Turkey’s Election 2018 – Alan Makovsky, Center for American Progress, Senior Fellow, 22 June 2018

by on August 13, 2018

Turkey’s Election 2018
Alan Makovsky
Center for American Progress
Senior Fellow


Hello everyone. Our topic is the Turkish elections which will be held on June 24th, about 16 months ahead of schedule. Usually when we talk about elections, the first question that we ask is who is going to win. It’s a reasonable question. In this case we really have to ask a preliminary question. Will it be fair? Will it be free and fair? There is, unfortunately a lot of reasons to be suspicious that it might not be fair. Why is that? Basically, three reasons.

First of all, recent history. In April of last year, Turkey held a very significant referendum on thoroughgoing change of its constitution through a series of amendments which greatly empowered the Presidency far beyond what it had been before and abolishes the prime ministry and diminishes the power of parliament, although it does not totally eliminates parliament’s powers. The vote was very close, roughly 51,8 % was the winning total as officially reported but many people suspected that the vote was unfair, that it had passed because of fraud. Many unmarked ballots, unstamped ballots were counted, according to Turkish law only officially stamped ballots are supposed to count, nevertheless these unstamped ballots were counted, there were counter-arguments by the Turkish government as to why these votes were counted. But nevertheless there was a lot of suspicion about it. I would say this and I think it’s very important; Turkey has had its democratic problems over the years. But until the election last year, starting in 1950, Turkey had had more than twenty, almost two dozen, national, parliamentary and referendum elections and this was the first time in all those elections that the losing side said we lost because we were cheated. Of course there is always been issues of localized fraud, there have been local elections where the loser cried “faul”, but this is the first time in a national election, that that happened and there is concern that there will be a repeat of cheating in the upcoming elections.

Second of all, there is a new election law which in fact makes cheating, seems to make cheating much easier, by making it official that unstamped ballots in certain circumstances can count and also by limiting the monitoring that can be done by other parties. In fact, one of the reasons that early elections were called according to the Turkish opposition was so that they would have less time to train monitors. One political party said that it was planning to train 200.000 election monitors, now it only has time to train 50.000. And the access of those monitors will be limited.

Thirdly, there is the issue of the media environment. Turkey has been under emergency rule, something very akin to martial law, since the failed coup d’etat of July 2016. That means that president Erdogan can really do almost anything he wants and he has been doing that. He can limit the rallies that the opposition holds. One thing that is clear is that he overwhelmingly dominates the media. It’s hard to put a number on it but I don’t think anyone will quarrel with the idea that 90% of the media is a mouthpiece for President Erdogan and his supporters. So, for all of those reasons it’s not clear that the upcoming election will be fair.

Now, why would Erdogan want to cheat? Obviously, the reason is to win. But, those people who are expecting, who think that he is willing to cheat really cite two reasons. One is that he is power hungry, he is in power since 2003, his party won in 2002, he did not formally become the Prime Minister until 2003, then 2014 he became the President. The other reason is, since 2013, there have been corruption allegations swirling around him and his family and some of his supporters. Some people feel that if Erdogan should lose, his fate would be prison. And, therefore, he cannot let himself lose. People argue how much can he change, how much is he willing to change. I think most people agree that there could be significant cheating in rural areas and in the Kurdish dominated southeast, where there is a strong military presence. But most people feel there is a limit to how much he can cheat without being fully obvious.

Anyway, this is the environment in which the election is taking place. And what about the election itself? Let’s put aside the issue of fairness and let’s just look at what is about to happen, let’s assume it will be fair. This election is unique in Turkish history in terms of its mechanics and in terms of the political tactics being used. What do I mean by that. So, I mentioned that the referendum passed; at least legally it passed last April that brought in a new system of an empowered Presidency. There were several other changes related to it, one of them is that for the first time in Turkish history Turks will vote separately but on the same day for Parliament and for the President. The first direct presidential election in Turkey happened in 2014 when Erdogan was elected, before that the President was always elected by Parliament. However this is the first time that the presidential election and parliamentary election will be held on the same day. And constitutionally now, so long as the new amendments that were passed in the referendum last year are in place, that will be the case from here on in Turkey.

Let me say a word about those two elections. According to the polls they are both surprisingly close. Foreigners tend to look at Turkey from the outside and they see Erdogan and his party, the Justice and Development Party known as the AK Party in Turkish, as unassailably dominant in Turkish politics and governance. And that has been true. However, the opposition has never been so united as it is for this election.

Let’s look first at the presidential election. The rules are basically the same as the rules for the French presidency election. That is, in the first round there are multiple candidates, the top two candidates then face off against each other in a subsequent round with the winner becoming President. In 2014 the first direct presidential election in Turkey, Erdogan won in the first round with approximately 52% of the votes. Nobody is expecting him to win in the first round this time. It is a virtual certainty that he will finish first but it seems unlikely that he will get more than 50% in the first round. By the way, if you get more than 50% in the first round, it is over, there is no need for a second round. There are several other presidential candidates but in particular there are two very strong candidates who are also strong campaigners. Many people feel Erdogan is a very tough style of campaigning that he often just railroads over his opponents. At least two of his opponents have a very strong style of their own. One is Muharrem İnce, who is a center – left candidate for the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) which has for several elections now been finishing second to Erdogan’s party. The other candidate is Meral Akşener. She is originally from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), she broke away from it, has formed her own party (İyi Party), she is still somewhat finding her identity, but she is generally seen as nationalist, some people see her as more center-right. She is drawing some votes from the AKP voters according to the polls, some votes from her former party and some votes from Muharrem İnce’s center – left CHP. The big issue will be which of those two candidates finish second and will all of the opposition then support the candidate that finishes second in the following round assuming Erdogan fails to get 50% plus in the first round. That’s the real fight in the presidential election, it’s between the two opposition candidates. Now, there is a third opposition candidate of prominence who is running, his name is Selahattin Demirtaş. He is Kurdish, he leads the Kurdish dominated Kurdish HDP party – Peoples’ Democratic Party and he, like almost a dozen of his colleagues from his party have been arrested and he’s been in jail for over a year. He has announced that he is going to run for President from jail. He was a very impressive candidate for President in 2014 when he got just under 10% of the votes but really made a big splash in the Turkish media and showed that he was not frightened to go up against Erdogan. He will certainly get a lot of Kurdish votes but he will unfortunately not be able to campaign unless he gets a last minute reprieve that nobody is expecting.

On the parliamentary side of the election and this the second really unique feature of this year’s contest, we see two blocks running against each other. Historically, in Turkey parties run separately not as blocks. There is some exception here and there, where a couple of parties run as a block but basically parties run separately. This year, Erdogan and the nationalist party decided to run as a block. That is the nationalist MHP that I mentioned a few minutes ago from which Meral Akşener departed in order to form her own party and run for President. In response to the block that Erdogan and the nationalists forged the opposition, most of the opposition forged its own block. So, now this is just on the parliamentary side, I know this is complicated, but these are two separate elections happening on the same day. The opposition block consists of the center – left secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), the righter – center, more nationalist İyi Party (Good Party) that was formed by Meral Akşener, who broke away from the nationalist MHP, and there is a small conservative party called The Democrat Party and most surprising of all, the most religious party in Turkey is part of this block, is called Saadet Partisi (Happiness Party). Now, the ultimate odd couple in Turkish politics is to have the CHP, the highly secular party, that was actually founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, in a block together with Saadet Party which is the most religious party. On most issues these two parties are completely at loggerheads, can’t agree on the time of day. But there is one thing that these two parties, as well as Akşener’s party and the small Democrat Party do agree on and that is that Erdogan must go. And that the presidential system is bad and that they should try to take power and get rid of that. There is an ”X” factor here, the Kurdish party, the one that I said is led, by the way not formally led because he is in jail, but he is the face of the party – Selahattin Demirtaş. That Kurdish party is not part of either block. There may be a Kurdish block, but it is the dominant element. And, there is a trick to the Turkish parliamentary system, it was there before, it’s not new with this parliamentary election. In order to get into Parliament you need to get 10% of the vote. Otherwise, you get 9,99%, all those votes are wasted because your party doesn’t get in. The Kurdish party HDP did get in, in the last two elections, in last one just barely, it got between 10-11%. Most polls are showing that Erdogan’s block, AKP along with MHP, is not getting 50% of the vote. Now, that won’t matter, if HDP doesn’t get into Parliament, almost certainly Erdogan’s block will come in first. But will they have enough to have the majority in Parliament? And that will probably be determined by the success or failure of the Kurdish party to get more than 10%. Should the Kurdish party get in and ally itself with the opposition block and should they have a majority, they can create a lot of problems for whoever is President. Now it’s widely believed that under this new system Parliament has zero powers. So, it doesn’t really matters what happens. But that is not accurate. Again, we are assuming that the system is going to be applied fairly for these purposes of this discussion, so by what is on paper, by what is in the amendments that were passed in the referendum in April last year, Parliament does retain some very important powers. For one thing it can overrule any presidential decree. Another thing is, the President is not supposed to do any decree in an area where Parliament has already passed law. And third of all, there are certain powers in the constitution, such as the power to declare war, but others as well that are specifically reserved for Parliament. I don’t want to say that Erdogan’s party and his block, cannot win a majority of Parliament, they might. But the polls right now are not showing that.

By the way, I know this is complicated, let me try one more time. Let’s say Erdogan’s block gets 48% and the opposition block gets 40%, well, if the Kurds get 11% then the Kurdish party plus the opposition block will have 51% to Erdogan’s 48%. Now, seat distribution is complicated, but assuming it’s done proportionately, that will give the opposition along with the Kurds a majority over Erdogan’s party. If, however, Erdogan’s block gets 48%, the opposition block gets 40% and the Kurds let’s say get only 9% with the other votes scattered among various other small parties that are running, then Erdogan’s block wins 48% to 40% and all those votes for the Kurdish party are thrown out. And that would undoubtedly, yield a clear majority in Parliament for Erdogan’s party.

One other factor that I’ll mention. It seems there is a certain Erdogan’s fatigue in Turkey, even among his supporters. His early rallies have not revealed the same exuberant, let’s say, that he is traditionally enjoyed from his supporters. Still, it is odds-on that he will finish first in the first round of the presidential election and odds-on that his block will finish first with the most votes for parliament. The issue is, can the opposition in the presidential race keep him under 50% and then with all their votes coalescing defeat him in a second round. In Parliament the issue is again keeping Erdogan’s block under 50% and between the opposition block the four-party opposition block and the Kurdish party, can they get more votes than the AKP. Here is the ultimate dream scenario for the opposition that they win the parliamentary vote, that is that the opposition block plus the Kurdish party outpaces the Erdogan block, then two weeks later there will be a run off in the Presidency and they would then campaign saying, “Look, don’t vote for a guy who doesn’t have control of Parliament because there would be chaos”. So then they would urge that voters vote for Akşener or İnce, whichever of the two emerges as the run off candidate based on the idea that stability requires it. We will see, there are a lot of possibilities here, too many to talk about.

This is a very momentous election for Turkey. So, what are the issues in this election. The overwhelming issue, as it has been for many elections in Turkey, is Erdogan’s persona. Do people want this person who is been running Turkey since 2003 to continue to dominate to get another five year term? Which, by the way, under the new system could ultimately lead to fifteen more years of Erdogan. That is the dominant issue. But there are other issues. The economy, which traditionally has worked in favor of Erdogan and his party, has been stifling recently and the Turkish lira has dropped to an all time low against the dollar. And people are feeling that, and there is a lot of concern. The one saving grace for Erdogan and his party may be the people also do not have a lot of confidence in the economic stewardship skills of the opposition. Another big issue is education. A surprising number of Turks, even among those who vote for Erdogan’s party feel that Turkey has enough religious schools. The government’s policy of increasing the number of religious schools should come to a halt. But I would say that the two top issues, Erdogan’s persona and the economy, Erdogan is also hoping to score points from his recent invasion, anti – Kurdish, seen in Turkey as an anti – PKK, invasion of Syria.

One way or another this is going to be a momentous election. We know that there’s been increasing authoritarianism in Turkey. Certainly, since emergency rule started in July 2016, but even before that it started. And since July 2016 over 75.000 people have been arrested on charges somehow related to the coup or being Gulenists, the group that Erdogan accuses of being behind the coup. And about over 150.000 civil servants have been fired. This authoritarian trend will likely continue if Erdogan wins the Presidency and his party wins Parliament.

The second possibility is, if the opposition wins the Presidency and wins Parliament that would be an incredible result because it would mean the first time since 2002 that Erdogan and his party will not be governing. The third possibility is cohabitation. Erdogan wins the Presidency but the opposition has the majority in the Parliament or the opposition wins the Presidency defeating Erdogan, but Erdogan’s party, his block has the majority in Parliament. That would be a formula that would be a mess, because those in Parliament would be trying to block the President at every turn in that case. So I think this is a very momentous election coming up and it is very complicated, I tried to make it as clear as possible, there is much more that can be said but it is a highly important election in a highly important country. It is going to take place in a month and it is certainly merits are very close observation. Thank you very much.


See: The Strategic Culture of Turkey

See: Turkey’s Constitutional Referendum

See: Turkey at the Eastern Mediterranean Crossroads

See: Regional Security Videos