Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party in Ankara. Photo: Reuters
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party in Ankara. Photo: Reuters

This Sunday, Turks head to the ballot box for what is likely to be the most important election in the country’s recent history  – and with the outcome far from certain.

Some 59 million voters will choose not only a new parliament, but also a president – and, while the economy, unemployment and security have been the top issues on the doorstep, fears are also widespread that a victory for incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) may mean a serious breach with Turkish democracy itself.

“Sunday will be a very challenging night,” said Kader Sevinc, the Brussels representative of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). “I am concerned because this current government is not like any others we have known.”

In power since 2002, the pro-Islamist AKP has presided over a period of unprecedented stability and economic growth – winning it many supporters in the country’s conservative, religious and nationalist heartlands.

Yet it has also presided over a major crackdown on the media, judiciary, civil service and civil society, while moving away from Turkey’s more secular, pro-European traditions.

Now, whoever wins the presidency on Sunday will have sweeping new powers at their disposal, too, thanks to a new constitution that also weakens the power of parliament.

Meanwhile, there are widespread concerns that Sunday’s vote could be tampered with, while the balloting itself takes place under a state of emergency in force since a failed coup attempt in 2016.

Despite these odds, however, the opposition has fought a determined campaign – and has been seeing a surge in support.

“President Erdogan’s election campaign feels tired and is failing to offer anything new at a time when Turkey is being hit by high inflation and a weak lira,” said Anthony Skinner, director for the Middle East and North Africa at consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. While Erdogan and the AKP remain the favorites, “The odds of an upset are greater than at any time in recent history.”

Grand alliances

Erdogan’s AKP leads an electoral coalition called the People’s Alliance (PA), which also contains two hard-right groupings, the National Action Party (MHP) and the Great Unity Party (BBP).

The center-left CHP, meanwhile, leads a coalition of opposition groups known as the National Alliance (NA), which includes the Iyi (Good) Party – a split from the MHP – the pro-Islamist Felicity Party (Saadet) and the center-right Democrat Party.

In the presidential ballot, Erdogan is the sole PA candidate, while the CHP’s Muharrem Ince, the Iyi Party’s Merel Aksener and Saadet’s Temel Karamollaoglu are all running against him.

In the event of no candidate getting more than 50% of the vote, however, a second round run-off will likely see all the opposition parties rally around a single candidate, in opposition to Erdogan.

This candidate will most likely be Ince, who has drawn large crowds on the campaign trail and surprised many observers with his wide appeal to voters.

“The latest opinion polls suggest that it will be one of the tightest races in many years,” said Jason Tuvey, senior emerging-markets economist with Capital Economics. “It looks like President Erdogan will struggle to secure a majority in the first round of the presidential vote, thereby triggering a second-round run-off, which must take place on 8 July.”

Ince has successfully pointed up persistent problems with the economy – such as inflation and unemployment – along with Erdogan’s unconventional approach to finance, which has also made investors wary, leaving foreign investment low and public debt troublesome.

Kurdish issue

Meanwhile, a third key force in the election is the left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

Supported mainly by the nation’s ethnic Kurds, this is running for parliament, while its presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, is running from behind bars.

He was jailed in November 2016, accused of spreading propaganda for the armed militant group the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) – a charge he denies, with the case still to come to full trial.

The HDP holds a crucial place in the election, because of a Turkish electoral law that says a party must gain more than 10% of the national vote in order to enter parliament.

The HDP’s votes are highly concentrated in the mainly ethnic-Kurdish southeast of the country and a few districts of the major cities. If the HDP does not get 10% of the national vote, however, all these districts will go to the runner-up.

“In the southeast,” said Hisyar Ozsoy, one of the HDP’s parliamentary candidates in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, “there are only the HDP and AKP. If the HDP is eliminated, maybe 95% of our seats will go to the AKP.”

This would undoubtedly give the AKP a majority in the parliament – the Grand National Assembly.

Ozsoy is confident, however, that his party will pass the threshold – as it did the last time there was an election, back in 2015.

“From talking to people in the neighborhoods, our vote has definitely increased since then,” he said. “People who voted AKP for years say they will vote for us.”

If the HDP does pass the threshold, there is a strong possibility that parliament will come under opposition control. While the new constitution limits parliament’s powers, it may then still be able to block Erdogan on certain issues, should he remain president.

“We know a sufficient number of votes will go into the ballot box for us to get more than 10%,” Ozsoy said. “It’s just that we don’t know how many will come out.”

In for the count

This highlights a major concern about the election – potential fraud.

Under new electoral regulations brought in by the AKP government, un-stamped ballot papers are to be counted, while in the southeast, the electoral authorities have announced plans to move ballot boxes because of a feared PKK threat. Yet this is a move the HDP sees as a way of making it more difficult for its supporters to vote.

While the state of emergency is nationwide, it is particularly severe in the southeast. There, there are major restrictions on movement and on assembly and expression, according to a recent report by election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

At the same time, previous counting procedures, under which a mix of volunteers from different parties were used, have been changed so that only civil servants will be involved. This has caused alarm among opposition parties, who point to recent wholesale firings of non-AKP supporters from local government.

The opposition parties have announced they will respond to these concerns by sending more observers than ever to the polling stations and the count. They have also told supporters to take a lawyer with them.

“In the southeast in particular, fundamental rights have been suspended with the state of emergency, and the situation is already very tense,” Sevinc said. “We should all be paying close attention to that – very close attention indeed.”

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