Turkey elections: four threats to Erdogan’s autocracy

As president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan should be taking a neutral position in the current run-up to the Turkish elections. Yet he continues to meddle in the politics of Prime Minister Davutoglu. For an enhanced understanding of the complex pre-election situation, we need to focus on four critical aspects: (1) Erdoğan’s ambitions for a custom-built presidential system, (2) Kurdish aspirations in the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), (3) internal party fissures in the ruling AKP, and (4) the strong polarization of Turkish society. Once again, it is not the question whether the AKP will come out of these elections as the strongest party, but in what kind of constellation.

The upcoming June elections will shape Turkey’s future for decades to come. They will be the culmination in the Turkish election marathon of 2014/15 and note the first national elections in which Turkish citizens living abroad can cast their vote. Furthermore, with these elections the Turkish political system could be on the brink of a profound change from a parliamentary system to a presidential one, provided that the AKP can secure the requisite three-fifths majority to change the constitution. While Erdoğan has declared himself the de facto sole head of state already, a constitutional amendment designed by the AKP would further concentrate the power in his hands (and divest current Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu of his role).

A tailor-made presidential system

The main opposition party, the CHP, has made attempts to reclaim its core voters by changing its candidates’ profile and the party program. However, for the past decade it has not proven trustworthy, let alone a party capable of governing the country. Yet the accession of the pro-Kurdish HDP into parliament by taking the 10% hurdle could keep Erdoğan from ascending to a new form of presidency.

Equally, the HDP’s bid could in fact also facilitate constitutional change to Erdoğan’s favour. If the party is willing to enter a coalition in exchange for some form of autonomy in the Kurdish region, this would endow the AKP with the necessary voting power.  Such a coalition is at present, however, dismissed out of hand by Demirtas, co-chairman of the HDP.

Kurdish ambitions

Overcoming the 10%  national electoral threshold has hence become a make-or-break issue for the HDP. But as parliamentary representation is not their sole platform, the HDP is an even greater risk for Turkey’s status quo in an extra-parliamentary opposition role. If the main opposition, the CHP, alienates the left in a bid to attract conservative voters, the HDP could fill the void and become the first pro-Kurdish party in parliament with a strong bargaining position. If it does not, the Kurdish movement will have an opportunity to gain a long-term advantage at the expense of Turkish democracy, possibly ensuing civil strife and instability. Just days before the election, a wave of violent attacks against HDP offices, fuelling fear and risking the setback of the party, shows just how tense the situation has become.

The AKP’s internal power balance is becoming more fragile given Erdoğan’s claim to absolute power as well as internal party scandals and corruption.

However, Erdogan is protected by a statute that restricts the mandate of AKP parlamentarians to two consecutive legislative periods.  As a result, many of today’s heavyweights in Turkish politics, including pragmatists such as Ali Babacan and Bülent Arınç, who are well respected in the EU, will be hit by this restriction. It will furthermore open the doors to a new circle of young Erdogan loyalists who have not previously held seats in parliament.

Polarization to a point of no return? 

Polarization in Turkish society is higher than ever, a circumstance from which Erdoğan has traditionally benefited. In his rhetoric Erdoğan makes use of conspiracy theories such as the interference of foreign powers to justify his authoritarian tendencies towards the opposition and his influence on the judiciary. However, this strategy also has its price: it carries the risk of a divided society in which the gulf between the political camps is too deep, thus stoking internal conflicts.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or any of its hosts Hertie School of Governance, London School of Economics and Political Science and Stiftung Mercator.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.