World Politics

What’s at stake in Turkey’s elections — and why Erdogan could actually lose

Key Points
  • Turkey's presidential and parliamentary elections on Sunday are crucial, and the most high-stakes in years.
  • They will mark a serious concentration of power into the hands of the elected president, and could even see the powerful President Recep Erdogan and his party defeated.
  • But the 64-year-old president's loyal base and substantial control over the airwaves may yet keep him in charge.
Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during an election rally in Diyarbakir, Turkey June 3, 2018.
Umit Bektas | Reuters

Turkey's presidential and parliamentary elections on Sunday are crucial, and the most high-stakes in years.

They will mark a serious concentration of power into the hands of the elected president, and could even see the powerful President Recep Erdogan and his Justice and Development party (AKP) defeated.

Country analysts are calling this the closest contest in years, as new constitutional rules, a more united opposition, increased polarization in Turkey and a growing desire for change challenge Erdogan's long-held popularity.

But the 64-year-old president's loyal base and dominance over the airwaves may yet keep him in charge.

"It is fair to say that these are the most unpredictable elections perhaps since 2002 and the ruling AKP's first ascent to office," said Timothy Ash, emerging markets senior sovereign strategist at Bluebay Asset Management.

Originally scheduled for November 2019, Erdogan in April called early elections for June in what many labeled a power grab and an attempt to secure another term before Turkey's economy — suffering from high inflation and a dramatically weakened currency — deteriorated any further. Now, the move may be at risk of backfiring.

Erdogan, who founded the AKP in 2001, has been president since 2014, and before that served as prime minister for 11 years from 2003.

The country of 80 million has been on a rollercoaster over the last few years, as terrorist attacks, a refugee crisis, rapid economic growth followed by stifling inflation, an attempted military coup, political tensions with NATO and the West, and a gradual erosion of civil rights have all contributed to a growing sense of polarization and uncertainty.

Meanwhile, Erdogan's increasingly nationalist and bellicose stances against U.S. and European Union allies and ethnic minorities like the Kurds have lead some observers to liken him to a Turkish version of Donald Trump.

'Enough is enough'

"Enough is enough" has gathered momentum as the rallying cry of the opposition, who criticize what they see as a democracy sliding into authoritarianism amid a tightening executive grip, government efforts to silence independent media, human rights abuses and rising religious nationalism.

And Turkey is still reeling from a sweeping public sector purge spearheaded by Erdogan after the dramatic failed coup attempt of July 2016 that saw tens of thousands of people put in jail.

Some would now see this as a choice between a vote for Erdogan or the continuation of pluralistic market democracy in Turkey.
Timothy Ash
senior emerging markets strategist, Bluebay Asset Management 

There is concern that the new constitution "would leave few, if any checks and balances, around the increasingly out of reach Erdogan," Ash said. "Some would now see this as a choice between a vote for Erdogan or the continuation of pluralistic market democracy in Turkey."

To assume power, Erdogan needs a 50 percent plus one vote victory in the election's first round — if no single candidate secures this, a second vote would take place on July 8. Under the previous electoral system, he could win with roughly 40 percent of the vote.

And now, parties are able to campaign in alliances, meaning smaller parties like the Kurdish people's Democratic Party (HDP) — historic opponents of the president — are more likely to pass the 10 percent vote threshold required to win representation in parliament.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a press conference at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey on April 18, 2018.
Ali Balikci | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Still, the president's popularity and hold on power can't be underestimated, and most analysts see an Erdogan win as their base case. This is thanks to the positive coverage he receives from state media, continued emergency rule which restricts freedoms of assembly and association, and the fragmentation of the opposition, according to Agathe Demarais, lead Turkey analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

But the strength of the opposition — more united than at any point since the early 2000s — will be key to watch.

Who is running?

The two major alliances going head-to-head are the People's Alliance, comprised of Erdogan's AKP and right-wing ally the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP); and the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), in coalition with the Good Party (IYI).

The secular CHP is headed by Muharrem Ince, who polls still indicate is likely to lose to Erdogan, although Turkish polling data is infamously unreliable. The EIU suggests Ince may win enough of the votes to push Erdogan into a second-round contest. This could give momentum to the opposition, in turn bringing out more voters.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish HDP is running independently, but has pledged to support any candidate that goes up against Erdogan in the event of a second vote.

Critically, the political and economic vision of Erdogan's alliance "appears to lack a credible political and economic vision beyond promises of more infrastructure spending," the EIU's Demarais said. The rival CHP alliance, meanwhile, has promised a "restoration of the rule of law" and an independent judiciary under a parliamentary system, something Erdogan's detractors say he has abandoned.

Fiscal challenges

No matter who wins, the next government will be faced with massive economic challenges: while 1.5 million jobs were created in the last year, Turkey's current account deficit won't stop growing, its inflation is in the double digits, the Turkish lira is at record lows and investor confidence has waned substantially.

The lira faced crisis in recent months when Erdogan, wielding uncanny power over Turkey's central bank, refused to raise interest rates to tame inflation. The bank finally hiked rates in May, but the president has pledged to bring them down again if re-elected.

Opinion polls seem to suggest that the opposition may win parliament, but that Erdogan will win the presidency in the second round — meaning a difficult period of cohabitation ahead. Importantly, Ash noted, parliament will still hold significant powers to legislate, block the budget, nominate most supreme court judges and call early elections, among others.

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This investor says "we have to be very cautious" on Turkey

But the EIU sees presidential and parliamentary power staying entrenched with the AKP and its nationalist partner, MHP, ushering in what could be a new era of iron-fisted rule. "Such a presidential and parliamentary victory will pave the way for the implementation of a one-man-rule system that will give (almost) full powers to Mr Erdogan until at least 2024, and possibly beyond," Demarais said.

Increasing polarization

Erdogan's administration has suggested they will hold new parliamentary elections if he fails to win a majority; this could lead to "political chaos" and negatively affect investor sentiment, warned Demarais.

But just on Thursday, Erdogan told local media he was willing to form a coalition if his party won less than 300 seats — perhaps preparing expectations for defeat.

Still, the AKP's core support base of Sunni Muslim faithful rests at a solid 40 percent, with the potential for more support stemming from rising anti-Western sentiment, fear of change, and many Turks' appreciation for a strong leader.

But looking at the political upsets of the last year in countries like Malaysia, Armenia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, there is reason to expect the unexpected.

"The AKP also probably will be coming up against the lethargy over incumbency, after nearly 18 years in office," Ash said, and "a desire for change" — similar to the forces that drove recent political shifts where entrenched administrations were pushed from office, have a chance at tipping the balance.