Erdoğan calls elections at the peak of his power

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s surprise announcement today of snap elections, to be held 16 months earlier than scheduled, is an indication that he seeks to cement his domination of Turkish politics and society before a weakening economy or a revived opposition can stop him.

Erdoğan is already president, and due to an ongoing State of Emergency already enjoys wide-ranging powers. However due to a 2017 change to the Turkish constitution, if he is re-elected in June he will win a new five year term with considerably expanded formal authority.  The position of prime minister is to be eliminated, for example, and Erdoğan will gain greater control over the parliament and in certain cases the right to simply legislate by decree.

Creating and assuming this super-presidency has been Erdoğan’s ambition for at least the last five years. Victory is an existential necessity for Erdoğan. Given grave accusations of corruption against him and his family—some substantiated by sworn testimony in a U.S. federal court—maintaining his hold on power at the very least keeps Erdoğan out of jail. Thus, while Erdoğan certainly wants a major victory at the ballot box to legitimate his political project, there should be no illusions that this election will be fair or even free.

By calling snap elections for June 2018, Erdoğan is signaling that he believes his support has peaked. He might also be worried that Turkey’s economic problems might begin to worsen soon and cost him votes if the election happens amid a downturn – in recent months the value of the lira has dropped dramatically, the Turkish government’s credit rating has been downgraded and several large firms have moved to restructure their debt.  

Another reason Erdoğan might feel comfortable proceeding with early elections is that all meaningful opposition is currently under control. The entire leadership of the predominantly Kurdish HDP, one of the country’s four main parties, has been held in pre-trial detention for over a year, and the main opposition party, the CHP, has been repeatedly threatened with legal action.

Just a day before the election announcement, Turkey’s national security council rubberstamped for the seventh time an extension to the state of emergency—through July 2018—that gives the government and loyal security forces wide-ranging powers to punish and intimidate rivals.

Moreover, it was just last month that the last remaining relatively independent media company was sold to a close associate of Erdoğan. It will be impossible, therefore, for opposition political parties to compete on a level playing field. And even if they do have a strong showing, Erdoğan has a history of either manipulating or ignoring unfavorable electoral outcomes.

The announcement of snap elections should also dispel any remaining illusions that U.S. policymakers have held on to about their ability to work cooperatively with Turkey. In his desire for victory, Erdoğan has played to his base by fueling anti-Western sentiment and has been quick to capitalize on the nationalist sentiment inspired by Turkey’s recent invasion of Afrin.

 Whether it is negotiations for the release of Pastor Brunson or attempts to defuse Turkish threats against U.S. troops in the Syrian city of Manbij, U.S. officials need to understand that Erdoğan’s decision between now and June will be driven solely by the necessity of winning at the ballot box. Unfortunately, in the virulently nationalistic political atmosphere Erdoğan has created, anti-American, anti-Kurdish, irredentist and defiant policies play better than compromise and cooperation.

Nor should the United States expect a significant change in Erdoğan’s posture after the election. Though Erdoğan may have very personal motives for keeping his grip on power, he also has an ideological vision of a “new Turkey” that he hopes to pursue from a newly empowered presidency.

In the run-up to the June election, the United States and European Union should focus on calling out Turkey’s erosion of rule of law, media freedom, and civil rights. They should also offer their full support to civil society groups in Turkey, particularly those engaged in electoral monitoring. The prospects for Turkey’s opposition are grim, but Washington has little to lose by taking a principled stand.