Why Turkey's parliamentary elections are really all about Erdoğan

Turkey's elections next Sunday are shaping up as a referendum on the increasingly authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who seeks to rewrite the country's constitution to consolidate power in the presidency. 

Emrah Gurel/AP
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (c.) makes the sign of the Rabaah movement in Egypt, as he leaves the New Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, after attending Friday Muslim prayers, May 29.

When Turkish citizens elect a new parliament next Sunday, they won’t find Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the ballot. But for his supporters and opponents alike, the three-time prime minister and now president features front-and-center in the campaign.

Outside a teahouse on a quiet street overlooking the Kılıç Ali Pasha Mosque in Istanbul’s Tophane neighborhood, Sever Güney doesn’t hesitate when asked whom he’ll vote for: “Tayyip,” says the retired printer and self-described devout Muslim. His companions nod in agreement.

Fluttering above the men are the orange and blue flags of Mr. Erdoğan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP). “He and the party are the same,” says Mr. Güney, pointing to the flags. “Their system aligns with my belief and ideology. I support them spiritually, but also for good economic policies.”

Several blocks over in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, trendy cafes have replaced traditional teahouses, and women in short skirts outnumber those wearing the traditional Islamic headscarf. Flags belonging to secular opposition parties jostle above the streets.

For young voters like Mert Ergüder, a university student, the prosperity Turkey has enjoyed under Erdoğan is overshadowed by his increasingly authoritarian rule. “Tayyip must go,” he says. “He rules the country for himself and his cruel ideas, and the AKP just does whatever he wants.”

For the country’s deeply-polarized electorate, the June 7 general election is shaping up as a referendum on its most powerful politician – one that could determine the fate of this major Muslim democracy and NATO ally. At stake is Erdoğan’s dream of rewriting Turkey’s constitution to change the system of government from parliamentary to presidential.

“This is going to be the make-or-break elections in terms of Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions,” says Sinan Ulgen, a political analyst at the Carnegie Europe think-tank in Brussels. “At one extreme, he will be able to eliminate any barriers to his power, to the detriment of the country’s institutions. At the other extreme, the country ends up with a coalition government, as a consequence of which Erdoğan’s power would begin to erode.”

Erdoğan’s drive to power

Making no secret of his ambitions, Erdoğan has pushed the limits of his powers. When he was elected last August, he promised to be a president who “sweats, runs around, and works hard,” rather than sticking to a ceremonial role. Unlike previous presidents, he has chaired cabinet meetings, lashed out at the central bank on economic policy, and clashed with his own government over the Kurdish peace process, which he initiated as prime minister.

Though he took an oath of political neutrality, Erdoğan has cast aside any pretense of being the impartial head of state required by Turkey’s constitution. He has painted the opposition parties as “un-Islamic,” accused the leftist People’s Democratic Party (HDP) of being an “extension of a terrorist organization” over its ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and has brandished a Kurdish-language Quran to win over religious Kurds.

The cameras are often rolling as he stumps across the country: In a single week in May, the country’s top television watchdog found that Turkish TV stations aired more than 44 hours of live coverage of Erdoğan’s rallies.

According to Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at London-based Chatham House, Erdoğan’s drive for an executive-style presidency is a mater of political survival.

“At the moment, Erdoğan wields de facto power, which is driven by the sheer strength of his personality,” says Mr. Hakura. “But his personality will not be sufficient to maintain his hold on power in the longer term. If Erdoğan is unsuccessful in transforming Turkey into a presidential system, then he knows that the power struggles between himself, the parliament, and the prime minister will intensify.”

Price of prosperity

Erdoğan has been credited with ushering in an era of stability and broadening Turkey’s middle class. From 2002 to 2012, the economy grew five percent a year on average; per capita income nearly tripled. As foreign capital poured into the country, the AKP built hospitals, bridges, roads, and luxury malls. Social policies that previously only benefitted well-off Turks were revamped to address the needs of the poor.

Turkey’s cultural transformation has been equally dramatic, especially for the religious majority long oppressed by the secular old guard. Under the AKP, Islam ceased to be filtered from public life and a ban was lifted on wearing headscarves in state institutions.

For voters like Nusret Aksoy, an observant Muslim who owns several furniture shops in Istanbul, life under Erdoğan and the AKP has brought stability, prosperity, and unprecedented religious freedom.

“We used to be shunned because of our beliefs, but with Erdoğan, those dark days won’t return,” Aksoy says. “Many good things will come if people let the AK party work freely, but it needs more time. Thirteen years is not enough.”

But Erdoğan’s opponents worry that an electoral victory for the AKP would further erode democratic freedoms. Among a litany of complaints are his use of laws on terrorism and personal insult to stifle criticism; restrictions on the Internet and media; and the curbed independence of Turkey’s judiciary.

“If Erdoğan gets to change the constitution, it would mean an end to whatever freedoms we have left in Turkey,” says Tugrul Erturk, a teacher in Istanbul. “I’m sure the economy will be okay if the AKP wins the election, but I have no doubt that freedom of speech and democracy will get much worse.”

Numbers game

The AKP would need to secure two-thirds of the 550 seats in parliament in order rewrite the constitution unilaterally. With only 312 AKP lawmakers in parliament today, that supermajority of at least 367 deputies is looking out of reach. A more realistic option for Erdoğan's aspirations would be a referendum, requiring the backing of at least 330 deputies to bring a new constitution to a popular vote. 

Standing squarely in his path is the HDP, which is counting on newfound support beyond its traditional Kurdish base to propel it into Parliament for the first time.

If it secures at least 10 percent of the national vote, it will deny Erdoğan’s party a sufficient majority to change the constitution – and prevent any one party from being able to form a government alone. But if the HDP fails to enter parliament, the seats in the provinces it wins would go to the runner-up, the AKP, which traditionally draws the support of religious Kurds.

With Turkish opinion polls notoriously unreliable, voters are hedging their bets.

Deniz, a student at Galatasaray University, usually supports the secularist Republican People's Party, formed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. “This year I’m voting strategically to keep HDP above the threshold,” he says.

Erdoğan hopes to remain at the country’s helm until 2023, the 100th anniversary of Atatürk’s founding of the secular Turkish Republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

“Just as Ataturk shaped generations of Turks in his own secular image, Erdoğan wants to shape generations of Turks in his own image as a pious conservative Muslim,” says Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But it comes at the expense of a very split society, in which half of the country loves him and half of the country cannot stand him.”

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