Nate Schenkkan
Jun 01 2018

Turkish opposition has narrow but real chance of winning elections

It has been a surprisingly engaging campaign period since snap elections were announced in Turkey six weeks ago.

First, the extremely short timeline for staging elections on June 24 drew attention to the possibility that Turkey’s well-documented economic troubles might be even severe than publicly understood. That suspicion seemed confirmed when a disastrous trip by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to London, including an interview with Bloomberg where he scoffed at the independence of the central bank, led to a run on the lira.

Decisive action by the bank after days of waffling has stemmed the tide for now, but the panic cost Erdoğan a week’s worth of news cycles, and forced him to retreat from his rants against international speculators lest he spark another run.

Second, “the opposition” - meaning the extremely diverse parties opposed to Erdoğan’s consolidation of power - have finally shown some imagination and ingenuity in strategy and in tactics. The CHP selected a candidate who can actually campaign in Muharrem İnce, giving a public hungry for new voices a witty, aggressive speaker who is challenging Erdoğan on his own terms.

The varied voices of other party leaders have contributed their own attack lines against the president. The secularist CHP also allowed several of its members to switch parties in parliament in order to permit the Good Party, a splinter of Erdoğan’s far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) allies, to run for parliament. The CHP then formed an unlikely coalition with the nationalist Good Party, the Islamist Saadet Party, and the centre-right Democrat Party.

While the latter two parties gather few votes, the coalition takes advantage of an electoral change the AKP created to benefit itself and its parliamentary partner the MHP, which allows for electoral coalitions to pull smaller parties across the 10 percent threshold. Forming a broad coalition allows the opposition to harvest as many seats as possible rather than having them wasted below the threshold.

Third and just as importantly, the coalition has shown that opposition forces are willing to set aside their differences and focus on Erdoğan and the AKP. Unifying forces has simplified the opposition message, focusing voter attention on the simple question of change or no change. Erdoğan is finally in the uncomfortable position of being forced to defend the status quo he is more responsible for than any other person in Turkey, instead of claiming the mantle of the underdog.

All of this has led to a fevered sense that maybe this time is different, and the long winning streak of Erdoğan and the AKP is finally going to come to an end, ushering in a chance to end the state of emergency and begin rolling back the party’s flagrant state capture.

The excitement is premature, but it is not unreasonable. “The opposition” - meaning the extremely diverse parties opposed to Erdoğan’s consolidation of power - can win, but only by treading a very narrow path to success that requires skill, luck, daring, and probably some restraint from the authorities.

Erdoğan and the AKP, on the other hand, still have a wide path to success that is largely within their own power to control. The legal, political, and media system that Erdoğan has been building provide enormous in-built advantages that he can use to ensure a favourable outcome, especially in the presidential election, where the advantages of incumbency are even stronger.

The brute fact of the new system is that the presidency matters far more than the parliament. The president forms the government under the new constitution, not the parliament. There will be no prime minister in the new system; the president will choose his ministers and vice presidents, will chair the National Security Council, will have increased judicial appointment powers, and will be able to issue decrees with the force of law.

If push came to shove, I believe the president could even run the country without an AKP-MHP majority in parliament, but more likely is that the president’s powers would allow him to pick off opposition members by offering them government positions or similar incentives.

Nonetheless, there is a good chance that the opposition can take Erdoğan to a second round, considering available polling data and an intelligent opposition strategy focusing on maximizing the number of candidates eligible to run. Anyone can vote for any opposition candidate in the first round if the goal is to keep Erdoğan under 50 percent.

In the second round, then, the opposition must be ready to form a united democratic front. This will mean not just a tactical truce like we have seen so far, but also a willingness to unite behind a single candidate on an anyone-but-Erdoğan basis. It is hard to imagine anyone other than Muharrem İnce coming in second in the first round and representing the opposition. Everyone will need to vote their heart in the first round, and their head in the second.

Even a majority in parliament would be a major success for the opposition. For one, it would give momentum to the necessary united democratic front in the second round, signalling to other voters that they should rally around the winning side. But even if the opposition cannot win the presidency, a parliamentary majority would provide a chance to challenge the government and escalate the confrontation with Erdoğan from a position of democratic, institutional, and international legitimacy. Moreover, it would send an important signal to the rest of the world not to give up on Turkey.

The only way this can happen is if the HDP clears the 10 percent threshold to enter parliament. Leaving the HDP out of the opposition electoral coalition was presumably necessary to ensure the participation of the Good Party and of nationalist elements in the CHP, but it has made winning parliament enormously more difficult. The HDP has won more than 10 percent of the vote in the last two elections (three if you count the August 2014 presidential vote), but the situation is markedly different than it was then.

The HDP and its sister party the DBP have been relentlessly persecuted for the last three years, with thousands of members and around a dozen MPs arrested, and its charismatic leader held in pre-trial detention and unable to campaign. The after-effects of the fighting in the southeast in 2015 and 2016, including the displacement of large numbers of HDP voters and a continued heavy security presence, as well as state of emergency and new electoral provisions allowing the relocation of ballot boxes, will make it harder to turn out the vote.

Turkey’s threshold remains offensively high by any standard of a functioning democracy, and ensures that the seats of any parties unable to take 10 percent nationally are redistributed in favour of the leading vote getter. With the AKP-MHP coalition sure to win a plurality of votes, if the HDP fails to clear the threshold, the biggest gains will go to them. If the HDP does clear it, on the other hand, opposition parties could have a numeric majority, and the opposition would have a chance to form a parliamentary united democratic front that includes the HDP.

The coming elections are more interesting than they have any business being, proving again how pluralistic Turkey is, and how resilient its people are in demanding democracy. For the opposition to win, the first priority should be getting the HDP into parliament, and the second should be uniting behind a single candidate in the second round of the presidential election.