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Turkey presidential election

26 April 2018 Ege Seckin

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced on 18 April that Turkey's presidential election would be held on 24 June.

  • The presidential election will put into effect the new political system that was created with the constitutional referendum on 16 April 2017. This entails the establishment of an executive presidency, with minimal checks and balances to its executive authority.
  • The emergence of former president Abdullah Gül as an opposition candidate, although unlikely, would be a development that would jeopardize Erdoğan's ambitions.
  • If Erdoğan achieves one-man rule, policy predictability issues, borne out of an insulated and opaque decision-making mechanism, are likely to intensify, while the nationalist MHP's partial integration into the government will entail a continuation of the hawkish stance against Kurdish autonomist demands.

The announcement came following a meeting between Erdoğan and his parliamentary ally Devlet Bahçeli, chairman of the Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi: MHP). Erdoğan's party, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi: AKP), and the MHP had recently finalized an agreement to establish a formal election alliance (see Turkey: 28 February 2018: Establishment of government-led nationalist coalition in Turkey indicates high likelihood of early election being called in 2018). The AKP-MHP alliance is likely to have been driven by the MHP, which probably fears, in the next election, getting caught below the 10% threshold of minimum votes for entering parliament, given the newfound challenge presented by a breakaway party established by a former MHP deputy. In return, the alliance secures the MHP's support for Erdoğan's presidential ticket. A simple majority is required to win the presidential election.

By calling an early election, Erdoğan is most likely seeking to capitalize on the current boost in his popularity resulting from Turkey's successful cross-border military operation against Kurdish separatists in northern Syria. An additional factor for setting an early date for the election is likely to have been the currently strong - but likely unsustainable - momentum of economic growth. The Turkish economy expanded 7.4 per cent in 2017, faster than any other major economy, but is displaying clear indications that it is overheating, with the inflation rate having been in the double digits since mid-2017 - more than double the central bank's target - while the Turkish lira hit a record low against the US dollar on 6 April 2018. Erdoğan is likely anticipating that the narrow time frame leading up to the election will deny the discordant opposition factions the ability to present a consensus candidate.

The presidential election will put into effect the new political system that was created with the constitutional referendum on 16 April 2017. This entails the establishment of an executive presidency, with minimal checks and balances to its executive authority. We had forecast following the constitutional referendum that an early election was likely to take place by mid-2018.

Outlook and implications

The opposition's ability to mount a formidable challenge to Erdoğan's bid for the executive presidency will depend on whether it can present a catch-all cross-party candidate for the election. One polling organisation reported Erdoğan's current support level as 48 per cent, below the simple majority required to win the election. However, the opposition is likely to find it extremely challenging to agree on a consensus candidate, given the deep divide between opposition voters, Turkish nationalists, and Kurdish autonomists, in contrast to the relative homogeneity of Erdoğan supporters. The emergence of former president Abdullah Gül as an opposition candidate, although unlikely, would be a development that would jeopardize Erdoğan's ambitions.

Erdoğan is likely to pursue a divisive narrative leading up to the election, casting the entire political opposition - including the Kurds as well as his secular rivals - as a united "fifth column" working with Turkey's enemies to undermine the country from within, with a view to consolidating the loyalty of his Turkish nationalist-conservative support base. The government is likely to seek to reinforce this narrative with a cross-border military operation against PKK bases in the mountainous border regions of northern Iraq.

With Erdoğan already exercising an executive role, despite the ceremonial mandate of the presidency under the current constitution, policy formulation is beset by inconsistency emerging from the lack of co-ordination between the presidency and ministries. This frequently results in rhetorical discrepancies and intra-governmental friction in areas ranging from the economy to foreign policy. Such inconsistencies are likely to be solved if, as is likely, Erdoğan achieves one-man rule. In that scenario, policy unpredictability, borne out of an insulated and opaque decision-making mechanism, is likely to intensify. The MHP's partial integration into the government, as a quid pro quo for the party's support for the executive presidency, means that an Erdoğan presidential government would entail a continuation of the hawkish policy against Kurdish autonomist demands, all but ruling out a return to the ceasefire and dialogue between the government and the separatist PKK in the two-year outlook.

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