Erdogan's Election in Turkey. Interview with Soli Özel
By Institut Montaigne
Originally - or legally - scheduled for November 2019, the Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections will finally be held on 24 June, in a particularly tense domestic and international context. After years of undisputed and overarching power, President Erdogan now finds himself weaker than ever. Soli Özel, professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul and Visiting Fellow at Institut Montaigne, shares his insight on these elections’ implications.
It seems that the election campaign turned out to be more difficult than expected for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In the end, how did he manage? Is his power reinforced?
The election campaign certainly turned out to be more difficult for President Erdogan than he would have imagined. The difficulties are twofold:
- The simpler one is that his partner in the People’s Alliance (Cumhur), the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), turns out to be a lot weaker than he expected. Furthermore, the votes the MHP may bring cannot compensate for the Kurdish votes that were lost. Indeed, the AKP won almost half of the Kurdish votes in the past. Yet the alliance with the MHP - the political nemesis for most Kurds -, the language used during the referendum for independence in the Kurdistan Regional Government, and finally the codename “Olive Branch” given to the Turkish military intervention in Syria to take the province of Afrin, reportedly alienated many conservative Kurds who have been loyal supporters of Erdogan and AKP.
- However, President Erdogan is mostly disappointed because the opposition turned out to be more imaginative, determined and nimble than anybody would have expected, based on past performance. It is quite clear that the decision to call elections early and in little time was taken for two main reasons. One was the dire strait the economy was in. And the other, the guess that the opposition would not be able to get its act together. Contrary to the President’s expectations, the opposition’s disparate and ideologically distant parties managed to join forces and form their own alliance, the Nation Alliance (Millet), thus leaving the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) out. Perhaps more amazingly, Muharrem Ince, the candidate of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), turned out to be far more resourceful as a campaigner than expected. He consistently managed to determine the agenda, and put President Erdogan on the defensive.
The strategy of President Erdogan’s party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), is to keep the HDP under the 10% electoral threshold, since without the HDP, the opposition alliance's seats would not be sufficient to control the majority in Parliament. This campaign thus did not unfold according to Mr Erdogan’s plans, and despite the polls indicating that his loyalists are still supporting him, he has undeniably lost some power.
Erdogan and the AKP used to be credited for a sound economic development in Turkey. Does the rapidly deteriorating economic situation in the country weigh on the election?
As I suggested earlier, the economic situation looks like it had a major role in the decision to call early elections. The AKP was lucky to inherit an economy resulting from the structural reforms the outgoing coalition government had carried out in the wake of the 2001 crisis. The latter managed the existing IMF program well, stuck to fiscal discipline and took advantage of the global liquidity glut. After the 2008 global crisis, the leading party’s strategy increasingly shifted its focus from growth to construction. This change inevitably caused a property bubble, which is likely to burst soon if it has not already, like in all similar cases. Worse for the country, money is not as abundant as it used to be, and interest rates are rising. President Erdogan’s defiant declarations on interest and the currency and the steady loss of independence by the Central Bank also cost him a fair amount of credibility in financial markets.
What were the main stakes of this election?
I think these elections were primarily and almost exclusively about national and local issues. First, the deterioration of Turkey’s economic conditions and the precariousness of the future must be foremost in the electorate’s mind. The fact that consumer confidence slightly improved last month may be more a function of massive spending and generous promises by the government - and even opposition candidates - than objective criteria to judge the health of the economy. Second, there is tangible resistance to further monopolization of power. A large majority of the public wants the state of emergency to end. This demand is so forceful that President Erdogan, who was determined to maintain it, had to promise that it would be lifted after the elections.
What will be the impact of the vote of Turks living abroad, in Europe? What consequences will this election have on the relation between Turkey and the European Union?
The Turks living abroad did not vote in large numbers, which is in itself important since the diaspora vote was one of the mainstays of AKP’s electoral support. The dwindling numbers suggest that pro-AKP voters chose to abstain.
These elections will not have much of an impact on relations between Turkey and the European Union, except perhaps on one dimension: the European authorities and potentially even the people in Member States who follow such matters will have to acknowledge that there is a public in Turkey as well as a democratic opposition that mobilizes against all odds. This opposition works in very adverse conditions to protect the sanctity of the vote and to revitalize the political arena in the country. This shows that associating Turkey, which has quite a record in voting in a multiparty environment and where the voters are indeed very protective of their voting power, with countries that do not have such a record, is misleading.
A referendum held last year transformed the country from a parliamentary democracy into a presidential system, by granting sweeping new powers to the President after this election. What does such a change imply for the future of Turkey?
This election is partially about this very question. The referendum campaign and its results were very controversial, and there is certainly no broad consensus on the new system. In fact, the opposition candidates ran on a platform of reverting back to the parliamentary system.
Otherwise, the proposed and yet not thoroughly defined system - in its institutions and breakdown of authority - is devoid of proper checks and balances on the executive, which can issue decrees with the force of law, and is quite defective on the independence of the judiciary, as the President will appoint senior judges. The Parliament is weakened, but it is still the only institution able to check on the President. Indeed, the administration will be centered around the presidency, but the Parliament will still have the power of the purse and can overrule presidential decrees.