The Raised Stakes of Turkey’s Do-Over Election

By Gönül Tol | Director of the Center for Turkish Studies - The Middle East Institute | Oct 30, 2015
The Raised Stakes of Turkey’s Do-Over Election

The Turkish electorate is going to the polls on Sunday for the second time in just over five months. After 13 years in power, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to secure enough votes in June to form a majority government. In the hope another vote could deliver a parliamentary majority to his party, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for snap elections. But polls indicate that Erdogan might not get what he wants. A survey released last week by the Gezici polling firm put the AKP at 41.3 percent, which would give it 262 of the 550 seats in parliament, 14 short of a majority.[1]

This would be a nightmare scenario for Erdogan. At stake are not just his plans to continue his de facto presidential rule through the AKP government, concentrating power in his office, but his inner circle, including his son Bilal, are facing threats of corruption investigations from opposition parties. The corruption scandal broke on December 17, 2013, when businessmen close to Erdogan—who was then prime minister—and three ministers' sons were detained and video recordings were released in which Erdogan could allegedly be heard telling his son to urgently get rid of tens of millions of dollars. Erdogan has cast the corruption investigations as part of an attempted "judicial coup" by U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally who wields influence in the police and judiciary. Prosecutors have dropped the case but opposition parties seem determined to continue to pound the AKP on what would be the largest corruption case in Turkey’s history. The AKP’s most natural coalition partner, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), even made reopening the case one of its preconditions for entering into a coalition with the AKP after the June election.

With the stakes so high for him and his family, Erdogan will do anything to prevent a coalition that sees his power checked or corruption allegations reopened. Should the AKP miss a majority by a narrow margin, Erdogan might ask the AKP to form a minority government that would have to rely on support from opposition parties to pass individual pieces of legislation or recruit MHP lawmakers into the AKP to fill the AKP’s shortage of seats to form a majority government.

But the country, which is more polarized than ever, desperately needs a coalition, preferably with the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), in order to address the pressing challenges it faces and ease its mounting societal tensions. The stakes for Turkey are higher than they are for Erdogan’s family. Turkey is mired in a two-front war against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Islamic State  (ISIS).

A three-year cease-fire between Turkey and the PKK broke down in July after ISIS killed 33 Kurdish and Turkish activists in a suicide bombing in Suruc, a small town on the Turkish-Syrian border. Many Kurds in Turkey, including the PKK, blamed the ruling AKP, long perceived as actively supporting ISIS against the armed Kurdish opposition in Syria. Following the murder of two Turkish policemen by PKK militants in retaliation for the Suruc bombing, the government launched airstrikes on PKK targets in northern Iraq and Turkey. In response, the PKK resumed attacks on security forces. Hundreds of Kurds suspected of links to the militant group were detained in nationwide sweeps. Several politicians from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have been detained on charges of “promoting terror and inciting hatred.” The HDP’s offices have been burned down by Turkish nationalists, some linked to the AKP, Kurdish workers have been attacked, and hundreds of civilians have died in clashes between security forces and the PKK since then, putting an end to the fledgling peace process started in 2012.[2]

After several years of turning a blind eye to ISIS operations within its borders, Turkey has now woken up to the reality that ISIS poses a great danger to its national security. The Islamic State carried out several attacks within a matter of few months in Turkey. A bomb exploded in Suruc near the Syrian border killing at least 28 people and wounding nearly 100 more in July.[3] In October, ISIS killed more than 100 people in Ankara in what has been considered to be the deadliest terrorist attack in Turkey’s history.[4] With well-established ISIS networks inside major Turkish towns and thousands of Turkish nationalists joining the Islamic State, Turkey is more vulnerable to jihadi terrorism than ever.

The Turkish lira’s fluctuation against the dollar due to political uncertainty, the economy’s teetering on the edge, rising intra-societal tension and polarization, and the chaos on its doorstep are all compounding Turkey’s troubles. Most worrisome of all, however, is how Turkey’s institutions have crumbled under the AKP. The central bank is under attack for failing to heed the government’s populist demands. Elections are still relatively fraud-free, but the supporting institutions have been eroded.

The media are as constrained as during military rule.[5] An Istanbul mob that included an AKP deputy launched an assault against the daily newspaper Hürriyet. Pressure on journalists, including physical attacks, has risen further. Several Turkish journalists have been fired from their newspapers for covering the clashes in Kurdish towns. In the past month, four foreign reporters have been detained while covering the Kurdish conflict. Opposition news organizations have been raided, and some of their staff are on trial on terrorism charges. Court cases have been opened against many more on the grounds of “insulting the president.”[6]

With AKP loyalists in top posts, the judiciary has lost the little independence it had, becoming an instrument of the ruling party to silence and punish its political opponents.[7] An AKP victory that delivers the ruling party a parliamentary majority would certainly exacerbate these worrisome trends. However, should the electorate deny the AKP that majority, opposition parties, especially the CHP, have to do their best to form a coalition—no matter how difficult it proves—with a reluctant and ever nervous Erdogan.