What's Really at Stake in the Turkish Elections

8 MINS READJun 8, 2018 | 20:02 GMT
A paper ballot includes portraits of the candidates in Turkey's upcoming presidential election, scheduled for June 24.

A paper ballot includes portraits of the candidates in Turkey's upcoming presidential election, scheduled for June 24. Incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a lot riding on the vote, which could make him the most powerful leader in Turkey's modern history.

(YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images)
  • The winner of Turkey's presidential election, the first round of which is slated for June 24, will become the most powerful ruler in the modern republic's history, thanks to constitutional amendments approved in a referendum last year.
  • Though incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party devised the reforms with his next term in mind, economic instability and an unusually united array of diverse opposition candidates could jeopardize his re-election bid.
  • No matter who wins the race, Turkey will face the same security imperatives — and the same problems in its relationships with allies such as the European Union and the United States.
  • A victory for Erdogan and the AKP, however, will further aggravate those problems.

Turkish voters are about to elect the most powerful leader in their country's modern history. They will head to the polls June 24, nearly a year and a half ahead of schedule, for the first time since passing a raft of constitutional amendments last year to expand the powers of the presidency. At the same time, they will cast their ballots for lawmakers to fill a newly enlarged parliament.

For incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who, along with his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), engineered the constitutional revisions — the stakes of the upcoming vote are high. If he wins, he will assume the virtually unchecked authority of the new executive presidency, which he could command for the next decade. If, on the other hand, Turkey's economic problems and the diverse field of opposition candidates in the race turn enough voters from Erdogan's side, one of his opponents could wind up occupying the empowered presidency. Either way, the country will face the same problems and imperatives.

The Big Picture

Turkey is a major military and economic power in a strategic location. The country's president has power over not only Turkey's geopolitical trajectory but also that of the Middle East, where Turkey has been working to increase its influence in recent years. And after the upcoming national elections June 24, the Turkish leader will also have the unprecedented authority of the executive presidency created last year in a constitutional referendum. Incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party are well-placed to win the vote. But 15 years since they first took power, their appeal may be wearing thin in Turkey, leaving the door open for the opposition to make gains in parliament, if not seize the presidency itself.

Echoes of Financial Crises Past

The Islamist-rooted AKP first swept the parliamentary elections in 2002, unseating numerous institutional parties. It owed its big win to two factors. For one thing, years of economic crisis had undermined the legitimacy of the country's ruling coalition in the eyes of many voters. For another, Turkish electoral law requires parties to obtain at least 10 percent of the vote to be included in parliament. Parties that fall short of that threshold forfeit the votes they receive, and those that reach or exceed the required 10 percent split them proportionally. The 10 percent rule enabled the AKP to win a comfortable majority in parliament in 2002 — and in every subsequent parliamentary election — without ever having a significant popular mandate.

After the 2002 election, the AKP and Erdogan excelled at taking advantage of others' political misfortunes and mistakes, creating political alliances out of necessity, and then ditching deals that no longer benefited them. In 2014, for example, the AKP broke its alliance with the Islamist Gulenists — a partnership that had proved critical to its successes in the early 2000s — and later blamed them for the attempted coup in 2016. The ruling party then turned to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to help push through its constitutional reform package in 2017. As a result of that alliance of convenience, the AKP now commands more support than ever.

But not everyone is on board with the AKP. For instance, the Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of Turkey's population, have largely fallen out with the ruling party since it turned against them in the 2010s, as the region-wide Kurdish separatist movement gained more traction. The AKP historically has relied on winning 4-5 percent of the Kurdish vote to push it over the edge into victory, but the party may have lost some of that support. In addition, many voters across the country's demographics are disillusioned with Turkey's recent economic decline. The value of the Turkish lira has slid to record lows relative to the dollar and the euro, inflation is high, and the president's efforts to influence monetary policy have given international investors pause. Though it first voted the AKP into power to extricate the country from economic turmoil, the Turkish electorate may not be willing to give the ruling party another shot at fixing the economy.

A United Opposition

What's more, Turkey's typically divided opposition has coalesced ahead of the upcoming election and could prevent the AKP from once again sliding into power on a narrow victory. Three of Turkey's main opposition parties, the CHP, the Iyi ("Good") Party and the Islamist Felicity Party, have come together in an alliance based on little more than a common drive to oust Erdogan. And the parties' platforms and ideologies are different enough that they could stand a chance of achieving that goal. The Good Party, founded by defectors from the MHP, offers a viable alternative for nationalist voters displeased with the MHP's association with Erdogan's party. Turkey's oldest political party, the CHP, meanwhile, will draw support from its traditional base of secular, liberal urban voters — stalwart critics of the president. Finally, the Felicity Party, though small, represents the same Islamist ideology in which the AKP is rooted, giving religious voters who oppose Erdogan an appealing alternative. Along with their distinct voter bases, all three parties will be courting the Kurdish vote, too, in hopes of denying Erdogan the simple majority he needs to win the election in the first round.

The presidency is the main prize on the line, but it isn't the only one at stake in the June 24 elections. The parliament matters, too. Should Erdogan attain the executive presidency, after all, the legislative body will be the only modest check on his power, though it will lack the authority to override presidential decrees. None of the three parties in the opposition coalition will win a majority, but together, they could challenge the AKP in parliament. With enough of the vote, the opposition could even try to assemble the two-thirds majority required to overturn the 2017 constitutional amendments (an unlikely outcome).

The Perks of Being in Power

If the opposition achieves its objective in the presidential race, Turks will return to the polls for a second round of voting July 8. A runoff vote is hardly the ideal scenario for Erdogan, but it wouldn't guarantee a victory for the opposition, either. The three main opposition candidates — the Good Party's Meral Aksener, the Felicity Party's Temel Karamollaoglu, and the CHP's Muharrem Ince — have built their platforms around promises to rehabilitate the economy, to roll back the empowered presidency and to restore rights that the incumbent has eroded. One factor weighing heavily in Erdogan's favor, however, is the sense of uncertainty and insecurity in Turkey. Erdogan has long positioned himself as a populist patriarch uniquely qualified to solve Turkey's many problems, and he will seize on voters' fears to his advantage in the polls.

He will also use the other tools at his and his party's disposal to improve his chances of winning. The AKP has spent its years in power entrenching itself in the country's media, judiciary and military. The coup, moreover, gave Erdogan and his party a pretext to purge their political opponents and to impose a state of emergency. In the event the vote is narrow enough to trigger a recount, the AKP could use Erdogan's emergency rule to stifle the opposition's supporters.

The AKP could even turn a loss to its advantage by weaving a first-round defeat into its nationalist narrative. Erdogan, for example, could blame the vote's result on foreign powers such as the European Union, which banned the president from campaigning for support from the more than 3 million Turkish voters living there. (He already has blamed foreign traders as the real source of the country's economic problems.) Allegations like these will hurt Turkey's relationship with the rest of the world regardless of the election's outcome. And if the AKP finagles a victory through suspicious means, it will only further damage the country's reputation with the European Union. Over time, deeper tension with the European Union will push Turkey into the arms of allies like Russia, while alienating allies like the United States.

Dealing with these relationships and with Turkey's other enduring imperatives will fall to the victor once the votes are finalized. The next administration will face the need to secure its southern border and to preserve its ties with critical economic and security allies such as Europe, the United States and Russia. These issues, along with Turkey's economic stagnation, will be a formidable challenge for the next president, whether Erdogan or one of his opponents. Though the upcoming vote represents a watershed for Turkey's democracy, the election won't change the country's tumultuous relations with its allies or its efforts to assert its regional influence.

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