Turkey will hold presidential and parliamentary elections on Sunday, a historic moment for the country, which has seen 10 elections in the last decade of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule. And for the first time the opposition is seen as close to beating President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, known for his ability to consolidate support against all odds.
Erdoğan has managed to interpret all the elections since 2013, when his tenure was challenged by a massive protest in Gezi Park and a corruption investigation into his close circle, as a plebiscite on his political existence.
The rhetoric used by AKP figures says that if Erdoğan loses, then Turkey will become like Syria, as Energy Minister and Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak told businesspeople in İstanbul four days ago.
“Either stability, or chaos” is the oft-repeated slogan parroted by the AKP to assure the support of ordinary citizens, even though since 2013 Turkey has experienced a period of chaos, including the country’s deadliest terrorist attack in 2015 and a failed coup attempt that left 249 people dead in 2016.
That is why the AKP campaign has been criticized for looking poor and running out of a new and inspiring story; however, Erdoğan is still strong enough to garner more than 40 percent of the vote.
During the early 2000s, his success had been explained by economic achievements and good governance, but lately analysts are focusing on his charisma, the benefits he has provided to his constituency and the disarray among opposition parties.
According to observers, Erdoğan decided to go snap elections instead holding the polls in November 2019 because the economy has deteriorated significantly and he wanted to secure another win before it was too late.
A poor economy may also mean a lack of support for him from his grass roots, the ordinary fellow citizens of Turkey’s conservative public who are different from the motivated, mostly Islamist or Erdoğanist, “professionals.”
Another aspect of this year’s elections is that the opposition parties managed to form an alliance against long-time allies the AKP and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) that would change the representation of parties in parliament. But since a referendum last year introduced an executive presidency, which made parliament a secondary institution in Turkey’s administration, no one actually knows what would happen if Erdoğan is re-elected president but his party stays in minority in parliament.
One thing for sure is if the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) can manage to enter parliament by surpassing the 10 percent election threshold, then most probably the AKP-MHP alliance will lose the majority.
On the opposition front, the İYİ (Good) Party’s Meral Akşener has repeatedly brought up the return to a parliamentary democracy, Turkey’s system of governance since its foundation in 1923. She even expressed discomfort with Republican People’s Party (CHP) presidential candidate Muharrem İnce’s remarks about retaining the executive presidential system for two years before restoring the old system.
That might be seen as a tiny detail discussed among the opposition, but Akşener’s choices all along the way should be noted carefully. If she had not refused to support former President Abdullah Gül as a joint presidential candidate of the opposition, no one would now be witnessing İnce’s massive campaign rallies.
İnce’s popularity among Turkish and of course Kurdish voters has sparked excitement, causing many people to believe Erdoğan’s reign will end on Sunday. His might to gather giant crowds in Diyarbakır, İzmir and Ankara reminded CHP supporters of the 1970s, when the CHP won the elections by garnering more than 40 percent of the vote.
Some analysts have likened İnce to French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been depicted as a popular response to populism, referring to his mobilizing effect on French voters distanced from populist politics. İnce is probably a better polemicist than Macron, but his managerial abilities are still in question. Some critics argue that İnce did not offer enough to convince the Turkish public that he can run the country, while others hail his rhetorically clever campaigning.
But can he really manage to oust Erdoğan?
The AKP-MHP alliance had roughly 24.7 million votes (51,8 percent) in the referendum last year. They together had attracted a total of 29.3 million votes in the general election of Nov. 1, 2015. One could expect this decrease to continue on Sunday.
On the other hand, Erdoğan owns almost 90 percent of the media, and his power encompasses all official institutions of the Turkish Republic, including the election board, security forces and justice system.
In the first round of votes in the presidential election, if no candidate garners more than 50 percent, Turkey will hold a second round two weeks later to select the president.
Then what might the Kurdish vote have to do with deciding the next president of Turkey? “Kurdish vote” is a tricky term that easily deceives people into believing that all Kurdish people are represented by the HDP. Actually, there are more than 13 million Kurds in Turkey, and the HDP has won at most 6 million of their votes in its history.
In the predominantly Kurdish region, the Southeast of Turkey, while the HDP is aiming to emphasize Kurdish identity, the AKP has been trying to consolidate its hold on the conservative Kurdish population, despite the party’s recent nationalist stance. Moreover, they managed to garner the Kurdish vote in last year’s referendum to assure a win.
Considering that some prominent Kurdish conservative figures have accused the HDP of distancing itself from pious Kurds, the behavior of conservative Kurds in the election will be decisive for Erdoğan’s presidency, if not for the AKP’s majority in parliament.
Here, the Felicity Party’s (SP) presence in the opposition alliance offers an alternative to conservative Kurds and dissatisfied AKP supporters. One of the excuses of reluctant AKP voters was that there had been no credible alternative for conservative politics. This time, SP might be an answer to them.
Overall, the most significant determinant of Sunday’s vote will be the disaffected AKP and Erdoğan supporters, who might well have a change of heart and avoid voting for their party. Only their sheer numbers can topple Erdoğan.