People in Turkey are beginning to think the previously unthinkable. President Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that have dominated every election since 2002 may actually fall far short of their goals in the national elections scheduled for June. At this early stage it appears very difficult for AKP to get enough deputies to give Erdoğan his long-sought powerful, unchecked presidency. There is even a chance that for the first time in its history AKP will fail to get enough deputies to establish a government by itself. And, perhaps most important, for the first time I can remember the Kurds seem to hold the trump card for this election.
AKP, despite its almost total control of the broadcast media, is suddenly on the defensive. Party leaders have to explain away a sharply deteriorating economy. Erdoğan even has to concede the possibility of a coalition by saying such an outcome would be a ‘nightmare, the end of Turkey.’ Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was forced to copy the opposition’s opening to Turkey’s dwindling number of minorities by making sweeping promises to the Roma community. He even went so far as to say that AKP candidates include members (unnamed at this point) of the Alevi community, a branch of Islam considered heretical by the majority Sunni AKP.
What has changed since the humiliating debacle of the presidential elections last summer when Erdoğan’s opponents couldn’t be bothered to get off their sunbeds in the holiday resorts to vote? Voter participation in that election fell to about 74%, the lowest level in 12 years. The apathy and incompetence of the opposition allowed Erdoğan to win just enough votes on the first ballot to win. What gives Erdoğan’s growing number of opponents the nervous, the very cautious hope that just maybe this time is different?
In addition to the fatigue factor involved in listening to Erdoğan’s inflated bombast for so many years, the economy on which he based much of his political success is sliding rapidly downhill. The Turkish lira has lost almost 16% this year, and now trades close to a record low. GDP growth has stalled, inflation is up, unemployment has climbed to about 11%, and foreign direct investment has slowed down dramatically. Some voters are beginning to make the connection between the AKP’s policies and the economic decline. The AKP swept into power on the back of an economic collapse, and some people are openly repeating an old Turkish saying, ‘They will go as they came.’
Then there are the political mistakes that the usually sure-footed AKP has made. In hindsight, the first mistake may have been Erdoğan’s decision to run for president. This decision could wind up isolating him in his new, huge presidential palace. The Turkish presidency is largely a ceremonial position with limited political power. The president is supposed to be above partisan politics and refrain from active involvement in government affairs. Erdoğan of course paid no attention to these constitutional constraints, and was deeply involved in all facets of party and government work. In order to justify these constitutionally questionable activities he was counting on the AKP winning enough deputies to change the constitution and implement a system with a politically powerful, unchecked presidency. This possibility opened cracks within the usually solid AKP. Several leading member of the party oppose his interference and the strong presidential system. They have made no secret of their opposition. The party also stuck with a rule limiting MPs to three terms in parliament. This meant that many experienced AKP deputies are being replaced on the candidate lists with novices unknown by voters.
Another challenge facing AKP is a revitalized opposition. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) has emerged from its usual torpor to run a vigorous campaign with some decent positive ideas rather than relying simply on the ‘anti-Erdogan’ vote. But the biggest surprise is the emergence of the predominantly Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) led by the young, charismatic Selahattin Demirtaş.
In order to cross the barrier of winning 10% of total votes he has to extend the party’s vote beyond its traditional regional, Kurdish base. There are some signs that he is doing this. For one thing, he has a good chance of getting the votes of Turkey’s small, but vocal, liberal/intellectual constituency. This group used to vote AKP in protest against the military and authoritarian tendencies of earlier governments. Now that AKP has become even more authoritarian, this block of votes is looking for a new home. Another point is that the Kurds in general have won a great deal of sympathy for their struggle against the brutal, fundamentalist hordes of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Even my stalwart CHP friends are talking of switching their votes to
HDP. “I am definitely voting for him (Demirtaş), and I am telling all my friends to vote for him or I will beat them around the head and shoulders,” exclaimed one Istanbul matron waving her arms in a threatening manner. Dinner party conversations in smart Istanbul homes are dominated by animated opinions about the Kurds. “You must vote them,” cry most. “I will never vote for terrorists,” others insist.
Others claim there is a risk HDP will do a deal with AKP if it gets into parliament. In return for getting greater cultural and perhaps political autonomy, the argument runs, the Kurds would support Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions. “Rubbish,” responds Demirtaş. Every chance he gets he repeats that HDP will never support AKP.
HDP would have an immense impact on Turkish politics if it can cross the 10% the barrier. For one thing, Erdoğan’s presidential hopes would disappear. More than that, HDP could conceivably get enough MPs to force a coalition government for the first time since 2002. This possibility alone is making AKP very nervous. In this case even AKP’s rock-solid voter base of about 40% may not be enough to let them form a single-party government. No wonder Erdoğan is throwing all constitutional constraints aside and campaigning hard for his political life.