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Jun 10, 2018 | 03:22 GMT

Unraveling Turkey's Early Elections

Political Rally in Turkey
(KAYHAN OZER/AFP/Getty Images)

Amid Turkey's turbulent political and economic environment, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for early elections on June 24. To better understand why he's making this move now and what it means for Turkey, the Middle East and beyond, Stratfor Vice President of Global Analysis Reva Goujon and Middle East and North Africa Analyst Emily Hawthorne sit down to unravel early Turkish elections in this episode of the Stratfor Podcast.

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What's Really at Stake in the Turkish Elections

Collected Stratfor analysis on Turkey's Resurgence

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Transcript

Faisel Pervaiz [00:00:00] Hello, I'm Faisel Pervaiz, a South Asia Analyst at Stratfor, and this podcast is brought to you by Stratfor Worldview, the world's leading geopolitical intelligence platform. Individual, team, and enterprise memberships are available at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe.

Emily Hawthorne [00:00:31] Inflation is at 10.5%. That's the worst since 2003. That's affecting Turks across all different socio-economic levels. In terms of how to fight against that inflation, we know that Erdogan has a historic allergy to raising interest rates.

Ben Sheen [00:00:56] Welcome to the Stratfor Podcast, focused on geopolitics and world affairs from Stratfor.com. I'm your host, Ben Sheen. Amidst Turkey's turbulent political and economic environment at the moment. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for early elections on June 24th. To better understand why he's making this move now and what it means for Turkey, Middle East, and beyond, Stratfor Vice President of Global Analysis, Reva Goujon and Middle East and North Africa Analyst, Emily Hawthorne sit down to unravel early Turkish elections in this episode of the Stratfor Podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Reva Goujon [00:01:38] Hi, I'm Reva Goujon, and I'm joined by Emily Hawthorne today to discuss what could be the most consequential election of the year, the June 24th election in Turkey. Emily, I know Turkey is an incredibly complex country to pick apart, but we'll try to do that over the next few minutes.

Emily Hawthorne [00:01:55] We'll do our best.

Reva Goujon [00:01:57] When we look at what's at stake in this election, several things here. Maybe first we should point out that Turkey President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pulled this election forward by a year and a half. Right, they were scheduled in 2019, and it was a bit of a surprise when he assented to pulling them this far forward.

Emily Hawthorne [00:02:18] In doing that, we have to ask ourself, okay, what are the objectives, and I guess first would be Erdogan trying to stay in his job. We can go back to, honestly, you'd have to go back at least to the beginning of his political career, but at least when he became prime minister in 2003, he stayed through three consecutive terms up until 2014, pulled a kind of Putinist maneuver when he was elected president. But in that rise, it's important to recognize the conditions that surrounded that rise.

Reva Goujon [00:02:53] Right, right.

Emily Hawthorne [00:02:54] He was very much seen as the economic savior in Turkey.

Reva Goujon [00:02:56] It's important to look at the party that he was representing in 2003 that had won the parliamentary elections in 2002, the AK Party (Parti), really won those elections in large part because the 90s were tumultuous year economically for Turkey. In 2001 there was an accelerating currency crisis and Turks were looking for something different. They didn't want the current ruling government coalition that was there at the time. The AK Party really benefited from that. He really was seen as somebody that could help ordinary Turks.

Emily Hawthorne [00:03:27] He's trying to continue riding that wave as "I am still your economic savior, I swear," and then we came up to the 2014 elections, and this is where things start to get dicey. We have to go to the AK Party, the ruling party, and its electoral strategy which for a long time really focused on a broader umbrella, appealing to a more conservative base which included very critically the Kurdish vote. Then as a result of the geopolitical environment at that time, events in Iraq and Syria where we saw a lot of drivers behind Kurdish militancy, behind Turkish autonomy, that were perceived as threatening to Turkey's territorial integrity which altogether made it more difficult for Erdogan to appear politically accepting of Kurds in that Turkish national fabric when that Kurdish autonomy was intensifying on Turkey's doorstep. That starts to get really dicey.

Reva Goujon [00:04:31] He couldn't depend on the Kurdish vote like he used to be able to that was part of that sort of broad tent that the AK Party was able to court throughout the 2000s.

Emily Hawthorne [00:04:41] When we got to then the 2015 Parliamentary Election in June, that was a massive wake up call to Erdogan and the AK Party. That was when it became very clear that they had lost that Kurdish vote in a big way. We saw the Kurds rally around a new player, Selahattin Demirtas, who was not just appealing to the Kurds, but appealing to this growing anti-Erdogan pull in Turkish electorates, appealing to voters in the mainstream opposition, Kamelist CHP Party, and it was working.

Reva Goujon [00:05:21] Right.

Emily Hawthorne [00:05:21] For a good while.

Reva Goujon [00:05:23] Somewhat fortuitously for the AK Party at that time because those June elections had resulted in a hung parliament. There was an impetus to call for snap elections, and to be able to form a government. Then we saw them planning for election several months later in November.

Emily Hawthorne [00:05:38] Then in November, we saw Erdogan shift course, and Erdogan really, he's a political genius in many respects. He could see where things where shifting, and so instead of just trying to fight for the Kurdish vote which was a losing bet for him, he shifted to a nationalist course, and this is where he made the national security argument, and in putting the Kurds in the opposition, and as a result, appealed to those more nationalist voters that belonged to the traditional nationalist party in Turkey, the MHP. It worked. The AKP came out victorious. Again just above that margin though with 52% of the vote.

Reva Goujon [00:06:22] We have to also consider what was happening in Turkey at the time in terms of security throughout 2015 and over the summer, there was an intensification of Kurdish militant attacks led by the PKK militant group that operates not just in Turkey, but does have a large field of operations in Southeastern Turkey where we saw throughout 2015 really more and more attacks and an intensification of that conflict between the government and Kurdish militants. That gave Erdogan and the AK Party fuel for showing voters if you want to ensure your security against this type of militancy, you have to trust us.

Emily Hawthorne [00:06:58] Exactly. That nationalist card was playing well. Then in that in turn we saw another big development, we saw the fallout of the Gülenists. Now the Gülenists were within that Islamist camp with the AK Party, and were crucial to providing an electoral platform for the AK Party with lots of influence spread across all kinds of institutions across the country. There was a big falling out of course with the culmination of that being the 2016 coup attempt of course which we know Erdogan survived, but the important thing there is that he also lost that pretty significant chunk of his voting base. Then we come to April 2017 which was the Referendum Vote. This was Erdogan thinking now long term.

Reva Goujon [00:07:49] In April 2017 we saw Erdogan really inserting himself very effectively into the long-standing decades-long debate in Turkey over how do we change the constitution. Turkey has undergone many military coups over the decades, and the 1980 military coup and the 1982 constitution for years since that time has been viewed by all the different political parties in Turkey as insufficient and giving too much power to the military, there have been various constitutional amendments and referenda over the years, but at this time Erdogan really capitalized on some of the swell of popular support that he received after the coup attempt, and was able to channel the debate in a direction that gave him, well the presidency, currently occupied by him, more power, the ability to run for a longer period of time, less power to the parliament, removal of the position of prime minister, and many other changes that really do make his position very powerful.

Emily Hawthorne [00:08:45] If anybody can make the most out of the coup, it was Erdogan, and he did. He came out again with a victory on that referendum vote, but again just barely with 51% of the vote, which brings us to today, June 24th, again bringing this election early in snap polls, and this is presidential and parliamentary elections. The reason why the snap elections are really important to Erdogan in particular is because he can essentially use this loophole that says if you call snap elections in your term as president, then you essentially can have a do over. Essentially that gives him, if he wins this election as president, two more terms which would allow him to serve until 2029. That is a long time for a single leader to be presiding over the country, but that is Erdogan's goal.

Ben Sheen [00:09:42] We'll get back to our conversation with Reva Goujon and Emily Hawthorne on Turkey's early elections in just one moment. But as you may have noticed, internal Turkish politics can be incredibly complex. These are the kinds of international issues we unravel each and everyday at Stratfor Worldview because nothing exists in a vacuum. What happens in Turkey has growing implications regionally, including Turkey's role in the Syria civil war right next door, as well as globally as Turkey increasingly leverages its strategic location between the East and the West to expand its influence through the Middle East, and specifically in its relations with the United States, Europe, and Russia. To dig deeper into Turkey's history, geopolitical developments, and also where the country is headed next, be sure to visit our page of related analysis collected under the topic Turkey's Resurgence. We'll include a link in the show notes. And if you're not already a Worldview member, you can learn more about individual, team, and enterprise level access at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe. Now back to our conversation with Stratfor's Reva Goujon and Emily Hawthorne on Turkey's June 24th early elections.

Reva Goujon [00:10:48] That brings us to the second objective which is make sure that if he can hold on to that job, that the job is powerful which goes into all those referendum changes that you were talking about.

Emily Hawthorne [00:11:01] Right. It's important to realize that the way that that constitutional referendum was written which in itself was a very tortured process over the years, and a lot of the opposition parties were not happy with those referendum changes that were being proposed, those changes go into effect on June 24th whether or not the AK Party wins the parliament majority or the plurality, or whether or not Erdogan does in fact win the presidency. The momentum is there that the position of the president in Turkey is going to become much more powerful on June 24th.

Reva Goujon [00:11:31] Right, no matter what comes out of these elections, those changes are already going to go into effect. The third objective then for Erdogan is making sure that the environment is going to be conducive to his victory. This is looking shaky because as we look at the economic outlook on Turkey and those economic clouds darkening, we can see very well then why Erdogan wanted to hold this election so early to try to head off that storm, and to prevent the Turkish voter being impacted by these economic pressures from peeling away that AKP vote.

Emily Hawthorne [00:12:06] Right, when we look at some of these economic pressures, the worrying picture becomes very clear. Inflation is at 10.5%. That's the worst since 2003. That's affecting Turks across all different socio-economic levels. And in terms of how to fight against that inflation, we know that Erdogan has a historic allergy to raising interest rates for a number of interesting reasons, but even though the Central Bank has raised the interest rate over this last year by 500 basis points, it really has not been enough to quell inflation from rising.

Reva Goujon [00:12:34] This is where things get tricky because Turkey is up against a lot of structural forces here. We're looking at a rising dollar, we're looking at rising commodity prices that puts a lot of stress on Turkey's already large current account deficit which is what? 5% of GDP at this point.

Emily Hawthorne [00:12:50] 5% of GDP.

Reva Goujon [00:12:52] And Turkey also is exposed to a lot of US dollar denominated debt. And when you have any sort of political tremors around Turkey, it's very easy for those financial flows going into Turkey as an emerging market economy to just as easily flow out of the country.

Emily Hawthorne [00:13:12] That's where Turkey has experienced a significant amount of GDP growth over the last year, but a lot of that has been fueled by investment and dollar denominated, Euro denominated investment, and that has contributed to the growing debt problem in Turkey. This is all helping lead to pressure on the Lira, and right now the Lira value versus the dollar is at lower levels than it has ever been before.

Reva Goujon [00:13:35] That free fall is continuing, and is certainly getting the attention of a number of investors, and which is really interesting when we look at Erdogan's long running war against interest rates. This is where we've seen this in the past where Erdogan will talk about needing to assert more control over the Central Bank which of course makes investors very nervous when it comes to the preserving the autonomy of the Central Bank in any country. Will they have the freedom to raise interest rates as they see economically fit or not? But Erdogan has persisted in this argument in spite of that very direct economic and immediate effect, even speaking to financial audiences, saying, "You know what, it is my responsibility, and I am going to take more control of the Turkish economy," which really doesn't help that sentiment factor when we look at the drivers that are really depressing the Lira against the dollar. That's where those stresses are only going to compound themselves more and more.

Emily Hawthorne [00:14:41] Right, and that's why the investment community and others are watching so closely to see what are those monetary policy conversations that are going to take place leading up to this election.

Reva Goujon [00:14:49] The economic outlook, just not looking good and worse by the day. That brings us then to, what do we have now stacked up in this election? What's the state of the opposition? What are we looking at in terms of the AK Party and its alliances?

Emily Hawthorne [00:15:08] We really have three sort of main blocks to think about leading up to this election. We have the alliance between the AK Party and the Nationalist MHP. As you mentioned, in 2015, this sort of pragmatic cooperation between them developed, but it became very clear, and it lead up to the constitutional referendum in 2017, that the MHP needed the AK Party's strength and parliament, and the AK Party needed the MHP's votes in parliament to push the referendum over a certain threshold to be able to push it to a popular vote. That was critical for the MHP at the time. It was critical for the AK Party to have the MHP support at the time. And we've seen that alliance only grow stronger.

Reva Goujon [00:15:47] But as we've noted all along, there was always a fault line in that AK Party MHP alliance in that even as the MHP was fighting for its own political survival, and needed the strength and numbers through the AK Party alliance to do so, there was a liability to adhering itself too tightly to Erdogan who was becoming a much more polarizing figure in Turkish politics. Now we've seen the result of that with an MHP spin-off.

Emily Hawthorne [00:16:17] Absolutely, and that takes us to the state of the second block which is really this opposition block that's primarily formed of the CHP, the Good Party, and the Felicity Party. The Good Party emerged from some MPs that split off from the Nationalist MHP Party, disillusioned with the direction that their party was moving in by cooperating with the AK Party to the degree that they did. The Good Party has emerged in trying, it's a nascent party, this is also a motivator for why Erdogan consented to have the elections early because he wanted to head off the development of this party because they're running after a lot of the same voters that the AK Party relies on. You also have the CHP which is sort of the traditional, it's the oldest party in Turkey since it started its multi-party system, and it espouses more secular, more liberal policies, and then you have the Felicity Party, which like the AK Party is an Islamist party, typically commands smaller numbers in parliament but is important because it wants to ebb away at some of the Islamist support that goes to the AK Party.

Reva Goujon [00:17:17] That is critical when we think about where the Gülenist vote goes, it's critical when we think about there were rumors that the former Turkish president, Abdullah Gül, that he could come back into politics, and could he peel away support from the existing AK Party which is a big threat to Erdogan, and so that's another key thing that we're looking at is to what degree is this election going to tell us about the internal unity of the AK Party.

Emily Hawthorne [00:17:48] Right, and in terms of really pushing against the AK Party and its dominance over Turkey's domestic policy and foreign policy, that is what's uniting these opposition parties together. If you lay out their economic policies and foreign policies, the CHP and the Good Party and the Felicity Party and the other parties that are supporting them, they're very different in many different ways, but they all are united in their desire to see something different in parliament instead of the AK Party and instead of Erdogan at the helm of the country.

Reva Goujon [00:18:17] It leaves open the question again of the Kurdish vote.

Emily Hawthorne [00:18:22] The third block.

Reva Goujon [00:18:23] The Kurds were not able to enter into this alliance with the CHP, the Good Party, and the Felicity Party, and so it's an open question now on where does that vote go.

Emily Hawthorne [00:18:37] We have a small alliance of Kurdish parties, the HDP is the most well-known of the Kurdish parties, and their leader right now is in prison, and he's also running for president from prison.

Reva Goujon [00:18:50] That leader again is Demirtas who performed very well in previous elections in the first round, and so before was able to have that charisma before things really went south between the AK Party and the Kurdish vote.

Emily Hawthorne [00:19:02] Right, so it really is an open question in this election where that roughly 20% of Turkey's population that is comprised of Kurds, do they support some of these opposition parties? Do they support the AK Party? There is a contingent of Kurds who support the stability, and support the vision and the message that Erdogan has always successfully conveyed which is that stability comes through supporting the AK Party, or are they going to throw their support behind some of the Kurdish parties in the electoral alliance? It really is an open question.

Reva Goujon [00:19:32] The reason why this matters is we're talking about, the Kurds make up anywhere from 18 to 20% of the Turkish vote. The AK Party is trying to get at least four to 5% of that to ensure its electoral success. Again it's an open question. To wrap up, Emily, as we're looking forward to June 24th and this pivotal election, things that we're going to be watching for, the big questions that we're considering, and I think the first one is recognizing the very real potential for this to go to a second round given those economic pressures, given the questions around the Kurdish votes, the questions around AK Party unity, all of that is up for a test.

Emily Hawthorne [00:20:15] Erdogan has excelled, as you said, he's somewhat of a political genius, he excels at splitting the opposition, splitting whatever opposition is in his wake, but there still is a question about how popular is this new Good Party, how popular is the CHP going to look after this last couple of very tumultuous years in Turkey? Are voters weary? That's where you also have to look at the margins of victory that the AK Party's constitutional referendum had in some of the major urban centers in Turkey. As you mentioned it was a narrow victory for them overall, 51 to 49%, but they actually lost it in the three major urban centers, Mersin, Ankara, and Istanbul, and that's also something that I'm sure the AK Party is thinking about, that they're going to try and win some of those urban voters.

Reva Goujon [00:20:59] Absolutely, that's still the core of Turkey at the end of the day. Then of course, financial audiences are going to be looking really closely at Turkey's monetary policy. Will the Central Bank be given the political space to operate? Will we see the rate hikes necessary to try and mitigate the inflation pressures and the currency pressures that we see in Turkey, although that by itself is not going to be the magic solution here. Turkey is facing a number of structural economic pressures right now, and sentiment-wise, that's not going to get better.

Emily Hawthorne [00:21:35] No matter who's at the helm of the country, there are serious issues that Turkey is going to be dealing with economically and external forces on them.

Reva Goujon [00:21:42] Given the precarious nature of this gamble that Erdogan is making, it raises the question then if, if we see this go to a second round, and if the margins are looking very narrow, and we know that Erdogan is not planning on retiring any time soon, this is not a leader that intends to go quietly into the good night, and so what tools are at his disposal to ensure that electoral victory?

Emily Hawthorne [00:22:10] He has the power of emergency rule. We've seen this very very clearly since the coup attempt where it's very easy for Erdogan to renew the state of emergency, and to use the tools of the state. There were all sorts of changes that took place after the coup attempt, sort of changes that the head of the National Security Council and at the ranks of the military that sort of neutered a little bit more the power of some of the security forces, and Erdogan is going to be using that.

Reva Goujon [00:22:37] Absolutely. That also is really important when we're talking about the potential for large scale demonstrations in Turkey, if there are allegations of vote rigging, or anything of that sort, emergency rule is certainly a handy tool to apply if you're trying to mitigate that kind of descent and instability on the streets. That's one key thing. Also of course we know that Erdogan has essentially steam rolled the media. State media is largely under the ruling party's control. They're going to be announcing the election results. There is a certain control over the messaging.

Emily Hawthorne [00:23:16] Right, and that's another issue that we've seen really escalate since the coup attempt, just purges of various journalists and reporters and media organizations. The media is very largely controlled by the AK Party.

Reva Goujon [00:23:33] Right, and we also can't overestimate the potency of the us versus them narrative in Turkey. Turkey is a country that, for historical reasons, sees itself as vulnerable to outside powers, and any sign or argument that can be made that outside powers are meddling in Turkey's business and Turkey's economy and Turkey's election results, Erdogan is quite masterful at spinning those arguments in his favor. We'd already seen that very predictively in the fights that Turkey is picking with Europe, and using that in a sort of nationalist construct at home. The question is, is that going to be good enough and powerful enough to mitigate the economic impacts that many Turkish voters are feeling going into these polls.

Emily Hawthorne [00:24:26] Right, are the voters going to believe as many do, it's been shown by polling just in the last couple of weeks, that economic problems that Turks are suffering, are those caused by external forces or is the government to blame? And AK Party loyal voters typically are more willing to believe the line that these problems all come from outside of Turkey.

Reva Goujon [00:24:45] This is a lesson in leaders like Erdogan, similar to Putin's story as well in Russia, but leaders who see themselves as the ones who can steer Turkey through troubled waters, that there is no one else up for the job, and so therefore they have to resort to much more resourceful, much more creative measures to remain in power. We saw that through the referendum, and we're seeing it through the constitutional changes, we're seeing it through this election gamble. Will it pay off? We'll have to see. But even in resorting to those more creative measures, that could create much bigger stresses for Turkey in the long term.

Emily Hawthorne [00:25:25] Absolutely.

Reva Goujon [00:25:25] Alright, Emily will be watching this very closely in the lead up to June 24th. Thank you for the conversation, and thank you all for tuning in.

Ben Sheen [00:25:40] Well, that's it for this episode of the Stratfor Podcast. For more insights into Turkey's early elections and current geopolitical environment, be sure to read our related analysis and forecasting at Stratfor Worldview. We'll include links to some suggested articles in the show notes. If you're not already a Worldview member, you can sign up for our free newsletter, or learn more about individual, team, and enterprise memberships at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe. Thank you once again for joining us. For more geopolitical intelligence, analysis, and forecasting that reveal the underlying significance and future implications of emerging world events, follow us on Twitter @Stratfor.

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