With just a few weeks to go before Turkey's next presidential and parliamentary elections, sitting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan still looks likely to win, probably in the first round of voting. The victory, if he wins, will be quite an achievement given his country's economic woes and foreign policy problems, including currency depreciation and climbing inflation, Iran's possible resurgence in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal, and rising tensions with Israel. These issues will continue to plague Turkey regardless of who wins the election. And for Erdogan, they have become a focus of his campaign. He is out to convince Turkish voters that he is the only person who can steer the country through such tumultuous times.
If Erdogan succeeds and wins a simple majority in the June 24 election, or in a runoff vote, he will enter another term in office, this time with significantly expanded powers. The prerogatives of Turkey's newly established executive presidency would give its holder practically unchecked authority, unless an opposition party, or parties, were to gain more than half of the seats in parliament. A parliamentary majority among the opposition would be a check on Erdogan, albeit a modest one, since the president will be able to issue decrees that have the legal status of legislation and that parliament cannot rescind. The question, then, is what chance — if any — Erdogan's opponents have to avert his victory.
When Erdogan announced the snap elections in April, the opposition was in disarray. Parties had not yet nominated candidates to challenge the incumbent president, nor had they elucidated their electoral manifestos. About a month later, the field of candidates running against Erdogan has started to take shape. The Republican People's Party (CHP), the main opposition, may pose the most credible threat to the president, having nominated a candidate from its populist faction, Muharrem Ince.
Ince, known for his polemical oratorical style, isn't afraid to call out the inconsistencies in Erdogan's political persona. Following his nomination as the CHP's presidential candidate, for example, Ince took to social media to display his college diploma, stating that proving one has a degree isn't hard, despite Erdogan's consistent refusal to do so. (The president's detractors have been demanding for the past few years that he produce his diploma from Marmara University, claiming that he never received a degree, a requirement for his office.) The CHP nominee also is proving to have wide appeal among the Turkish electorate. His harsh stance on Israel's treatment of Palestinian protestors resonates with nationalist voters, and a recent visit to the imprisoned leader and candidate of the People's Democracy Party wooed many Kurdish voters. Their support could be enough to get him past the first-round vote and into a runoff with Erdogan.
Electoral Alliances: A New Threat for Erdogan
And it's not just Ince Erdogan has to worry about. The new business of electoral alliances between parties is making Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) uneasy. In an attempt to ensure a solid electoral outcome, the president entered an alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). But now an opposing alliance has emerged among the CHP, the Iyi Parti (the Good Party), the Felicity Party and the comparatively obscure Democrat Party. The coalition has helped even the playing field with Erdogan, thanks to the diversity of its members. While Ince and the CHP appeal to secular, educated urban voters, the Felicity Party and its candidate, Temel Karamollaoglu, draw conservatives who disapprove of Erdogan. Karamollaoglu not only represents the preferences of Turkey's religious conservative voting bloc, but he also comes off as less bellicose and vindictive than Erdogan does. Nationalist voters disillusioned with the MHP's alliance, on the other hand, have their pick of Iyi Parti candidate Meral Aksener and Ince, both of whom offer strong nationalist platforms.
Because of recent changes made to the election law, a vote cast for any party in an alliance will count as a vote for the entire alliance. Recent projections put Erdogan's AKP-MHP alliance at between 38 percent and 40 percent of the vote come election day. According to these figures, Erdogan would fall short of the simple majority necessary to escape a second round of voting, even though the parties in the CHP alliance individually poll at much lower percentages than the AKP and MHP. A runoff election against Ince is a finale that Erdogan wants to avoid at all costs. After all, a second round of voting could be just what it takes to unite the array of anti-Erdogan voters — be they Kurdish or conservative — behind his opponent.
According to recent figures, Erdogan may fall short of the simple majority necessary to escape a second round of voting, even though the parties in the CHP alliance individually poll at much lower percentages than the AKP and MHP.
Pulling Out All the Stops
Of course, that can happen only if the election is free and fair. The upcoming vote in Turkey will be neither. Erdogan and the AKP will pull out all the stops to ensure their victory, mainly because they aren't willing to entertain the possibility of a transition of power should the president lose. Already, media coverage of the election and the candidates overwhelmingly favors Erdogan, making little mention of the opposition. Widespread voter intimidation and questionable practices at the ballot box are all but certain on election day. The government will put procedures in place to limit the number of voters who can go the polls in strategic districts, and law enforcement will be on hand to disrupt vote counting in disputed precincts if necessary — all to secure a victory for Erdogan.
A second round of voting could be just what it takes to unite the array of anti-Erdogan voters — be they Kurdish or conservative — behind his opponent.
In a moment of unexpected candor, or perhaps confusion, the president recently told reporters he would concede defeat "if the people declare that they have had 'enough' of me." His opponents quickly ran with the idea in a torrent of memes and wry posts on social media declaring "enough is enough!" — a phrase that topped worldwide Twitter trends for over 24 hours.
But the Turkish public is perhaps naive in thinking the election could put Erdogan out of office. Although it's clear that the president is less confident and more mistake-prone than usual as the vote approaches, he is no less likely to win the election, maybe in the first round, given his advantages in the race. Then again, as the recent elections in Iraq — and even the latest U.S. presidential election — demonstrated, we live in a time when we can expect the unexpected. A wild-card event may be able to do what the opposition probably can't hope to: keep Erdogan from another term in office.