Turkey's early elections conundrum

Turkey will hold early elections on June 24 this year, instead of the scheduled time of November 2019. The first step for this change came, out of the blue, from Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). He said during the weekly meeting of his parliamentary party that elections should be held in August “in order to foil the plans of those who bet on chaos”.

Two hours after this statement, there was the meeting of the ruling party’s members of parliament. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, ignoring Bahçeli’s proposal of early elections, mentioned three times in his speech that the elections would be held, as scheduled, in 2019. This statement cleared, at least for one day, speculations arising from Bahçeli’s proposal.

Rumours said that as Erdoğan was getting ready to deliver his speech, his staff brought to his attention Bahçeli’s statement and asked whether they should adjust the text in the prompter accordingly, but that he refused.

After the meeting of his parliamentary party, Erdoğan said he had a scheduled meeting with Bahçeli the day after and that they would discuss this issue. After meeting Bahçeli the next day, Erdoğan announced elections would be held on June 24, even earlier than what Bahçeli had proposed. This was a big surprise.

Some observers wondered whether the entire set of statements were parts of a pre-arranged scenario. Irrespective of this possibility, speculation is still ongoing regarding the possible motives of this surprise decision. The most likely reason is that the government wanted to prevent opposition parties making alliances and getting organised for the elections.

The second reason is the economy. The fragility of Turkey’s economy continued unabated. For the first time in a long time, unemployment and inflation rates reached double digit figures. Thirdly, Meral Akşener, a former interior minister, who was expelled from the MHP, established a new party called the Good Party. The establishment of this party made both Bahçeli and Erdoğan unhappy, because it was going to erode the MHP’s electoral chances. Despite many efforts to prevent the Good Party flourishing, it has fared fairly well.

The announcement of early elections is perceived by the opposition parties as an acknowledgement by the government that alarm bells have started to ring over the difficulties the country is likely to face. Despite their optimistic statements to the effect that they are ready for early elections, almost none of the opposition are as prepared as the ruling party.

There are abundant indications that the ruling party has been preparing for early elections for several months: It replaced poorly performing mayors including that of Istanbul and Ankara and the heads of many local branches of the party. Measures were taken to revitalise the economy. It is debatable whether the opposition parties noticed these developments and prepared themselves.

Two important factors will likely affect the outcome of the elections: One was whether the former president, Abdullah Gül, was going to put himself forward as candidate for the presidency. After a visit by the top brass and Erdoğan’s chief advisor, Gül announced that he would not stand as a candidate.

Second were the problems of the Good Party to become eligible for participating in the elections. It had to establish party branches in at least in 41 provinces. The establishment of the provincial branches means establishing local branches of the party in at least in one-third of the districts of that province. The Good Party fulfils this criterion.

The second criterion is to have at least 20 seats in parliament. The Good Party had only five. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), came up with a creative solution to help the Good Party to fulfil this second criterion: 15 parliamentarians resigned from the CHP and joined the Good Party. Some observers characterised this as the return of common sense to Turkey’s political life. We will soon see whether this initiative will change the political landscape in Turkey.