The week before the Turkish election on 24 June, witnessed several European analysts predicting a possible electoral surprise for 64-year old Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. Some were even suggesting that Erdogan would be forced to eventually proceed for a run-off through a second round poll to be held on 8 July. Subsequent events have proved them wrong.
The elections took place under a state of emergency, in place since July 2016 following a failed deadly coup blamed by the government on the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based self-exiled religious leader. This period raised eyebrows all over Europe. Turkey’s Western allies, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International upbraided the Turkish government’s detentions and purges after the coup attempt. Local and international rights groups accused the Turkish government of using the coup bid as a pretext to silence opposition in the country. Erdogan’s government retorted by pointing out that the purges and detentions were in line with the rule of law and aimed to remove Gulen’s supporters from state institutions and other parts of society.
More than 56 million voters were eligible to cast their ballots in this election (held on 24 June), brought forward by more than 18 months by the AK Party-controlled Parliament in April. The voting marked the first time that Turkish voters cast their ballots in simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections, in line with the constitutional changes approved in a referendum last year. This latest election will now transform the country’s parliamentary system to an executive presidential one.
The State broadcaster and foreign media representatives reported that voter turnout was high- at almost 87%. Mr Erdogan polled nearly 52.5% in the most fiercely fought election in years. His main rival Mr. Ince received just 30.7%, despite a lively campaign where his presence attracted huge crowds. Two other candidates- Demirtas received 8.4% and Aksener received 7.3%.
Unlike Erdogan’s success, his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) lost its majority in the 600-seat Assembly by winning 295 seats. At 42.5 percent, the party lost seven percentage points compared with the last parliamentary elections in November 2015. However, the People’s Allaince, an election coalition constituted between the AK Party and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), has still the majority with a combined predicted number of 343 seats. Both parties have signalled that they will keep a united front in Parliament. It needs to be remembered however that although their parliamentary majority is enough to pass new legislation, the two allies are still short of the 360 votes required to undertake an adopted constitutional change to a referendum in the new system. The opposition CHP and its allies won only 33% (190 seats) of the votes. The pro-Kurdish HDP, to the concern of many also re-entered the Parliament with 67 seats.
There were two surprises within the electoral dynamics and these gave the President the victory he desired.
The first was that the combined score of Muharrem Ince and Meral Aksener was not higher. Mr Ince’s 30.7% was a significant increase since he burst on to the campaign in April, although it was thought he would be able to go even higher. Ms. Aksener – nicknamed the “she-wolf”, once seen as the biggest threat to the President – polled lower than expected and than what was needed- for a strong united front against Mr Erdogan. The second surprise was that in the parliamentary election, the President’s far-right coalition partner, the MHP, far exceeded expectations. Its leader, who is 70 years old, lacked any popular touch and had held only a few rallies. Nevertheless, he managed somehow to win his party enough seats to keep Mr Erdogan’s parliamentary majority intact.
It may be recalled that Mr Erdogan was Prime Minister for 11 years before becoming President in 2014. Under the new constitution, now approved through this latest election, he could stand for a third term when his second finishes in 2023- a hundred years since Ataturk’s creation of modern Turkey. The new constitutional arrangement would also give him the benefit of seeking another five-year term in Office till 2028.
Tayyip Erdogan will consequently now be taking on extensive new executive powers following his outright election victory. Defeated opposition candidate Muharrem Ince has however noted that Turkey was now entering a dangerous period of “one-man rule”.
Despite polarized opinion, Erdogan has created a special appeal within Turkey due to his success within the socio-economic matrix. Over the years he has presided over a strong economy and built up a solid support base by investing in healthcare, education and infrastructure.
Mr Erdogan has proven to his opponents that for conservative, pious Turks, he is their voice – their very survival – in a country where many have felt marginalised under past secular governments. It has also drawn attention to the fact that for this majority a shutdown of Twitter in Turkey or jailing of journalists is of lesser concern. One, in this context, watched on the electronic media, both the younger and older generation of Turkish voters praise Erdogan for having built “gleaming bridges, airports, schools and hospitals” that had transformed their lives and had led to earning their unwavering loyalty.
However, it has not been roses all the way. The Turkish Lira, in the recent past has tanked and lost about 20% of its value. In addition inflation stands at around 11%. These dark clouds will have to be removed from the horizon by the new Erdogan Administration..
The coming weeks in all likelihood will see Erdogan initiating implementation of certain constitutional changes that were endorsed in a tight referendum last year by 51% of the voters. His new powers will now enable him to – directly appoint top public officials, including ministers and vice-presidents; intervene in the country’s legal system and be able to impose a state of emergency whenever he feels that it is required. There will also be no Prime Minister in the Parliament. After this election he will become Turkey’s most powerful leader since its founding father Ataturk.
Such powers have led some analysts to express their concern that the future evolving governance paradigm in Presidential Turkey might suffer because of absence of checks and balances- required for accountability in executive Presidencies. They however agree that the new increased authority will empower Erdogan to address the sensitive issue of Kurdish rebels in the south-east of the country with greater determinantion.
Congratulations have come in for Erdogan from around the world, though some Western leaders have been slow to react. Russian President Vladimir Putin has however talked of Mr Erdogan’s “great political authority and mass support”. Strategists have pointed out that this will remind the Western powers of Turkey becoming a more significant player and stakeholder in the Middle East.
Mark Lowen of the BBC has mentioned that Turkey’s heart has been split over Erdogan’s victory. According to him, the Turkish voters depending on their belief are now either ecstatic or distraught or relieved or incredulous. Analyst and columnist Avni Ozgurel said that while the new system will allow Turkey to be governed in a more efficient and stable manner, in the long run, it is bound to run into problems during its initial implementation stage. It has also been noted that Erdogan’s tough relations with the West and internal tensions over the judicial process will start to ease after the President delivers an election promise to lift the emergency measure soon after he takes over the executive Presidency.
Kadir Ustun, strategic analyst has drawn attention to the fact that this change-over is probably the most significant thing that has happened in Turkish political system since 1922. It has also been mentioned that this development would herald the end of the “tutelary system” – one in which the civilian and military bureaucratic elites, the high courts, and the office of the presidency held the real power and quite often ignored the will of the Turkish people.
Within this evolving paradigm, according to analysts Amraoui and Faisal Edroos, Erdogan will also have to face a plethora of foreign policy challenges on several fronts. They will require his immediate attention. Among the country’s pressing issues are: security threats posed by the armed group – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); a clash of interests with the US in northern Syria; the extradition of Fethullah Gulen – who Ankara accuses of orchestrating the 2016 coup attempt; the standstill over Turkey’s bid to join the European Union; Iran’s influences in the region; the unresolved conflict in Cyprus, as well as its souring relations with Egypt, Israel, Libya and Yemen. He will have to give priority to regional politics and this effort will be watched carefully by Russia, the USA and also his traditional Western allies and NATO partners. There will also be sustained scrutiny in the manner in which the executive Presidency carries out its functions regarding rule of law and individual liberty.
The above issues will keep his Administration busy. However, he should not face difficulty on the question of Palestine. There is no divergence within Turkish politics on this matter. All political parties in Turkey- from far left to far right- agree on the need to support the Palestinian people and their cause. Turkey is also expected to continue playing its constructive role in Afghanistan.
We in Bangladesh welcome Erdogan’s victory and hope that his Administration will continue to support Bangladesh in its efforts to successfully tackle the debilitating aspects that have emerged due to the influx of nearly one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Turkey’s role in this regard will be important within the Islamic Ummah.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information
and good governance