Turkish democracy’s last stand

Turkey goes to the polls on Sunday in an early election to choose a president and legislature, although a runoff will be held two weeks later for the presidency if no candidate wins a majority this time.

This is possibly the most important election the world will see in 2018. As I said when it was called, “If Turkish democracy has a last chance, this is it.”

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first elected as prime minister in 2003, is seeking re-election to what is now a much more powerful presidency, as a result of last year’s controversial constitutional change. He is favorite to win, but no certainty: polls mostly show him falling short of a first-round majority, and prevailing by only a few points in the second round.

Last time around, in 2014 – when the presidency was still nominally a ceremonial position, although Erdoğan’s ambitions were already clear – he won 51.8% of the vote against two opponents.

But a lot has happened in Turkey since then. In June 2015, the opposition parties unexpectedly won a majority in parliamentary elections. But they failed to agree upon forming a government, leading to a second election, in November, at which Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) recovered its majority.

Then in July 2016 a failed military coup gave Erdoğan the excuse to accelerate his drive towards authoritarian rule. A state of emergency was declared, press freedom was restricted and numerous journalists, intellectuals and opposition politicians were arrested.

In this climate, and with widespread claims of ballot rigging, the constitutional referendum of April 2017, establishing a powerful presidency with full separation of powers, was carried with just 51.4% of the vote. This week’s election is the last link in the chain. If Erdoğan wins, there is unlikely to be another democratic election in Turkey for a considerable time.

Erdoğan faces five opponents for the presidency, but the chief one is Muharrem İnce, from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) – the main opposition party, broadly centre-left, secular and nationalist. İnce is reportedly a dynamic speaker, rousing the CHP’s base but also reaching beyond it to religious voters who have traditionally supported the AKP.

Two other candidates have significant support: Meral Akşener, representing the İyi party, an anti-Erdoğan breakaway from the old right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP); and Selahattin Demirtaş, of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), who has been detained since November 2016 and is therefore campaigning from prison.

Rounding out the field are Temel Karamollaoğlu, from the Islamist (but anti-Erdoğan) Felicity Party, and Doğu Perinçek, from the far-left Patriotic Party.

For the legislative election, to fill the 600 seats in the Grand National Assembly, there are three players: the government People’s Alliance (AKP plus MHP), the opposition Nation Alliance (CHP plus İyi plus Felicity), and the HDP, which is running separately but would unquestionably co-operate with the opposition against Erdoğan.

A new law allows for parties to win seats as long as the alliance they are members of passes the 10% threshold, even if their own vote is well short of that. This was designed to rescue the pro-Erdoğan faction of MHP, but it will also help Felicity, which would never have reached the threshold on its own but may now draw some of the Islamist vote away from the AKP.

Voting is proportional (D’Hondt) within each of 87 districts. Although opinion polls must be treated with some scepticism in a country like Turkey, they suggest that the opposition parties have a better than even chance of winning a majority.

The main threat to their position is the risk that the HDP could fall below the 10% threshold: Erdoğan’s government will be putting considerable effort into suppressing turnout in the Kurdish areas in the hope of achieving just that. (In November 2015 they scraped in with 10.8%.)

If Erdoğan is re-elected but his opponents have a legislative majority, no-one knows what will happen. Even under a parliamentary regime, the president has been impatient of constitutional restraint; he is even less likely to be in a co-operative frame of mind under the new arrangements, and the opposition would be hampered by its extreme ideological diversity. Turkish democracy, or what’s left of it, could be in for a rough ride.

But because the legislature will all be elected on Sunday, the argument from instability may work in the opposition’s favor. If they win a majority, and the presidential election goes to a second round, there will be considerable pressure to support the candidate (namely İnce) who could work with the new legislature, rather then set up a constitutional deadlock by re-electing Erdoğan.

The rise and fall of Turkish democracy over the last 20 years has been a gripping tale. Sunday is the chance for Turkish voters to write a bright new chapter, if only they are allowed to.

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