It's make or break for Erdogan's AKP vs Turkey's opposition

It's make or break for Erdogan's AKP vs Turkey's opposition
Comment: No matter who is the victor, they will have to contend with the half, who will be bitter at any electoral defeat, writes Bashdar Ismaeel
5 min read
18 Jun, 2018
The vote was scheduled for November 2019, but Erdogan called a snap election [AFP]
Sensing a golden chance to consolidate power, give his leadership renewed legitimacy, and fast-track a new term under the executive presidency enshrined in last year's referendum, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan surprised the opposition in April by calling parliamentary and presidential elections 18 months earlier than planned.

In many ways, the current government is in a transitional phase, still waiting for the new executive presidency to emerge.

Riding high on the back of the Afrin offensive in Syria, ongoing operations against the PKK, Turkey's increasing regional assertiveness, and preempting a deepening economic downturn that would harm elections in late 2019, Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) seemingly predicted that the disparate Turkish opposition would fail to mobilise and pose a major threat.

However, after placing all of his eggs in the election basket, there are strong indications that a once disjointed opposition have attained a semblance of unity, causing uncertainty and even a potential triumph at the polls.

These elections are particularly significant, and have become a make or break moment for both the government and the opposition.

The fact that parliamentary and presidential elections are running side by side only raises the stakes, and opens the door to various electoral outcome scenarios. 

Erdogan remains by far the most popular figure in Turkey, but with the re-enegerised Turkish opposition led by Republican People's Party (CHP) candidate Muharrem Ince, parliamentary elections will be too close to call.

There are strong indications that a once disjointed opposition have attained a semblance of unity

Both electoral outcomes will be significant for Turkey. A majority for the AKP in parliament as well as Erdogan securing the presidential vote is the strong endorsement Erdogan craves to drive his domestic and foreign policies to the next level, and consolidate his power with new expanded presidential powers.

However, success for the opposition alliance in parliament coupled with a victory for Erdogan in the presidential polls is a formula for instability and infighting between an executive president with bigger say over parliament, and a parliament determined to derail the goals of a president.  

Another scenario is an AKP majority in parliament but victory for Ince as president that would also guarantee equal instability, indecisiveness and friction in Turkey. Parliament would be determined to bring the president down and undermine his credibility.

The main opposition candidate, Muharrem İnce is a former physics teacher and represents the
Republican People's Party (CHP) [AFP]

A more unlikely outcome with significant ramifications would be the opposition alliance winning both parliamentary and presidential polls. This would deal a severe blow to the AKP but much like the second scenario, would throw Turkey into a period of instability. The opposition have rallied around their hostility to Erdogan, and ideologically remain mostly divided, which would hamper a strong government.

Even if they lose, the AKP voter base will not remain or muted, and Erdogan will continue to wield a degree of power over the Turkish political landscape. In such a scenario, any hasty tit-for-tat moves by the opposition such as the purging of Erdogan loyalists, stifling pro-AKP media or turning the tables by using existing emergency powers against AKP, could risk a deeper and much more perilous polarisation.

Much depends on the sentiment around perceived economic health both now and the future, as well as the perception of Turkey's regional dynamic, including recent military action in Syria and Iraq, and the issue of millions of Syrian refugees who remain in Turkey. 

Then there are the usual factors, such as the current ascendency of Islamic values in politics versus the traditional secular foundations of the republic, the influential nationalist voter base, and not least the crucial Kurdish card that could sway the elections in either direction.

The ruling AKP and far-Right National Movement Party (MHP) Cumhur (People's) alliance are pitched against the Millet (Nation) alliance of the main opposition that includes CHP, the new nationalist IYI Party, the Islamist Felicity Party, and the centre-right Democrat Party.

The crucial Kurdish card could sway the elections in either direction

Each of the opposition groups has put forward their own candidate but with the alliance anticipating second round run-off, they are widely expected to unite behind Ince.

While not a formal part of the oppositional alliance, the Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) will have a major say in any opposition triumph.

While imprisoned HDP Presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, is unlikely garner enough votes in first round, his voter base will play a vital role in case of a second round face off between Erdogan and Ince.

The plight of the HDP and in turn the success of the AKP will hinge greatly on whether HDP can reach the 10 percent electoral threshold to enter parliament.

The split of votes in the Kurdish dominated areas is generally between the AKP and HDP, and if the HDP cannot achieve the threshold then this all but guarantees the AKP alliance the majority that they crave.

Much depends on the sentiment of the Kurdish voters with conservative Kurds traditionally voting for the AKP and nationalist, secular Kurds tending to vote for the HDP. It remains unclear how the renewed battle against the PKK, which has brought renewed bloodshed to the south east, and the military action against Syrian Kurdish forces in Afrin may have swayed voter sentiment.

With the importance of the Kurdish vote, it was no surprise that Diyarbakir has become a key battleground for Erdogan and Ince in their quest to woo Kurds. For the opposition, with the traditional AKP supporter base likely to remain firm, the nationalist and Kurdish votes are primary targets of any swing.

As with the national elections in 2015 and the presidential referendum in 2017, the margins are tight, highlighting the increasing polarisation of Turkey.

With dividing lines split so evenly, no matter who is the victor at the polls, they have to contend with the half who will be bitter at any electoral defeat, and determined to bring the other side down.

The result is likely to be disunity that will hinder Turkey as it tackles looming economic storms and regional fires.

Bashdar Ismaeel is a writer and geopolitical, energy and security analyst.

Follow him on Twitter: @BashdarIsmaeel

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.