Turkey’s elections: the long term risks of an Erdogan win

Turkey’s elections: the long term risks of an Erdogan win

As Turkey goes to the polls in June, the nation of 80 million has never seemed as isolated from the West and Euro-Atlantic institutions as it does now.

Turkey remains under a state of emergency following the failed coup attempt in 2016, and it is the only member of NATO to have an active insurgency with frequent bombings and gun attacks within its borders. EU membership is also increasingly remote, as the country has fallen steadily over recent years in global human rights, democracy and transparency indices. Meanwhile, there are serious concerns as to whether the upcoming vote will be free and fair. The result could be the final straw in a fractured relationship with the West that moves Turkey ever closer to Russia and illiberalism and away from its NATO allies and EU membership aspirations and might make Erdogan the most powerful leader since Ataturk.

The context

As a result of the April 2017 referendum in Turkey, the next president will have almost unprecedented powers, including the right to rule by decree without the approval of parliament. The OSCE and the Council of Europe are keeping a close watch, and the speaker of the Turkish Parliament has already met with the council’s election mission to express her concerns. For the past two decades Turkey has been on a Western-leaning track, opening EU accession talks and standing as a model for democracy. June’s election, however, could set Turkey on a more authoritarian path that leads the nation closer to the illiberal democracies and autocratic states in the Middle East and Asia, and away from its traditional allies.

As long as Turkey remains a member of NATO it will have a strategically significant relationship with the West, but its courts, economic model, relationship with the press and role of government institutions will more closely resemble those of Russia, Egypt and China in their lack of independence and competitiveness on the global stage. Under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has focused more on its Islamic roots and connected to its Ottoman past, something founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk hoped to avoid when establishing a modern, secular republic. The Turkish military has also historically played a fundamental role in the course of the nation’s history, with coups in 1960 and 1980, as well as a ‘soft’ or ‘postmodern’ coup in 1997. The events of July 2016 showed that not all factions of the military are aligned, which is a dangerous for a NATO member that hosts US and other allied troops at Incirlik air base for strategic Middle East missions.

Investors have expressed concern that Erdogan may reverse 425 basis points of rate hikes to try to steady the lira, after telling a group of investors in London in May that he wants to take a more active role in economic policy, namely by reducing interest rates. Foreign Minister Cavusoglu has blamed the dramatic fall on an overseas conspiracy hatched by NATO allies. The problem of the lira and a sluggish Turkish economy is a serious matter affecting the upcoming election. A more interventionist stance by Erdogan is likely to further alienate European allies and strengthen the hand of opposition parties who are keen to see Turkey return to solid economic growth and expand the reach of its markets.

The players

The main opposition party to President Erdogan’s AKP is the CHP, or Republican People’s Party. CHP candidate Muharrem Ince has said that emergency rule must be lifted if Turkey is to stay economically competitive and attract foreign investors. Ince believes this change in policy could also positively impact the Turkish lira, which has lost 20 percent of its value against the US dollar since the beginning of the year

The third largest party in the Grand National Assembly is the People’s Democratic Party or HDP, a pro-Kurdish group that is particularly strong in the southeast of the country. Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the HDP, remains in prison on what critics believe are politically motivated charges given possible links with the PKK, or Kurdistan Worker’s Party, which is classified as a terrorist organisation by the EU, Turkey and the United States.

The opposition parties face serious obstacles regardless of how they fare in the upcoming election. Whether they are able to affect policymaking or find themselves under further scrutiny and intimidation by the AKP, they have a tough line to tread between being outspoken on issues they care about while also protecting the national security interests of Turkey and supporting Erdogan’s actions. Turkey is not currently known for having a vibrant and healthy opposition to the government’s policies. Being too outspoken and critical of Erdogan could be perceived as a threat to the national security of Turkey so long as a cult of personality and allegiance to Erdogan defines the national interest of the Turkish state. The opposition parties may also lose by gaining – in other words, if their rise is too swift and fragile for AKP members and loyalists to swallow, they may resort to self-censorship in order to stay in power and avoid a crackdown.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has already criticized CHP leader Ince for failing to properly address the terrorist threat from the PKK, ISIL and FETO, the organization run by exiled cleric Fetullah Gulen, seen by Erdogan as responsible for the 2016 coup attempt. If the CHP gains enough support in the election, there may well be a crackdown on their members and leadership in order to ensure that the state of emergency remains in place.

The outlook

Erdogan is still very popular, with a 50% approval rating and the same approval rating for the AKP, according to exclusive data from Dalia Research, which measures political risk based on indicators from public surveys. Around 34% of the population claims they would vote for the AKP in the upcoming election, which has been a consistent number. 

Other opinion polling suggests that Erdogan’s AKP may lose its majority in parliament, although the odds of administrative manipulation and voter intimidation campaigns are high. There has been a slight growth in support for the Iyi Parti, a nationalist and secularist party established in 2017 that vows to adhere to the principles of Ataturk. Now standing at 14% support, Iyi has been viewed as anti-Erdogan in its attempts to restore a parliamentary system, independent judiciary, and other key democratic institutions.

Despite the arguable benefits of continuity in the short term, an Erdogan win would increase long term risks for Turkey. A key finding of the Dalia Research surveys is that the Turkish public’s perception of political stability in the country has been consistently under 50% in recent months. Indeed, instability will likely be the only true winner of the election, as Turkey is entering uncharted territory regardless of the electoral outcome. Erdogan looks set to amass unprecedented powers, which is a situation Turkey has not experienced in decades.

On the other hand, if the CHP gains enough seats to challenge Erdogan and affect policymaking, Turkey may project a veneer of democracy to the wider world albeit with the authoritarian impulses and censorship of a leader who believes democratic principles undermine his rule and the national interest.

There remains the risk of another coup attempt as long as the plotters are still in jail and Erdogan is perceived as a threat to the secular foundations of the Turkish state, something the military is keen to safeguard. The purges from the 2016 coup attempt have led to the increased harassment and jailing of opposition figures, journalists, academics and any institution or individual associated with Fetullah Gulen, the exiled cleric living in Pennsylvania and his ideology which Erdogan sees as a threat to his rule and his vision for a more Islamic and neo-Ottoman republic. The possibility of a coup succeeding, however, is dependent on public willingness to come out into the streets against Erdogan. In this regard, it is interesting to note that people’s inclination to participate in protests saw a jump earlier this year, from 12% to 20% in March to April, according to Dalia Research.

Terrorism, political uncertainty and security concerns are a toxic blend in Turkey, and they can all be manipulated and used to Erdogan’s advantage as he sees fit. Absent a strong opposition, Turkey will be on an accelerated path towards authoritarianism that will further antagonize its relations with the West.

This article is part of the Risk Pulse series, a collaboration with Dalia Research. It draws on cutting-edge public opinion data collected monthly by Dalia with the specific aim of forecasting political risk.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Alexander Brotman

Alexander Brotman received an MSc in International Relations from The University of Edinburgh. He previously was a researcher with the Center for a New American Security in Washington and has been published with PassBlue, a digital publication covering the UN, as well as Cable, an online global affairs magazine published by the Scottish Global Forum. His research interests include European politics, NATO and Russian foreign and security policy.