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Ali Sokmen is an analyst covering Turkish affairs for Control Risks, the global business risk consultancy.
After having voted four times over the past two years, many Turkish citizens think they have seen enough ballot boxes. Turkish politicians seem to disagree.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (the CHP, the main parliamentary opposition), ordered his party organization last month to prepare for possible early elections. The next day, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin ruled out snap elections but confusingly added that there may be two referenda this year to amend the country’s constitution.
Didn’t Turkey just have a parliamentary election in November resulting in a clear victory for the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP)? And why two referenda instead of one?
It may be early to plan the next trip to the polling station, but keep comfortable shoes near the front door. A mixture of short-term external outlook, opinion poll results, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s intuition as a politician will jointly decide why and whether Turks will go to balloting.
Erdogan’s pas de deux into the president’s office is by now well known. The AKP’s founder and prime minister since 2003, Erdogan in 2014 was elected to the office of the president, a role that the Turkish constitution makes symbolic and apolitical. Having handed the prime ministry to Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan remains openly partisan and far from symbolic.
Enter the presidential system.
Since the elections, Erdogan and senior government officials repeatedly emphasize the need to change the constitution and introduce an executive, partisan presidency similar to those in the United States or France. Setting aside the debate on the merits of such a system, there is one key challenge to its adoption. The AKP is fourteen parliamentary seats short of 330, the number required for changing the constitution via a popular referendum. Unfortunately for the AKP, the normally fragmented parliamentary opposition is largely united in its opposition to the presidential system. This triggered the failure of a parliamentary commission set up by the AKP. The commission, established to revise to the constitution, disbanded on February 16, when the CHP pulled out.
Discord in parliament means Erdogan is going to have to recruit allies from the opposition—either entire parties or individual members of parliament (MPs)—one by one until the AKP has 330 votes in favor of revision and a public referendum. Recent statements by senior government figures including Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus confirm this.
How likely will the AKP get 330 votes? A recent rapprochement between the AKP and Devlet Bahceli, the embattled leader of the fractious Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), suggests that inter-party cooperation is possible if Bahceli is able to control around half of his forty MPs. Should this fail, plans of a similar deal with the increasingly fragile pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) could surface. Beyond that, the AKP also needs full support among its own members. February has seen increased tensions within the party, as senior figures including Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc and former Education Minister Huseyin Celik openly criticized the government’s recent policies.
So what would happen if the AKP’s constitutional revision effort fails? The AKP, prompted by Erdogan, could decide to “ask the people” and call early elections, much as the president and key supporters discredited this option. That said, the AKP has much to gain and little to lose from early elections. Opposition parties are at their weakest state in a decade and are beset by internal leadership struggles. At least one of them will fall below the 10 percent election threshold and fail to enter parliament, transferring most of its seats to the AKP. Further, the government has already taken economic measures to bolster popular support, including a 30 percent hike in the net minimum wage. Finally, escalating security risks, a source of much worry to foreign investors, could sustain public support for the incumbent government in the absence of more trustworthy alternatives.
Early elections hardly seem the solution, even if the opposition, as suspected, fails to coalesce and the AKP fails to produce an internal alternative. Consumer confidence has been declining since November amid global economic uncertainty and increasing geopolitical risks. An externally induced economic shock could occur after the elections have been called.
More importantly, the civil war in Syria is increasingly spilling over to Turkey with unpredictable political and security consequences. Although the government has toned down its rhetoric regarding a Turkish ground operation in Syria in recent weeks, the shifting balance in the civil war there is likely to put such plans back on the table in the coming months. The implications for Turkey of such an operation could be destabilizing. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), currently fighting against the Turkish military in the southeast, could dramatically step up its violent campaign if Turkey conducts a ground operation in territories held by its Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Such a scenario could further increase security risks and political instability to the extent that it jeopardizes voting in the east of the country. It would also probably lead to an increase in terrorist attacks directed against civilians in major cities in the west of the country, like the March 13 car bomb in Ankara that killed thirty-five people.
Given roughly even odds for the AKP succeeding to recruit the opposition to support its constitution draft, Turks could get away with just one trip to the polling station this year. They would see a “yes” vote in a constitution referendum as a shortcut to stability. Following the vote in mid-summer, they would head to their vacation homes or relatives in the countryside to take a short break, hoping it was the season finale of this engrossing ballot box soap opera that has run a few episodes too many.