Turkey’s “re-run” elections, explained

This Sunday, Turkey will go to the polls for the second time in six months in what President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has dubbed a “re-run election.” The last election on June 7 resulted in a hung parliament, stripping the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of its parliamentary majority for the first the time in 13 years. Efforts to form a coalition government subsequently failed, as Turkey became increasingly polarized and embroiled in violence.

The elections on Sunday are meant to break this deadlock by giving Erdoğan a second chance to revive his political ambitions of transforming Turkey from a parliamentary system into a presidential one, in which he would enjoy greater executive powers. However, public opinion polls suggest that the results will not produce a very new picture—while the AKP may perform marginally better, it might not be enough for it to form a government on its own. 

One of three scenarios is likely to emerge in the wake of the vote: 

  • First, there could be a coalition government involving the AKP with either the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) or ultra-nationalist the Nationalist Action Party (MHP);
  • Second, rumors indicate that a group of MHP members of parliament may defect to the AKP, thereby empowering it to obtain the 276 seats necessary to form a single-party government;
  • Third, another election could be scheduled for late March or April.
  • (There is actually a forth possibility, according to a pro-government newspaper, that would bring a decisive win for the AKP with an estimated 47 percent of the votes. We don’t think that’s likely.)

Erdoğan and his supporters are determined to keep trying, believing that the growing instability in the country will eventually “bring the electorate to its senses” and renew its support for the AKP. Whatever scenario materializes, the challenges facing Turkey are growing by the day. Three issues, in particular, stand out as urgent. 

Tensions through the roof

Turkey has become polarized to an unprecedented degree. The divides cut through political, ethnic, and religious allegiances, affecting conservative, secular, nationalist, Alevi, and Kurdish members of society. In a national soccer game last Sunday, for instance, there was a minute of silence to commemorate the victims of the Ankara bombing on October 10. But instead of showing respect, some spectators jeered that victims were terrorists. The tragic death of more than 100 Turkish citizens, coupled with the national team’s successful bid for the Euro-2016 tournament, failed to generate a sense of unity—a stark example of the nation’s polarization. 

One factor exacerbating the polarization plague is the recent deterioration of Kurdish-Turkish relations. Many Kurds believe that the government has cooperated with the Islamic State (or ISIS) to prevent the Kurds from consolidating their control over northern Syria. The dominant Kurdish opinion is that Ankara shied away from defending the Syrian town of Kobani in October 2014 from an ISIS onslaught in order to weaken the Kurds, further aggravating mistrust. The explosion in Suruç in late July effectively ended the ceasefire between Ankara and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), leading to the renewed militarization of the Kurdish question. 

These developments are somewhat ironic: it was under Erdoğan’s earlier administrations that a series of reforms in support of Kurdish cultural rights were introduced. Erdoğan had also initiated a dialogue with the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, in 2012 in an attempt to find a political “answer” to Turkey’s so-called Kurdish “question.” These efforts yielded positive results for the AKP, with the party winning 26 out of the 38 seats allocated to the provinces heavily populated by Kurds in both 2007 and 2011. 

[D]istancing Turkey from the brink of a civil war will be one of the greatest challenges for the country’s next administration.

What, then, prompted this reversal? It was the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) decision to exploit Kurdish resentments ahead of the June elections. By receiving most of the “Kurdish” seats that once went to the AKP and entering parliament with 13 percent of the votes, the HDP became a force in blocking Erdoğan’s aspirations to transform himself into an all-powerful president. Since then, Erdoğan has portrayed HDP as allies of the PKK—hence, co-perpetrators of the violence that has flared up in Turkey, with the assumption that this strategy would win him back those voters who had “defected” to HDP and MHP. 

How can Turkey overcome this polarization? It’s difficult to say. What is certain is that distancing Turkey from the brink of a civil war will be one of the greatest challenges for the country’s next administration. 

Economy down the hole

The state of the economy is another challenge. It’s consistently ranked as one of the Turkish electorate’s top concerns, as the Turkish economy has slowed down from the record 9 percent growth rate in 2011 to 2.9 percent in 2014. Economists note that Turkey needs a growth rate of around 5 percent—something it cannot achieve in the near term—to be able to reduce the unemployment rate. Meanwhile, Turkey’s Central Bank has announced that banks, private companies, and public bodies owe up to $170 billion (close to a fourth of Turkey’s GDP), in short-term debts that need to be paid back in less than one year. Given rising unemployment and the sharp devaluation of the Turkish lira against U.S. dollar and euro, it may indeed not be possible to foot the bill. 

Another factor that hampers the economy is the decrease in the volume of exports and tourism—both of which are a major source of revenue. Turkey’s overall exports in the first half of 2015 dropped by 10 percent compared to same time last year. Against the backdrop of the Syrian civil war, as well as the falling oil prices, the International Monetary Fund predicts “tepid growth” and less lucrative trade in the Middle East. All of this will work to the detriment of the Turkish economy. The fact that the European Union, Turkey’s most important export market, is struggling to come out of a recession is making matters worse. Given the escalating violence in Turkey and the region, it is likely that the tourism industry will not generate much income in the immediate future, either. 

A neighbor in chaos

Amongst all the issues that occupy Turkey’s agenda, the most critical is the situation in Syria. Russia’s recent military intervention into Syria has further complicated Turkey’s policy. Ankara and Moscow have been at loggerheads on the fate of the Syrian leader Bashar Assad since 2011; while the former is determined to bring down the Assad leadership, the latter remains committed to propping it up. By targeting the very groups that Turkey supports, Russia is upsetting the balance on the ground: its involvement helps Assad expand his sphere of influence and undermine Turkey’s objectives, and runs the risk of triggering another refugee influx into Turkey. 

Nor does it help that Turkey is at loggerheads with its NATO allies on the Syrian crisis. The United States focuses on “degrading ISIS” while Turkey is mainly occupied with the Kurdish dynamics in the region. This is most starkly put to relief by how few ISIS targets Turkish armed forces have attacked compared to the larger number of raids on PKK hold-outs. Furthermore, the sides do not agree on the role of the Kurdish People’s Democratic Union Party in northern Syria: leaders in Washington increasingly see the Kurds in Syria as the only reliable boots on the ground to fight ISIS, whereas Turkey identifies them as terrorists. Lastly, Turkey’s aspiration to create a safe zone along the Syrian-Turkish border—intended as a zone to help the resettlement of refugees—has so far not received support from the United States and other NATO allies.

It is no wonder that pursuing policies that conflict with both Russia’s and America’s is increasingly described as a fiasco. Whatever the outcome on Sunday, Turkey will need to recalibrate its Syria policy in light of these realities on the ground.

To the polls

This Sunday, Turkish voters will likely send a similar message to the one they sent in June: that the nation needs a coalition government to address these challenges. The AKP might have been a source of prosperity and stability in the 2000s; however, this is no longer the case. The results of the June election were a clear expression of the electorate’s discomfort with the current administration. But the leadership seems to be ignoring this fact. 

Regardless of how the national will manifests itself on Sunday, it is of paramount importance that it does so through free and fair elections. Otherwise, it is hard to see how the next government will tackle this hefty list of challenges and avoid looking like its troubled neighbors.