President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s name might not be on the ballot when Turkish voters head to the polls this Sunday, June 7, but he and the dramatic changes he envisions for the country’s political system are very much the main issue.
Erdogan became Turkey’s first directly elected president last year after three terms as prime minister. Until now, the presidency has been a largely ceremonial position, but Erdogan wants to amend the constitution to create an executive presidency, which he can do without any support from the opposition if his AKP party wins two thirds of the seats in parliament on Sunday. His critics believe this would concentrate a dangerous amount of power in the hands of a leader who has been showing increasingly authoritarian tendencies.
A moderate Islamist and former mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan came to power in 2003, and for most of his tenure enjoyed support at home and praise from abroad for reducing the role of the military in government, loosening Turkey’s strict restrictions on religion in public life, and—until recently—presiding over impressive economic growth. Lately, however, some of the shine has worn off Erdogan’s “Turkish model.” Economic growth has fizzled. His government has been criticized for clamping down on journalists, the Internet, and political opposition—particularly after the harsh crackdown on the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. In 2013, a number of senior AKP officials were implicated in a wide-ranging corruption scandal, which Erdogan blamed on followers of the influential Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen—a former ally turned critic whom Erdogan accuses of trying to destabilize his government. More recently, he’s been criticized for constructing a lavish presidential palace, and there’s been a bizarre subplot of the election involving the opposition’s accusations that he’s installed gold toilet seats.
Erdogan has denied that the strong presidential system he wants would lead to dictatorship, saying, “Is there dictatorship in the United States, Mexico or in Brazil?" These may not be the best examples, since Mexio and Brazil were dictatorships for many years, plus the fact that the U.S. hasn’t been one is an odd fluke of great interest to political scientists. Erdogan has been actively campaigning for the AKP in this election, which is constitutionally questionable—he hasn’t technically been a member of the party since being elected to the theoretically apolitical presidency—but that isn’t really surprising given that the party’s success on Sunday is far from guaranteed. Recent polls, which shouldn’t be relied on too heavily, shows support for the AKP running at around 40 percent—down significantly from the 50 percent it won in 2011. Erdogan has been leaning heavily on religious supporters, brandishing copies of the Koran on the campaign trail.
The most distinctive feature of Turkish elections is that parties need to cross a 10 percent threshold to be represented in parliament. This is the highest threshold of any democratic country, leading the Guardian to call it the “world’s most unfair election system” this week.
The other big story of the election is the emergence of a pro-Kurdish leftist party, HDP. Kurdish parties have never been able to crack the 10 percent threshold, but polls suggest that HDP has a shot. Kurdish opposition to Erdogan was galvanized by the government’s reluctance to aid the Syrian border city of Kobani, which was besieged by ISIS last year. The party is also hoping to pick up secular leftist support from what’s left of the Gezi Square movement. Though the party is predominantly Kurdish, its candidate list is notably diverse, including Christians, Yazidis, and potentially the county’s first openly gay lawmaker. It’s AKP opponents charge that HDP tied to the PKK—the outlawed militant Kurdish group that’s fought against government in the country’s southeast for decades.
The HDP is only in fourth place, but its role in the election is critical. If it can cross the 10 percent threshold, it’s unlikely Erdogan will have the support he needs to push through his new constitution.
[Update, June 5, 2014: Two people were killed and more than 100 wounded by two explosions at an HDP rally in the predominantly Kurdish city of Kiyarbakir in southeastern Turkey on Friday. Turkey's prime minister says it's unclear whether the blasts were an accident or an attack.]
The supermajority Erdogan wants is looking unlikely at the moment, but as president, he can still give the AKP a mandate to form a government even if it has fewer seats than the combined opposition. This, the 10 percent threshold, and other quirks of the Turkish system were put in place by the military secularists ruling Turkey in the early 1980s to keep themselves in power. Ironically, they might turn out to be the last hope of the Islamist leader who wants to undo their legacy.