Fifty-six million registered voters in Turkey will head to the polls on Sunday in an election with far-reaching ramifications. The elections will transform Turkey into a presidential system, concentrating power in the hands of whoever wins. It will also have consequences for the Middle East and for Ankara’s relations with Russia, Iran and the West.
Erdogan’s Turkey at a crossroads
The election is being called the “great transformation” to “determine the future” that will create a “new era,” according to Turkish media headlines. Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been the leading figure in Turkey since his AKP came in first in 2002. In many ways, the election Sunday is a referendum on a decade and a half of his rule and his party’s dominance.
Erdogan was prime minister from 2003 to 2014 and has been president since 2014. He has systematically sought to concentrate power in his hands with the decision to turn Turkey into a presidential system and abolish the office of the prime minister. He accomplished that task through a 2017 referendum in which 51% voted to give more powers to the president, hitherto a weaker position. The referendum provides the president more power over the judiciary and the appointment of judges and allows the president to be a member of a political party, whereas previously the presidency was ostensibly apolitical.
Erdogan is also accused of eroding other aspects of Turkey’s democracy. Since a 2016 coup attempt, the country has been in a state of emergency. “Authorities have used emergency powers to all but silence independent media in Turkey,” Human Rights Watch claimed.
After the coup attempt, Turkey arrested thousands and fired tens of thousands of workers, accusing them of being members of the Fethullah Terrorist Organization (FETO), a shadowy organization run by a cleric in the US that Ankara alleges masterminded the coup. Teachers, professors, soldiers and police have been accused of various roles in the coup.
In addition, Turkey’s ruling party has passed a number of laws and made widespread changes to society over the last decade, seeking to bring more religious overtones into society. These include major changes to the educational curriculum, and an increase in the use of Islamic law. New laws in 2013 sought to restrict sales of alcohol, the harshest in 89 years of the country’s history as a secular republic.
The presidential election would not change all these laws immediately, but an upset would mark a historic break after a decade and a half in which Turkey has trended toward a more authoritarian and religious country.
Eight political parties are running and there are six presidential candidates. The parties participating include the AKP, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the Good Party (IYI) and the Nationalist Movement (MHP). The CHP has put forward Muharrem Ince, while the HPD is running Selhattin Demirtas, a Kurdish politician who is campaigning from prison. Meral Aksener of the newly formed IYI – a former interior minister in the 1990s – is the most prominent woman in the elections.
The opposition parties, particularly the CHP, see this election as the last chance to chart a new course for Turkey. In April, 15 members of the CHP in parliament switched to become part of Aksener’s new party so Aksener could run in the elections. The election law required that candidates had 20 members of parliament in order to field a presidential candidate. “Our friends will not go down in history as MPs who left their party, they will go down as heroes who saved the democracy following their responsibility to their party,” Bulent Tezcan, a CHP spokesman, said in April.
One problem for the opposition is that it has been divided in its response to the AKP over the years. The AKP and MHP are running together in this election, while four opposition parties also formed an alliance. This alliance includes the CHP, IYI and two smaller parties: the Democratic Party and the Felicity Party. Another issue facing for the opposition is that while the CHP is a center-left party representing the old secular tradition in Turkey, while the Felicity Party is a conservative Islamic party.
Aksener also comes from a right-leaning nationalist tradition. So the opposition combines most of the spectrum of Turkish politics. The one thing it does not include is the mostly Kurdish leftist HDP, whose candidate Demirtas is currently in prison. Despite the HDP’s Kurdish roots, many Kurds have historically also voted for Erdogan’s AKP; the Kurdish vote in this election may once again help Erdogan secure just enough to win the election. Kurdish votes, for instance, were vital to him winning the 2017 referendum.
Over the last decade, the AKP has usually performed well in the conservative center of the country, while the more secular western districts vote for the CHP, and the HDP takes many Kurdish votes in the east. If this election plays out like ones in the past, the opposition might win more parliamentary seats but Erdogan will win the presidency.
Foreign policy and minorities
Turkey has become deeply involved in the conflict in Syria in the last few years. In August 2016, along with Syrian rebel allies, it took over a corridor from the Euphrates River to the border town of Kilis. It sent more soldiers into Syria near Idlib in 2017, and in January 2018 moved into the Kurdish area of Afrin, establishing a dozen observation points in Syria with regular patrols. In June, it also began patrols in Manbij, an area controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
Turkey has accused the US of backing “terrorists” in Syria by working with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Since 2015, Turkey has been fighting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Ankara accuses the PKK and YPG of being the same entity. Under Erdogan, Turkey has also increased operations in Iraq, where it maintains several military outposts. The AKP has threatened to send the Turkish Army to Iraq’s Sinjar and Qandil regions to root out the PKK presence there.
In the lead-up to the poll, Turkey’s foreign minister called for a joint effort with Iran against the PKK. In addition, Turkish media has reported new arrests of ISIS terrorists, PKK members and FETO conspirators on the eve of the election. The reports make it seem as if Turkey is under siege by various terrorist groups and feeds a feeling of being under siege from foreign threats, in general.
During the campaign, both the CHP and AKP have campaigned for votes of the Alevi minority. The AKP prime minister promised to legalize their places of worship after the elections. Erdogan has also claimed that his government has helped Kurds, improving standards of living and ending “denial policies and policies of rejection,” a reference to the pre-1991 policies in which Kurds were portrayed as “mountain Turks” and their existence denied.
There are 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and their presence has become controversial. After the refugee crisis in 2015, the European Union began paying Turkey to host the refugees. Both the opposition and the AKP have talked about returning them to Syria. Turkey is now looking to build a university in Al-Bab in Syria, an area it controls, and Erdogan says that 200,000 refugees have returned to “liberated areas” in Syria. In a speech at Gaziantep, he promised to “make all Syrian lands safe” after the election.
Muhammad Ruzgar, a Syrian commentator, says that for many Syrians in Turkey, Erdogan has been a guarantor of their ability to stay in the country. “If Erdogan does not win, the Syrian situation will get worse.” He says thousands of Syrians have received Turkish citizenship and that if the opposition wins, Syrian refugees will face pressure and harassment and the opposition will cut support to the Syrian rebels in Syria.
Does Turkey’s election matter to Israel?
Israel-Turkish relations have been on a roller-coaster ride since Erdogan and his AKP came to power in 2002. At Davos in 2009, Erdogan publicly excoriated then-president Shimon Peres over Israel’s Gaza conflict. Then there was the MV Mavi Marmara
, and most recently Ankara’s outrage over the US Embassy move to Jerusalem.
Israel has not been a major issue in the current political campaign. The opposition Republican People’s Party was harshly critical of Israel, condemning the “massacre” in Gaza on May 14 and advocating tearing up an agreement signed by Israel and Turkey. It is unclear if the Turkish election will have ramifications for the difficult relationship. Economic relations between Ankara and Jerusalem are good and have been increasing steadily in recent years, although strategic military-to-military cooperation has been downgraded in the last decade.
Rhetoric is frequently hostile against Israel in Turkey. For instance, the appearance of Israeli flags during the Kurdistan referendum in Iraq in September 2017 caused anger in Ankara.
In addition, Turkey’s current government has been meeting more often with Iran. Would the opposition reduce relations with Iran? Not necessarily. Erdogan has sought to position himself as an Islamic leader on the Jerusalem issue, hosting Muslim leaders from around the world and expressing outrage at Israel’s Jerusalem policies.
The AKP also has had amicable relations with Hamas. The opposition parties are more secular, but they also champion the Palestinian cause. In the end, Israel-Turkish relations will not return to the period when they were closest, in the 1990s. The historic election, which is very important for Turkey and the region, will not change that. The likely effect is that an Erdogan victory will encourage his tough regional stance on Israel’s actions, whereas an opposition victory will cause Turkey to become more inwardly focused.
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