Turkey’s Snap Elections: Erdogan’s Improvised Gambit
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called snap elections on Wednesday, bringing forward parliamentary and presidential elections to June 24, almost 17 months earlier than scheduled. Erdogan was once a sworn enemy of early elections, referring to them previously as “a sign of underdevelopment” and “treason.” While his supporters now defend the surprise as the work of a master strategist, the Turkish president’s sudden change of heart and rush to call elections in 67 days reflects his insecurity.
Turkey’s pro-government media presented Erdogan’s volte-face as a “checkmate,” a well-thought-out strategy showing Erdogan’s mastery of the political chessboard. An Islamist columnist endorsed the Turkish president’s gambit of ostensibly catching the opposition off guard and tweeted “war is deceit,” citing a controversial hadith used by Islamists to justify fraud and cheating in politics. International pundits opined that the snap election call was “a calculated move, for which the costs and benefits have been carefully weighed up,” comprising part of Erdogan’s “tactics to control the opposition.” Upon closer scrutiny, however, the Turkish president’s rush to the polls is more the result of duress than stratagem.
Erdogan’s far-right ally Devlet Bahceli, the septuagenarian leader of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), was the first to demand snap elections, saying on April 17 that it would be difficult for the country to “endure current circumstances.” The MHP leader’s unexpected call mainly resulted from his recognition that with the growing turbulence in the Turkish economy, both he and his ally Erdogan could face a major setback at the polls should they wait any longer. A columnist close to the Turkish president reported that Erdogan was not happy with Bahceli’s unilateral move. Not wanting to alienate his ally, whose support could be decisive to win the presidential election, the Turkish president agreed to the MHP leader’s request the next day. Instead of Bahceli’s proposed date of August 26, however, Erdogan decided on June 24, since the former coincided with the pilgrimage season, coming right after the feast of sacrifice.
Likewise, it would be mistaken to assume that Turkey’s opposition was caught off guard by Erdogan’s election call. Last December, Good Party (IYI) leader Meral Aksener, predicted that snap elections could be held as early as July 15 of this year, on the two-year anniversary of the abortive coup. Gazete Duvar reported Wednesday that a lawmaker from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) had even placed a bet with three others last December, picking June 24 as the snap election date, and winning a business suit from each following Erdogan’s announcement on Wednesday.
Erdogan’s inability to wait an additional three weeks until July 15, a date that could maximize a rally-around-the-flag effect, is a telling sign of the urgency of the situation triggered by Bahceli’s call. The Turkish economy had a rough April with the Turkish lira sinking to record lows and leading corporations opting for multi-billion-dollar debt restructuring, which Erdogan initially dismissed as an economic attack by “enemies of the state.” A global fund manager, who “cleared [his firm’s] portfolio of all positions in Turkish assets,” warned last November that high inflation and a surge in foreign borrowing “could plunge the country into crisis.” The chief economist of a financial credit grading company recently penned a piece arguing that Turkey is “heading for a major economic crisis, much of it of its own making.”
Erdogan’s race to get ahead of the looming economic crisis, expedited by his far-right ally’s call for elections, seems to have resulted in a makeshift reaction rather than a well-thought-out strategy. To begin with, Turkey still lacks an election law regulating presidential candidacy under the new system introduced by the April 2017 referendum. The government hopes to rush a bill next week delineating the rules, so that contenders can officially become candidates.
As stipulated by the April 2017 constitutional amendments, Turkey’s next presidential election will also mark the country’s transition from parliamentary to presidential system. This also requires removing all references in existing laws to the Council of Ministers and other relics that will become obsolete following the June 24 elections. At this point, such a massive overhaul will only be possible by circumventing the parliament’s slow legislative process by way of issuing state of emergency decrees.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council will have to issue a “compressed” electoral calendar, since the government apparently forgot that 67 days are not enough to run the full electoral calendar either for primaries or diaspora voter registration. More embarrassingly, the snap elections have coincided with Turkey’s national university entrance exams, forcing the government to postpone them, disrupting plans for 2.3 million students and their families.
Erdogan still thinks that the pros of a snap election could outweigh the embarrassing cons. In March, one of his cronies inked a deal to acquire Turkey’s largest semi-independent media conglomerate, providing the Turkish president almost complete control over the country’s news outlets. Hours after the announcement of early elections, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and his far-right allies in the MHP voted to extend the state of emergency for the seventh time since the coup attempt of July 2016, making effective electoral campaigning difficult. Erdogan also hopes that the month of fasting during Ramadan, which lasts into mid-June, will further undermine the opposition’s ability to campaign, a carbon copy of his strategy in the 2014 presidential elections.
Meanwhile, debates continue as to whether one of Erdogan’s leading rivals, Meral Aksener — a former MHP lawmaker who established her own party the IYI, late last year — will be able to contest the elections. In Turkey, there is a complex formula that determines political parties’ eligibility to run in the elections, based on the date of the first party congress and the number of provincial conventions held. There are claims that the IYI would only become eligible to participate in elections on June 28; hence, Erdogan’s decision to hold elections four days earlier on June 24. Aksener denied these allegations, stating that her party is eligible to run as of June 10. The IYI spokesperson, who had been the first person to mention the June 28 date, later announced that he had leaked the June 28 deadline on purpose as a red herring to trick Erdogan into picking June 24 for snap elections. The president of the Supreme Electoral Council does not seem to have a decision yet on this dispute, and declared this week that the council needs to look further into the matter to issue a ruling on whether the IYI is eligible to run on June 24.
As Erdogan rushes Turkey toward snap elections, chaos looms. Institutions, parties, and candidates scramble to make do in the absence of even the basics, such as a legal framework, clear electoral rules, and an election calendar. One thing is certain: Turkey’s president, who has no exit strategy in politics, needs to go now. And neither he nor his far-right partners in crime could care less if their reckless maneuvers precipitate an economic crisis or become the final nail in the coffin of Turkey’s flailing electoral democracy.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.