ISTANBUL – President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has never lost an election, is taking a gamble that will consolidate his hold on power in Turkey if he emerges victorious from Sunday’s landmark presidential and parliamentary vote.
But winning the election he called more than a year early might not be as straightforward as he might have hoped.
For the first time, Turkey’s disparate opposition — made up of secularists, nationalists, Islamists and Kurds — is showing a more united front, with some parties joining forces. Meanwhile the economy, to which Erdogan could once point as a shining example of his success in bringing prosperity to his people, is looking increasingly shaky.
“The polls suggest that for the electorate, the economic issues are overtaking security issues,” said Serhat Guvenc, professor at Kadir Has University.
The elections will complete the transformation of Turkey’s political landscape that began with a 2017 referendum to switch from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government. It will concentrate power in the hands of the president, who will be able to form the government, issue decrees and prepare the budget. The prime minister’s position will be abolished.
Critics say the new system will undermine checks and balances on governance. Erdogan counters that the changes are necessary to ensure stability in a country that faces an array of security threats and has a history of political instability, including several coups since the 1960s. Erdogan himself survived an attempted coup in 2016, which led to a sweeping crackdown in response. The state of emergency he declared in the aftermath is still in place today.
“No one can return Turkey to those old days of crisis, chaos, instability, insecurity,” Erdogan said during a campaign speech. “This country does not have a single moment to waste with such fights.”
But outright victory, with Erdogan winning the presidential vote and his Justice and Development party, or AKP, winning the parliamentary ballot, could turn out to be harder than the firebrand president initially wagered.
Five candidates are running against Erdogan for president. The surprise opposition stars have emerged as Muharrem Ince, a 54-year-old former physics teacher with the centre-left Republican People’s Party who has run an unexpectedly engaging campaign, and nationalist Meral Aksener, 61, who has formed the Good Party consisting of nationalists and centre-right figures.
One presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtas of the pro-Kurdish HDP, has had to run his campaign from jail, where he is in pre-trial detention on terror charges he says are politically motivated.
Opinion polls have suggested that while Erdogan is still the most likely to win, he might not manage to muster the more than 50 per cent of votes needed to avoid a second round on July 8, while the AKP could lose its majority in parliament. That could potentially lead to a situation where Erdogan is president but the opposition controls parliament.
In a nod to the possibility of the AKP and its allied Nationalist Movement Party not managing to win more than 300 of parliament’s 600 seats, Erdogan has indicated he could seek a coalition partner — the first time he has made such a suggestion — although he insisted the chance of this happening is “very, very low.”
The state of Turkey’s economy will be a crucial element of Sunday’s vote, in which about 59 million Turks are eligible to cast ballots.
Economists have been warning of an impending financial crisis, and the cracks are already beginning to show. Turkey’s currency, the lira, has lost more than 20 per cent of its value against the dollar since the start of the year, while inflation continues to climb, currently standing at around 12 per cent. The current account deficit is widening, and although the economy posted a robust 7 per cent growth last year, analysts say it is fueled in part by unsustainable construction of grandiose projects.
“It’s certainly true that the economy is going to be one of the decisive factors in terms of determining the final outcome of these elections,” said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. “And in that sense, the economy has turned into a handicap for the ruling party, whereas in the past the economy was an advantage for the ruling party.”
Erdogan favours unorthodox methods of financial management, and an overall win by him could further rattle the economy.
If he wins the presidency and his party wins the parliamentary elections, “the first thing he’d do is cut interest rates which would not only destabilize the Turkish lira but also add to domestic demand to people’s purchasing power and further increase inflation and current account deficit,” said Atilla Yesilada, an analyst at GlobalSource Partners.
“These are extremely critical elections and the outcome will determine whether Turkey’s having a soft landing, which is a gradual deceleration of economic activity towards the normal, or a hard landing which is sort of a plane nosediving out of the sky, i.e. recession and currency crises,” he said.
The pre-election campaign has been somewhat lopsided. City streets are festooned with flags, banners and billboards of Erdogan and the AKP, far outnumbering the other candidates’ posters. Erdogan has also dominated the airwaves, with his speeches — and there are several each day — covered live on practically every television channel. Opposition candidates have complained that coverage of their own rallies is often cut off to switch to an Erdogan speech.
Nevertheless, the opposition is giving Erdogan a run for his money, producing more robust campaigns than in the past. Ince’s rally in the coastal city of Izmir, a bastion of secularism, drew hundreds of thousands Thursday.
The performance of the HDP in the parliamentary election will be critical. Parties must meet a 10 per cent threshold to get into parliament, and if the HDP makes it, it could cost the winning party dozens of seats.
Changes in the electoral law that now allow for alliances to be formed also favour smaller parties, allowing them to get into parliament if the alliance as a whole meets the 10 per cent threshold.
For many in Turkey, the changes to the political system that Sunday’s election will bring are momentous.
“It’s not only about who the next president of Turkey will be,” said Guvenc, the Kadir Has University professor. “It’s about keeping the game of democracy in Turkey alive.”
Ayse Wieting in Istanbul and Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.