The heated maths of Turkey’s parliamentary elections

Turkey will hold its 24th parliamentary elections on June 7, 2015. The ruling Justice & Development Party (AK Party) is seeking a fourth consecutive term in government and is widely expected to win. But it matters by how much, as the margin will determine the ease with which current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could transform Turkey into a presidential system. Erdoğan’s authoritarian proclivities mean this outcome could severely damage Turkey’s already faltering democracy. Such backsliding would have broader implications in a region that desperately lacks examples of successful Muslim majority democracies. 

Whether the AK Party can change Turkey’s 33 year-old constitution to create a presidential system depends largely on the number of seats the AK Party wins in the elections. In every election since 2002, the AK Party has not only been victorious, but has also managed to consistently increase its share of votes. The AK Party got 34.4 percent of the vote in 2002, 46.6 percent in 2007, and 49.8 percent in 2011. After these victories came former party leader Erdoğan’s decisive presidential win last year with 51.8 percent of the vote. There has, however, been plenty of media reporting in the past few months about President Erdoğan losing support and the AK Party failing to increase its voter base. This must be worrying for Erdoğan, who is depending on votes from AK Party members in parliament to help him change the constitution and implement a presidential regime.  

The Paths to a Presidential System 

There are two scenarios by which President Erdoğan can realize his goal of a revised constitution. One is for the AK Party to obtain a two-thirds supermajority by winning 367 seats in the 550-seat parliament. That would allow Erdoğan to change the constitution unilaterally. Anything less than 367 (but over 330), however, means that the government would have to call a referendum to approve any changes to the constitution. 

The AK Party has aspired to revise the constitution ever since it came to power in 2002. After its decisive win in 2007, the Party tried to formulate a fairly liberal new draft constitution based on the continuation of the parliamentary system. Yet, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan failed in enlisting the opposition’s support and instead introduced a series of amendments in 2010 to the present constitution through a referendum that received 58 percent of the popular vote. These amendments led to the adoption of policies that weakened freedom of the media and the judiciary in the country, reflecting Erdogan’s growing “majoritarian” understanding of democracy. Today, many commentators and opposition parties disapprove of Erdoğan’s presidential system model, equating it to a dictatorship. This makes it all the more important for Erdoğan to win a supermajority in the upcoming elections and eliminate dependence on the opposition in the parliament.

AK Party currently has 312 seats in the parliament. Erdoğan earlier this year announced that he was looking to win 400 seats in parliament. He has since reigned in his ambition to 335 seats, which seems to be a more realistic target given the growing popularity of the AK Party’s three main challengers. Recent polls show the main opposition party Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) support ranging from 23 percent to 29 percent. Traditionally, the CHP receives votes from Turkey’s secularist electorate and coastal areas, which usually amounts to 20 percent. The increase in CHP’s voter share can be attributed to intra-party developments, such as the removal of hard-core traditionalists from the party’s rank through primaries and more female candidates on the ballot. These developments are expected to attract liberal voters that had previously lent their support to the AK Party. 

In a similarly surprising fashion, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is expected to win somewhere between 9.8 and 10 percent, and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has further increased its vote share, reaching 16 to 18 percent in polls compared to the 13 percent it won in the 2011 parliamentary elections. These unprecedented levels of popularity for the opposition parties are auspicious for Turkish politics, as they signal an increasing plurality and a thaw in Erdoğan’s single-party supremacy. 

This growing electoral competition is likely to come at a cost for Erdoğan. According to polls, support for the ruling AK Party ranges between 39 and 44 percent, which is expected to translate into roughly 320-330 parliamentary seats. This outcome would be well shy of the supermajority Erdoğan needs. And the result could be even worse for the AK Party. 

Without a supermajority and only 330 seats, Erdoğan would have to resort to a referendum. To win the referendum and push for his preferred constitution, Erdoğan needs the guaranteed support of AK Party members. The current constitution requires that, as the president of the country, Erdoğan maintain a neutral distance from AK Party and be politically impartial. Erdoğan, however, has chosen not to abide by this rule. Since taking office he has continued to exercise authority over the AK Party. 

His interference in the government—as well as his lobbying efforts for the AK Party ahead of the elections—have been widely criticized not only by the opposition, but also by his own Deputy Prime Minister. With the AK Party losing popularity amongst its electorate and the party fracturing amongst itself over the presidential system, Erdoğan appears to face considerable challenges in garnering support and passing his desired constitution through a referendum at the first try. A more troubling question for Erdoğan is whether the AK Party will even garner the necessary 330 seats to call a referendum. A recent study by the Research Institute on Turkey shows that AK Party will receive at most 279 seats if HDP passes the 10 percent threshold necessary to enter parliament

Don’t Trust the Polls

The accuracy of polls is questionable, but what is certain is that the upcoming elections will take place at a time when Turkey is facing a multitude of domestic and external challenges. After a decade of elections that upheld the status quo, it looks like June 7th may be a decisive test for Erdoğan’s vision of governance. The picture right now points to a highly contested election. But the arcane rules of Turkish governance dictate that small vote shifts could have significant political implications for the future of Turkish democracy. It is thus not surprising for one businessman to remark that a 1 percent difference, which comes to about 500,000 votes, will make a major difference. Turkey is indeed feeling the summer heat as June 7 approaches.