The plots and sub-plots in the Turkish general election scheduled for June make this one of the most interesting and, undoubtedly, the most important election for years. The stakes are very high. The outcome will determine the course of this large, important country’s domestic and international policies that seem to have lost direction over the last few years.
The over-riding issue, as always, is President Tayyip Erdoğan, the man who has dominated Turkish policy for more than a decade. Erdoğan became Turkey’s first elected president last summer, and he desperately wants to transform that office into a strong executive presidency with limited parliamentary over-sight. The major road block to such a transformation is the existing constitution that puts the president above party politics and limits his role largely to ceremonial duties. Erdoğan, never one for constitutional niceties, has intervened heavily in government affairs and was active in selecting candidates for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
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In order to change the constitution the AKP must increase its seats in parliament from 316 to 330. This has suddenly become difficult to achieve. For one thing, Erdoğan’s continued interference in the government has alienated many in his own party who are highly sensitive about anyone interfering in their parliamentary rights. This block of senior AKP officials, notably Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arınç, has made no secret of its opposition to the idea of a strong president with limited or no checks and balances. This feud between the old guard and the sycophantic Erdoğanistas could turn off many who used to vote for AKP. Few people doubt that AKP will wind up with the most deputies. But the real question is whether they will get enough to give Erdoğan his desired one-man rule. As one commentator put it perhaps the best outcome for stability is one where AKP continues to control parliament, but Erdoğan fails to get his one-man rule.
In addition to the intra-AKP issues, the most surprising development of this election season is the emergence of invigorated opposition parties. Even the venerable, sclerotic Republican People’s Party (CHP) has shown surprising innovation. Candidates in several of the party’s districts were chosen through a primary election system rather than simply being tapped by the party leaders. This led to the unexpected victory of several new faces over the tired re-treads that had dominated the CHP for years. The CHP list now includes an outspoken Turkish-Armenian woman as well as a representative of the Roma (gypsy) community. Any increase in CHP’s vote share would put a serious dent in Erdoğan’s plans.
However, the real key to this election is not the AKP or the CHP. It’s the Kurds who appear to hold the trump card. With their young, charismatic leader Selahattin Demirtaş, the Kurdish party (HDP) is making a bold move beyond its traditional base to become a national party. It has positioned itself as the most inclusive party in Turkey in its effort to get over the barrier of 10% of the national vote required to enter parliament. It has selected as one of its candidates a German-born Yazidi woman. The Yazidis are mainly in northern Iraq and practice an ancient religion that has superficial similarities to Islam but is vastly different. The Yazidis have been in the news recently because of their brutal treatment at the hands of ISIS. Anyone who would like to learn more about the remnants of these ancient religions should read Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, Journeys Into The Disappearing Religions Of The Middle East by Gerard Russell. Given the complicated mathematics of the Turkish election system, if Demirtaş can lead his party over the 10% barrier Erdoğan’s chances of getting enough parliamentary seats would just about disappear.
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Then there is also the intriguing question of former president Abdullah Gül. What exactly, if anything, is he up to? Since leaving office last summer and being dramatically snubbed by the AKP party he helped to found, Gül has played a very cautious game. He has made no secret of his dislike for the strong presidential system, and he has always portrayed himself as the ‘soft’ side of AKP in contrast to the shrill, divisive, bombast of Erdoğan. But he has been careful to avoid any public confrontation with his former colleague. There is quite a bit of speculation that he is very active behind the scenes, gathering support in the event Erdoğan fails in his attempt to change the constitution. If that happens, according to current speculation, he will return and try to take control of the AKP. In this event, Erdoğan would be well and truly isolated in his ridiculous new palace. Gül would make sure that Erdoğan sticks to his extremely limited constitutional role.
It is very, very difficult to see Erdoğan gracefully, or any other way, accepting such a role. How can a man who has dominated every aspect of Turkish life for so long retire to the warm milk and slippers of a figure-head president? It simply does not compute. Turkey has been rocked by several violent incidents in recent weeks. Many people think this is a dangerous prelude as political passions get played out in the streets in the run-up to the most critical election in recent Turkish history.
However, despite all the noise and chaos of this election campaign, it is heartening to see that at least one country in this troubled region has a vibrant democratic streak that will not be suppressed. Even if Erdoğan gets his way with the constitution, it’s hard to see him stuffing this democratic genie back into the bottle.