Don’t Trust Anybody About Turkey’s Elections

The one thing that's clear about Erdogan's re-election bid is that everything is unclear.

By , the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
A large flag of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a campaign rally on June 19, 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
A large flag of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a campaign rally on June 19, 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

It seems like a very long time ago, but in the not-so-distant past, it was a safe bet to wager that either Gamal Mubarak or Omar Suleiman would follow Hosni Mubarak as president of Egypt. For that matter, Hillary Clinton is supposed to be starting the 18th month of her historic U.S. presidency. Brexit is not supposed to be happening. Colombians are supposed to be in favor of a peace agreement ending their war with the FARC. The New Turkey Party — founded in 2002 — was supposed to have saved Turkey from the financial crisis that had befallen the country in 2000 and 2001, but it only garnered about 1 percent of the popular vote in that year’s elections. Instead, another new party, called Justice and Development (AKP), scored enough support for a parliamentary majority — and the rest is, as they say, history. There are times when conventional wisdom is correct, but it is often cruel.

In the weeks leading up to Turkey’s elections on June 24, a narrative has taken hold that has become the conventional wisdom of the moment: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will fail to win more than 50 percent of the vote in the presidential election, forcing him into a second round, which he will win. However, his AKP will lose its control of the Grand National Assembly. These conclusions are based on polling, some excellent reporting from Turkey, and high-quality analysis from the policy community. The scenario is entirely plausible, but it should also be treated with caution. Erdogan has been working assiduously for almost seven years to realize the “executive presidency.” It seems quite unlike him to bow out gracefully.

In June 2015, the AKP won about 40 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections. By the standards of its competitors, that number was enviable, but for Erdogan and the AKP, it was a stunning loss. Not only did the party shed 9 percentage points of the popular vote, but it also lost 69 seats in the Grand National Assembly and thus its parliamentary majority. After many hours of silence from Erdogan’s palace, the president dutifully tapped the AKP’s then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to begin negotiations with other parties to form a coalition government within the constitutionally mandated 45 days.

Erdogan then went about doing everything possible to sabotage those talks. He continued the attacks he began during the campaign on the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, connecting the group to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which had been waging a war against the Turkish state since 1984. In response, the Peoples’ Democratic Party ruled out sitting in coalition with the AKP. At the same time, Erdogan’s advisors publicly questioned the viability of coalition negotiations in a not-so-subtle indication of the president’s preference for new elections. While Davutoglu was engaged in talks with other parties, Erdogan hammered away at the need for stability and reminded Turks of the weak coalition governments that plagued their country in the 1990s — a decade during which Turkey lurched from one crisis to the next.

Erdogan also got help from Kurdish terrorists who killed two policemen as they slept in the small town Ceylanpinar near the Syrian border, marking a return of the hot war between the PKK and the Turkish state. The killings and overwhelming response from Turkey’s security forces provided an opportunity for the president to burnish his counterterrorism and nationalist credentials while warning of the even greater price Turkey would pay under a coalition government. Against the backdrop of this violence, the leaders of the Nationalist Movement Party convinced themselves that because they picked up 27 parliamentary mandates in the June elections, they now had leverage over Davutoglu and the AKP — which had more than three times the number of seats — in coalition negotiations. The PKK’s violence and the Nationalist Movement Party’s incompetence allowed Erdogan to outmaneuver everyone on his nationalist flank.

[Turkey’s president has plenty of experience stealing elections — and Sunday’s vote is one he can’t afford to lose.]

Under these circumstances, Davutoglu never had a chance at forming a government. The former foreign minister, who championed himself as a great troubleshooter and master negotiator of the most intractable Middle Eastern conflicts, seemed a hapless puppet in Erdogan’s domestic game. New elections were organized for later that year, on Nov. 1, and when the official results were announced that evening, an aide to the president tweeted a photo of a relaxed looking Erdogan with a grin suggesting the self-satisfaction of having just pulled one over on millions of people. The AKP had regained all of the votes it had lost in June, along with its parliamentary majority.

About a year and a half later, Turks were asked to vote “yes” or “no” on a package of 18 constitutional amendments that, if enacted, would alter Turkey’s politics, doing away with the hybrid parliamentary-presidential system in favor of new arrangements that greatly enhanced the power of the presidency. Erdogan and the AKP prevailed, with “yes” winning 51.4 to 48.6 percent, but the referendum was not without significant controversy. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe charged that the whole process took place on an “unlevel playing field,” where the AKP camp’s “dominance in media coverage, as well as the media restrictions, reduced voters’ access to a plurality of views.” Also, in the midst of the vote, the Supreme Electoral Council ruled that ballots without the requisite official seal would still be counted as valid. This decision directly contradicted a previous AKP reform of Turkey’s laws designed to ensure the integrity of elections. Taken together, the “yes” campaign’s slimmer than expected victory, the extraordinary lengths the ruling party took to secure a win leading up to the vote, and the chicanery at the ballot boxes strongly suggest that Erdogan actually lost the referendum. Yet, as in the 2015 elections, the Turkish leader’s manipulation of the country’s political institutions allowed him to claim victory despite apparent defeat.

What happened in 2015 and 2017 should serve as cautionary tales for anyone trying to divine what might happen on Sunday. Re-running the 2015 elections was necessary for the AKP to retain a parliamentary majority so that it could devise the constitutional changes Erdogan desired to construct the executive presidency. Stealing the 2017 referendum was, in turn, about passing the amendments and giving them a veneer of legitimacy. This weekend’s parliamentary and presidential elections promise to put the executive presidency into action, further cementing Erdogan’s status as the most consequential Turkish leader of the last 80 years. Under the new system, if Erdogan is re-elected and the AKP retains its majority in the parliament, the president will enjoy unprecedented power to advance his transformation of Turkish society, undermining both the values — for good and bad — and the institutions of the republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded in 1923. Will Erdogan really let this moment slip from his grasp?

Erdogan and company seem to have overstayed their welcome after 15 years in power. The Republican People’s Party Muharrem Ince, who is drawing big crowds across Turkey, is articulating a positive alternative vision of the future — essentially a kinder, gentler Turkey, though one whose newfound generosity would not extend to the approximately 3.5 million Syrian refugees in the country — that is chipping away at the president’s previous invincibility. The economy is marking solid growth, but the lira has been in crisis for much of the spring, having lost 20 percent of its value in the first five months of 2018, adding to inflation, which increased 11 percent year-on-year. And in his effort to consolidate his personal grip on power, the Turkish president has alienated even political allies with his endless purge of opponents — real and imagined — leaving him with ever-smaller margins for error.

These real weaknesses have produced the conventional wisdom about Erdogan being forced into an embarrassing second round while AKP loses it majority. If there was ever a year to gamble against Erdogan, it would be this year. But it still may be a bad bet.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook