With President Recep Tayyip Erdogan setting voting day for May 14, Turkey’s polarized political landscape is braced for the most critical, dramatic elections in the country’s history. Coinciding with the republic’s centennial, the choice of nearly 53 million voters feels existential: They will decide whether or not to approve – in final terms – Erdogan’s drive toward an extremely centralized system of government, or, to put it more simply, one-man rule.
The presidential and parliamentary elections must be seen as a decision on the nature of how the country is administered. For the fragmented opposition camp, the immense challenges it faces appear to work in favor of Erdogan and his ruling alliance. The chances are that despite Turkey being entombed in a deep economic crisis, he may well win again.
The elections are essentially a referendum about ending or maintaining a one-party rule, which has lasted for two decades. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have won consecutively 13 elections and three referendums in that period, cementing a sense of invincibility. This has paved the way for a slow-motion power grab in which Erdogan has seized control of key institutions of state, subordinated the judiciary and media to the executive and spread a blend of Islamism and offensive nationalism within society. Inevitably during such a long stay in power, top-level corruption and nepotism has become entrenched.
In the last 10 years, more power has been concentrated with Erdogan himself and as a result the cracks in the ground upon which Turkey’s fragile system is built have grown deeper. The state, critics argue, has become dysfunctional, turning the country into a ship adrift in storm after storm, minimizing the president’s decision-making to firefighting.
But, his way of ruling has given birth to a corrupt oligarchy and, by way of the massive amount of people employed within the state apparatus, a loyal segment of voters who see the upcoming elections as a fight to preserve their privileges.
Once more, Erdogan is resolved to mobilize them for what he sees as the final battle to eternalize his power. Over time he has shown his skill for brinkmanship to defeat enemies and to change his political colors by forming new alliances. He remains a formidable foe for his adversaries, ready to resort to any means necessary to survive. Time has also shown that those negotiating with him, domestic or foreign, often fail by underestimating his abilities. Despite growing dismay on the international stage, he has shown that appeasement works in his favor.
In various ways, the task before the Turkish opposition to defeat him is arduous. The first issue is the safety of the elections. Erdogan controls two key departments through his loyal ministers. Providing security will be his controversial Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu who reigns over hundreds of thousands of partisan police. Bekir Bozdag, the justice minister, will stand ready to help his boss and intervene in legal process when necessary. Regional governors are also equipped with massive powers to restrict opposition rallies.
Two more key institutions stand in the way of the opposition. First is the Supreme Council of Radio and Television, which is meant to act as a media watchdog but will be intent on keeping a tight grip on opposition news outlets. (About 90 percent of Turkish media is already under Erdogan’s control.) And then there is the Supreme Electoral Council, which during Erdogan’s rule has lost its autonomy by way of the appointment of loyal judges. The council has become part of the AKP-controlled state and yet it will have the final word on whether or not Erdogan’s candidacy to serve as president for a third term is constitutional. The opposition claims he can only serve two terms. The council also has the power to uphold or reject the nomination lists of the politicians. It can arbitrarily strike off names, especially from the lists of pro-Kurdish candidates from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), citing classified documents of the state. Its rulings can not be appealed.
There is no doubt that the economic crisis, which has led to real inflation of about 150 percent, has spread “Erdogan fatigue” beyond the traditional opposition. It is fair to assume – based on a few reliable pollsters – that the anti-Erdogan wave has a potential of 55-60 percent of the vote. But the main adversary of the opposition is the opposition itself. A blend of centrist and conservative parties – the so-called “table of six” – has so far shied away from approaching the pro-Kurdish HDP, whose solid voter base has more than 12 percent of the vote.
It is impossible for the opposition to defeat Erdogan without the HDP. Also, partly because of this, it has been unable to present a consensus presidential candidate. The uncertainty shows again that the unresolved Kurdish issue will continue to haunt Turkey in its centennial. Fully aware of the anti-Kurdish sentiment, Erdogan plays the nationalism card to drive wedges into the fragmented opposition.
Key to understanding these elections is that who will be elected president is far more important than the composition of the parliament, given the vast powers now concentrated within the presidency. If none of the presidential candidates receive more than 50 percent of the vote on May 14, then there will be another round two weeks later between the two leading hopefuls.
Erdogan is banking on the expectation that if his party wins the parliamentary election by a considerable margin, voters will also give him a third term. The only difference this time may be that Erdogan will take the result as a carte blanche for a lifetime presidency. He has all the tools he needs.
Yavuz Baydar is a senior journalist and analyst in Turkish and international media. He was formerly the editor-in-chief of Ahval News and served as Turkey’s first independent news ombudsman between 1999-2013.