which would reform Turkey’s government by granting greater powers to the President.
If Erdogan wins, he will assume powers from the earlier referendum which will strengthen his power over the military and the police. He already chooses the majority of the judges in the highest court which would make it nearly impossible to impeach the President, who may have majority in Parliament as well. To rule by decree, Erdogan will have the modern-day equivalent of power held by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. However, as Turkish voters go to the polls to elect both a president and a new parliament, and for the first time in more than a decade, they have an array of strong candidates to choose from.
Secular Turkey is still divided by ethno-religious concerns. Polarised voting in 2018, however, will be limited to pro or anti-Erdogan choice. Crackdowns on minorities, like the Kurds, and social democrats have alienated many while strengthening Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) vote base of conservative, nationalist Islamists. His main challenger is former teacher and current lawmaker Muharrem Ince, from the secular, pro-Western Republican People's Party or CHP. The CHP is Turkey's oldest political party. Selahattin Demirtas, the co-leader of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP), the second-largest party in parliament, is campaigning from a jail cell. Imprisoned for 20 months, he is awaiting trial on terrorism-related charges.
Opposition parties have banded together to oppose Erdogan. A newly instated “electoral pact” act allows for those parties which cannot attain the 10% threshold of votes in the national tally to still manage seats in the Parliament. The act was supposed to help fledgling Nationalist Action Party (MHP), an ultra-nationalist party supporting the AKP, but has aided the collective opposition. Moreover, the 10% electoral threshold highlights the importance of Kurdish HDP as the Kingmaker. While they have been sidelined from the collective opposition to protect conservative, nationalist parties, the HDP has around 10% of the votes and will be called upon by the opposition in a dire situation to oppose Erdogan.
Opposition candidates and parties are trying to steal support from Erdogan on all fronts. Conservative nationalist Meral Aksener threatens him from the center right, while Temel Karamollaoglu from the Islamist Felicity Party could also drive pious conservatives away from the AKP. Muharrem Ince is a not an obscure name in Turkey; the 54-year-old has served as a member of parliament for the last 16 years and can rally votes as a strong opposition candidate.
"Former leaders of the party were bureaucrats or statesmen," said Behlul Ozkan, a political scientist from Marmara University. "Ince, with his rural family roots, his truck driver father and headscarf-wearing mother and sister is different from his predecessors.”
Turkey’s economy is struggling with double-digit inflation and an astounding 18% interest rate. For Erdogan, there can be no electoral promises to change the economy as he has been in control of those decisions. The possible vote for Kurdish independence, backed by the US, could hamper Erdogan’s orientation towards the West.
The Venice Commission, which provides legal advice to the Council of Europe (of which Turkey is a member), has set out its concerns about many of these reforms in detail. With military courts abolished, the Commission concluded that: "they lead to an excessive concentration of executive power in the hands of the president and the weakening of parliamentary control of that power". It warns of "a presidential regime which lacks the necessary checks and balances required to safeguard against becoming an authoritarian one”.
Mustafa Attaturk once said, “a man who doesn’t think differently from his time and environment can’t grow beyond his time and environment.” Riding the wave of populism and nationalism that has gripped much of the world, Erdogan might indulge in short term politics which affects countries over generations.
Our assessment is that the snap elections might have incumbent President Erdogan balancing on a knife-edge owing to polarised voters. We believe that the Kurdish vote bank may play a significant role in determining parliamentary seats, while it is up to Muharrem Ince’s campaign to secure his Presidency.
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