Why Turkey’s Erdogan is Here to Stay

Spearhead Analysis – 22.03.2018

By Fatima Ayub
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Last week, in the dead of night, Turkey’s parliament passed a series of electoral reforms, the most contentious of which is that from now on unstamped ballots can be counted at elections and referenda. Turkey had yet to come out of the controversy of last year’s constitutional referendum and the widespread fraud allegations that followed it, and now the country seems to be embroiled yet again in a political crisis of President Erdogan’s making. It remains unclear this time, whether the Parliamentary vote last week that made sweeping electoral changes effecting the country’s upcoming 2019 elections was a veiled move to keep President Erdogan in power or whether Turkey has moved to these radical reforms on its own terms. The backlash from opposition parties resulting from the vote suggests that the former is true.

In a 20-hour long process, Ankara’s Parliament witnessed a prolonged debate from all political quarters. The opposition raised alarming concerns that the new changes would undermine the integrity of the electoral process and lead to mass fraud in the country’s most important vote set to take place in 18 months. The concerns were undermined not in merit, but in support. It was eventually the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the opposition, The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), that came out victorious, with their proposed election alliance Bill ratified by Parliament.

 It will allow political parties to form alliances in general elections but what else does the Bill entail? What kind of changes will it lead to in Turkish politics?

In a nutshell, the new legislation formally allows the creation of electoral alliances, paving the way for a tie-up between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party and the nationalist opposition.

The most significant alteration the Bill has introduced is the official recognition of alliances between political parties for the first time. Formerly, some parties went to the polls together, but this is regulated on legal grounds with the Bill. The alliances will be written on voting papers and the votes of allying parties will be counted together while the number of parliament members will be determined according to the total vote allying parties receive.

So, a party which is projected to remain under the threshold can enter Parliament with other parties under the umbrella of an alliance.

Essentially, it seems that the Bill aims to encourage alliances and render the Parliament less fragmented.

The Bill, which comprises 26 articles, grants the Supreme Electoral Council the authority to merge electoral districts and move ballot boxes to other districts.

Ballots will be admissible without the stamp of the local electoral board, formalising a decision made during a referendum last year that caused a widespread outcry among government critics and concern from election monitors.

Under the Bill, security force members will be allowed into polling stations when invited by a voter, a measure the government says will stamp out intimidation by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the mainly Kurdish southeast.

The Bill also states a political party can officially back one another during elections, adding that votes received by the alliance will be counted separately for each party.

For the 48. 7% who already opposed Erdogan’s autocratic overtures in Turkey’s 2017 constitutional referendum, the current legislation passed by the Parliament is yet another blow adding to the inevitable derailment of Democracy in Turkey for good.

They ask amongst other questions about the Bill; if the ‘legality’ of the unstamped ballot papers has just been approved by Parliament, wouldn’t that amount to implicitly accepting the idea that the unstamped ballots used in the then 2017 referendum were thus all illegal votes?

There is searing criticism also that the amendment, in the broader sense represents a fresh blow to democracy and political pluralism. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP),  the third-largest party in the Turkish parliament  is a pro-minority, pro-Kurdish political entity that has already argued that the ongoing state of emergency in Turkey, coupled with the unfair leverage brought by legislative bill to the ruling AKP party is reason enough to boycott the elections. Given that HDP’s party head Selahattin Demirtas alongside an estimated 5000 party members were detained or stripped of parliamentary membership, the move is translated as Erdogan’s sly albeit timely removal of opposition to quash dissent.

More notably, the particular clause of the electoral reform that allows the counting of unstamped ballots has caused opposition uproar, who claim that such measures allow the electorate system to be completely open to abuse. It  has been alleged that even with the 2017 constitutional referedum, it was the validation of unstamped votes that tipped the result in favor of the “yes” camp, which won by 51 %. A political observer in Izmir reasoned ‘Anyone can stuff ballot boxes with as many ballots as they can get their hands on and there is no mechanism to differentiate legitimate and illegitimate votes’.

More so, the amendment allowing political parties to form election alliances is viewed as a move tailor-made to formalize the AKP’s partnership with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which political observers say has been informally underway for several years. With the alliance, Erdogan is hedging his bets for the 2019 polls after his tiny — and controversial — winning margin in the referendum, while the MHP is seeking to remain in parliament using its alliance with AKP as a crutch, even if its individual vote falls short of the 10% allotted national threshold.

Barring a snap poll decision the next few months, Turks will vote in municipal, parliamentary and presidential elections in the following year.

November 2019 will see the next presidential election marking Turkey’s transition from a parliamentary system to one in which political executive power will be concentrated in the office of the President. Among the changes introduced by the constitutional reform, the President will become head of the executive as well as head of state and will also be allowed to retain ties to a political party. Erdogan, if elected, will be able to appoint ministers, prepare the budget, choose the majority of senior judges and enact certain laws by decree.

There is little to suggest that Recip Erdogan will not be re-elected President, come 2019. Much like President Putin’s re-election as Head of State in Russia this month, political observers believe that owing to Erdogan’s mass populist appeal, in part due to his image of nationalist icon and visionary leader of the Turks and in essence due to the unchallenged dominance of his AKP party in Turkey’s political set-up, there will be little opposition to challenge his unanimous win next year.

It is believed that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) will likely win the elections and remain in power until 2024. Although the AKP suffers from a popularity deficit since the referendum, Erdogan still has considerable political capital. Moreover, it is likely that the government will continue to use the state of emergency law to intensify its policy of arbitrary arrests in the run-up of the 2019 elections. This will likely result in the imprisonment of political opponents at home and the implementation of clandestine networks to target dissidents abroad – with widespread national protests expected as a consequence.

However, other forces, external to Erdogan’s control also seem to be playing to his favour. The political opposition, for example is too disunited and marginalized to pose a serious threat to the AKP’s dominance over the country’s political sphere. 

Infact, it is ironic that the failed coup attempt of 2016 that was meant to rid Ankara of AKP growing autocratic rule of the country backfired spectacularly on anti-establishment figures for it allowed Erdogan to call for a nation-wide state of emergency, allowing him to constrict his grip on all aspects of political, social and legal institutions and life in Turkey.

If anything, last April’s referendum reflected a country sharply divided in views. A little more than 51 percent of Turks voted in favor of the executive presidency, with a turnout of over 85 percent and this narrow victory of the ‘yes’ campaign stood as an emblem of the growing divide between the Secularist and the Islamists, the mainland cities versus the country heartlands, the Turk nationalists versus the Kurdish nationalists in Turkey, under Erdogan’s regime. It is worth mentioning that for the first time since Erdogan’s election in 2002, Erdogan lost the majority in the constitutional vote in the country’s largest cities, reflecting the opinion that his hardliner policies may be alienating the country’s middle-class. Turkey’s western coastal regions and its urban centers voted firmly against the reform. In Istanbul – the city where the president started his political career and was elected mayor in 1994 — 51 % percent voted “No”. Ankara and the coastal city of Izmir voted in a similar fashion opposing the reform project.

Critics believe that this drop in Recip’s popularity amongst the urban population of Turkey is linked to widespread human rights violations and a clampdown on freedom of expression, owing to the state of emergency declared by the President, aimed to stifle dissent and crush opposition to his leadership. Amnesty International Reports an estimated 50,000 people to have been arrested in a widening crackdown since a 2016 failed coup and more than 150,000 sacked or suspended from their jobs. In 2017, the Committee to Protect journalists reported that Turkey was voted the worst country in the world, second year in a row for jailed journalists.

Erdogan’s support in 2017 for his reform bill thus came largely from the countryside of Anatolia, who voted massively in favour of his passive secularist, pro-Islamic reforms. For the majority of Turkey’s rural electorate (with the exception of the Kurdish southeast), Erdogan embodies political stability, religious freedom and a more than a decade of economic success.

That is not suggest that Erdogan has been entirely unsuccessful, nationally. Infact, the AK leader has also brought significant material gain to much of the country. Since the AKP came to power in the general elections of 2002, Turkey’s economy has grown considerably. Until the 2016 failed coup, economic development was the basis of both socio-political stability inside the country and of the pro-EU foreign policy agenda pursued by Erdogan. According to statistics published by Global Risk Insights, between 2002 and 2007, Turkey’s economy grew at annual rate of 7.2 percent. The country even performed well throughout the global financial crisis: after a slowdown in gross domestic product (GDP) growth to just 0.6 percent in 2008, the economy picked up again in 2010, producing an impressive 9.2 percent growth in 2011. World Bank data confirms that since Erdogan became prime minister in 2003, average incomes have risen from $3,800 to around $10,000 as of 2017. Hence, the AKP rule saw the number of people living below the poverty line dropped from 23% of the population to less than 2%.

But as is the case with most populist leaders, their political trajectory, successful as it may be, is marred with the widespread use of dirty political gimmicks, a prolonged and intensified grip on power and an aura of dissent, fear ensured by obliterating any opposition to a non-entity. 

Domestically, there is political chaos down the road. Erdogan’s opposition is not prepared to fight him. Kilicdaroglu, leader of the CHP (“Republican People’s Party), appears reluctant to back the growing call to boycott the upcoming election on account of the impending election fraud expected, although some of his own lawmakers are vocally advocating it. The main opposition leader is already under fire from his own ranks for failing to mobilize a forceful resistance to the AKP. As for the rest of the opposition, the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) took a U-turn and gave its support to the constitutional reform, while the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has been weakened by successive waves of arrests and run the risk of falling below the 10% national vote threshold for parliamentary representation. In this context, President Erdogan only credible challenger seems to be Meral Aksener, also known as Turkey’s ‘Iron Lady’, a former Interior Minister with a history of standing up to military dictatorships in Turkey such as the one in 1997 and who has campaigned vigorously against the constitutional overhaul proposed by Erdogan. It has been her principled opposition to what is perceived to be Erdogan’s constitutional power-grab that has allowed her to expand her appeal to disaffected members of AKP and even to some left-leaning voters, including from the Kurdish majority region in the South-East. It remains to be seen, however, how she fares as a worthy contender to the magnanimous presence of AK and Erdogan in the upcoming electoral battle, given that she is yet to announce her new political party, let alone rally for it, in time for the elections.

Alongside the polarized domestic political risks, the country’s faltering economy on account of Turkey’s militaristic adventures in Syria and a prolonged fight against the PKK also leaves ambiguity for the coming months. Security risk will remain fueled by the ongoing insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the south-east of Turkey, as well as the presence of Islamic State (IS) cells across the country.

In context of this electoral reform passed by the Turkish Parliament, political observers assure that only certain changes will be made during this transition period between now and the elections, whereas the aftermath of the ‘new legislative system’ that will presumably propel Erdogan to a re-election win, can only be judged after the 2019 elections.

Turkey for now is at the cusp of a controversial metamorphosis and it remains to be seen whether Erdogan for whom personally, the political future looks bright, will go down for Turkey as a progressive national figure or a dictatorial aggressor in the history books of Ankara. Revered or despised however, the prediction remains unanimous across the global political world –  Recep Tayyip Erdogan is here to stay.