Are the wheels starting to come off the Turkish wagon? The political stability and economic growth that have characterized Turkey since 2002 are beginning to fray at the edges just before critical general elections in June that could determine the country’s political direction for years to come.
These elections will go a long way to determining whether President Tayyip Erdoğan will achieve his goal of complete control or be hampered by the current constitutional restraints on the president’s power. He runs the risk of being politically and legally isolated in his extravagant new palace unless the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) wins enough seats to unilaterally change the constitution the way he wants. Not content with the current largely ceremonial role of president, Erdoğan desperately wants a new constitution to enshrine his vision of a powerful, unchecked, unfettered presidency.
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A toxic combination of international and domestic problems is making this task more difficult than it was just a few years ago. On top of this a growing sense of ‘Erdoğan fatigue’ seems to have gripped even some members of his own party. Maybe they’re getting tired of 12 years of bombast. How much longer is Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu going to put up with Erdoğan’s constant – and unconstitutional – interference? Furthermore, many rank-and-file AKP members have shown little enthusiasm for a change in Turkey’s governing structure.
In order to unilaterally change the constitution the AKP must increase its members of parliament from the current 316 to 330. This is not an easy task in the best of times, and these are not the best of times.
The AKP can no longer count on strong economic growth to support its election campaign. For several years the party would loudly trumpet the impressive growth figures and strong currency as confirmation of its ‘brilliant’ policies. Now it is reduced to finding excuses for below-forecast growth, a rapidly depreciating currency, declining exports, and stubbornly high unemployment.
The currency has depreciated more than 10% so far this year, unemployment has risen to 10% and is much higher in the volatile south eastern region, exports are declining, and president is hammering the Central Bank to lower interest rates. The cacophony and mixed signals over Turkey’s economic policies are making investors very nervous. The prime minister and his top economic aides were in New York last week in an apparently futile mission to calm these nerves.
This is very difficult to achieve when the president insists that the theoretically independent Central Bank lower interest rates in hopes of stimulating the economy and reviving the critical construction industry that has created so many millionaires during Erdoğan’s reign. Ali Babacan, the minister in charge of the economy for the last 12 years, understands finance and economics very well. He has done a masterful job keeping the country on the rails so far, but it remains to be seen just how long his rational policies will survive the onslaught of Erdoğan and his comical presidential ‘advisors’.
On top of the economic problems there are the Kurds. No one knows precisely how many Kurds live in Turkey, but common assumptions are about 15% of the total population, or roughly 12 million people. Kurdish guerrillas, the PKK, have been fighting a low-intensity war against the Turkish state for years. In an effort to end the violence and integrate the Kurdish population more completely into Turkish society the government has begun long, drawn-out ‘peace process’. While many applaud this effort, cynics accuse the government of simply trying to buy off the Kurds to gain votes in the upcoming election.
Regardless of the ultimate reason, the Kurds may well hold the key to the June election. Bear with me for a little background on the convoluted Turkish election system. In order to enter parliament a political party must gain at least 10% of the total votes cast. In the past the Kurdish political party did very well in the Kurdish districts of the south east, but failed to cross the 10% national barrier. In the event that a party fails to get the required 10% on the national level all that party’s votes are given to the runner-up in the districts in question. In the vast majority of cases this runner-up was the AKP candidate.
In order to circumvent this rule Kurdish candidates previously would enter the elections as independents who only had to win their districts to enter parliament. This time, however, the young, charismatic leader of the Kurdish Freedom and Democracy Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, has decided to risk everything by entering these elections as a party, subject to the 10% threshold. If he wins the Kurds will gain a powerful voice in parliament. If he loses the AKP will pick up several additional members of parliament – perhaps enough to take them over the 330 needed to change the constitution.
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The real question is whether Demirtaş can broaden the party’s appeal to the non-Kurdish segments of the population. He has been helped positive images of Kurds in Iraq and Syria defying the barbarians of ISIS. He may also get some help from what is left of the disaffected, alienated liberal bloc as well as from those who dislike Erdoğan so much they will vote for the Kurdish party. “My deepest apologies to my grandfather who is turning over in his grave, but I will vote for the Kurds this time. Just to block Erdoğan,” said a typical ‘tactical’ voter.
Turkey is in for a very bumpy ride until the June elections. Then we shall see if Erdoğan gets his heartfelt wish for an imperial presidency, or whether is left roaming around his enormous new palace looking vainly for something to fill his days.