President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s name won’t appear on any of the ballot papers Turks will be presented with on November 1 but no one here doubts that the parliamentary elections — the second this year — will be dominated by Turkey’s controversial leader and his often-stated aim to grab more power for himself.
Opposition politicians claim that Erdoğan’s ego has dragged the country into yet another election. They say he purposely sabotaged the formation of a coalition government in June following voters delivering the country’s first hung parliament since 2002, making a snap election necessary.
His aides deny the charge but privately acknowledge that Erdoğan frowned on the very idea of cooperating with a coalition government.
Opposition parties are already casting the poll as a crucial test of the country’s democracy. As far as Erdoğan’s critics see it, the November election will be about how much power the president should be able to wield in the future.
That also was the main issue in the June election, one that undermined Erdoğan’s stated ambition to alter the constitution and turn Turkey’s ceremonial presidency into the real seat of authority. The failure of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to gain a majority of seats upset the Turkish leader’s aim to recast the country’s political system.
Another shot at constitutional changes
The June election result, widely seen as a body blow to the Turkish president, brought forecasts that his days were numbered. But Erdoğan has continued to show who’s boss, including by chairing cabinet meetings.
“Erdoğan expects that this time around, the Justice and Development Party will attain single-handed power in Parliament,” says commentator Mumtazer Turkone.
Or at least he is gambling the party can perform better.
To engineer a quick follow-up election, the first snap poll called in Turkey since 1923, Erdoğan blurred the line between executive and presidential authority and ensured the failure of coalition talks, allege his opponents. They point out it was Erdoğan who announced the repeat election, not his prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who as head of government should have done so.
“Erdoğan never fully embraced the result of the June 7 election,” Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), told lawmakers Tuesday. Speaking at a party meeting in Ankara, he added, “He explicitly denigrated all coalition efforts and threw a spanner in the works.”
Seeking a strong presidential system
Far from trying to shift the focus of the election, Erdoğan looks set for the Islamist-based AKP to run a campaign shaped around him. Last week, just before announcing the November election, he argued that Turkey’s government already has evolved into a de facto presidential system. He called for a constitutional framework to formalize the change.
“Whether it is accepted or not, Turkey’s system of government has changed. What needs to be done now is to clarify and confirm the legal framework of this de facto situation with a new constitution,” Erdoğan said.
He argues that a presidential system would be better equipped to cope with the challenges Turkey faces: from the civil war raging in neighboring Syria to the plunging lira and a worsening economy.
With rising political violence and the resumed insurgency by Kurdish separatists following Turkish airstrikes on their bases, the political stakes are even higher this time around than in June.
Polls results in doubt
Whether the AKP can claw back a majority in November remains uncertain.
Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Europe think tank, contends the AKP has a chance of winning back a simple majority but is unlikely to secure the three-fifths of seats needed to change the constitution.
New opinion surveys seem to bear out that prediction. A survey by the Sonar polling company earlier this month showed support for the AKP rising by 2 percent, but it would have to garner a bigger swing to steamroll later constitutional changes.
Since 1954, Turkish governments calling for early elections have lost in the polls. According to analysts, Erdoğan is banking on the instability and political violence to encourage voters to turn back to the AKP and embrace a forthright leader.
And, Erdoğan has been upping his angry rhetoric against all he deems as undermining Turkey — from domestic to external foes.
Opposition parties hope to engineer an electoral backlash by persuading Turks that their president has been stoking violence to scare the voters into supporting him.
To his critics, Erdoğan responded this week that he knows the scope of his authority and warned he would “use my powers all the way.”