The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
On Sunday, Turks will go to the polls in both presidential and parliamentary elections. They will be the first elections since last April’s constitutional referendum, which endowed the office of the presidency with considerable powers and freed it from most checks on its authority.
For the nearly half of the electorate that supports the opposition, the stakes could not be higher: these elections may be the last chance to defeat Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s strongman president, and prevent a total collapse of Turkish governing institutions.
Although Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) remain the heavy favorites to win, they are more vulnerable now than they ever have been. Erdogan’s base has narrowed, and after four elections in the past five years, the electorate is exhausted. For the first time in a decade, the AKP has lost control over the narrative and failed to excite voters committed to the party’s success.
In the run-up to these elections, meanwhile, Turkey’s fractured political opposition has finally united, thanks in part to recent changes to Turkey’s electoral laws, originally intended to consolidate Erdogan’s power. By allowing multiple parties to run as a single electoral coalition—a move meant to formalize the AKP’s alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)—the new law has made it easier for the opposition to combine its forces, setting up a showdown between opposition and government coalitions.
This has in turn led to a final twist: with the two large coalitions almost evenly matched, the key to the forthcoming elections will be the performance of the Kurdish-majority Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and their presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtas. After years of Erdogan and the AKP hardening their stance toward both Turkish and Syrian Kurds, their fates may, ironically, lie in Kurdish hands.
Turkey’s opposition is pursuing a two-pronged strategy, aimed at denying the AKP and its allies a parliamentary majority while preventing Erdogan from winning more than 50 percent of the presidential vote, which would allow him to take office without facing a runoff.
The parliamentary election will be a contest between two electoral blocs. The AKP has formalized a coalition with the MHP, dubbed the People’s Alliance. The opposition bloc, the National Alliance, includes the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), as well as the nationalist Good Party (IYI) and the Islamist Felicity Party (Saadet). The two coalitions have captured much of the electorate—the People’s Alliance is polling between 43 and 51 percent, while the National Alliance is expected to receive between 40 and 45 percent of the vote. The HDP, meanwhile, is expected to capture close to ten percent. If the HDP underperforms and wins less than ten percent, it will not meet the minimum threshold to enter parliament, benefiting the People’s Alliance.
The Kurdish HDP is not an official member of either alliance. It does not have a stable constituency outside of its core, Kurdish-majority areas in Turkey’s southeast, and much of Turkey’s electorate is not fond of the party’s leftist platform and its linkage to the “Kurdish issue,” the euphemism used to describe the 35-year-old insurgency led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). However, the HDP’s successes in recent years have set in motion a series of events that have eroded support for the AKP and forced Erdogan to make legal changes that have left him vulnerable to a united opposition campaign.
After elections in June 2015, when the HDP received over 13 percent of the vote, the AKP briefly lost its parliamentary majority, forcing it to turn toward the MHP in order to expand its base. The two parties worked together to draft the new Turkish constitution and then campaigned in a de factocoalition to ensure its passage in the April 2017 referendum. Then, in February 2018, the AKP and MHP agreed to a legislative change allowing parties to run as a formal coalition while still appearing individually on the ballot. The new law maintained Turkey’s ten percent threshold for entering parliament, but in practice it will apply only to stand-alone parties such as the HDP—not those running as part of a larger coalition.
Erdogan likely intended to capitalize on MHP support in order to win a majority in the first round of presidential elections and, in so doing, reached agreement with the MHP leadership to ensure that they would retain parliamentary representation even if their share of the vote dipped below ten percent. Erdogan also appears to have believed that the ideologically divided opposition would not be able to unite and form a coalition of its own. There was a certain logic to this gamble: the National Alliance includes the Islamist Saadet, the neonationalist IYI Party, and the CHP, which is divided between older Kemalists and younger social democrats.
Yet Erdogan seems to have underestimated the impact of the April 2017 referendum, which created an executive presidency with few checks on its power. Despite their differences, the members of the National Alliance share a concern about the future of the country and a fear of Erdogan assuming control of the office he created for himself. They were thus able to set aside their vast ideological differences and campaign in the name of Turkish democracy.
The AKP-MHP coalition law, in turn, has made the National Alliance more competitive because it has rendered moot the requirement that parties must receive at least ten percent of the vote to enter parliament. Under the new system, parties will run as part of a coalition, but each individual party will be on the ballot and will be assigned seats in parliament proportionate to their performance. This means that a small party that is part of a larger alliance, such as Saadet, will get a few seats in parliament despite receiving less than five percent of the vote. The benefit for the National Alliance is that Saadet supporters don’t have to worry about wasting their votes or defecting and voting for the Islamist AKP—they know that their ballots matter because each coalition partner will get a seat.
CALLING ON THE KURDS
Although the parliamentary elections are important, the real prize is the presidency. The People’s Alliance is working hard to ensure that Erdogan wins an outright majority in order to avoid a runoff with the second-place finisher. Rather than compromise on a single consensus candidate to compete with Erdogan in the first round, every party in the National Alliance has nominated its own candidate for president. The opposition’s strategy is dependent on each party running a vigorous campaign in support of its candidate in order to turn out voters and prevent splits in each party’s base. The hope is that this will deny Erdogan a first-round majority, forcing him into a runoff in which the National Alliance will coalesce around the most popular opposition candidate.
That candidate is likely to be the CHP’s Muharrem Ince. Currently polling between 27 and 32 percent, Ince has emerged as Turkey’s second most popular candidate and the one best positioned to challenge Erdogan in a theoretical second-round matchup. He has charmed crowds with traditional folks dances, challenged Erdogan’s economic stewardship, and made direct overtures to Turkey’s Kurdish minority, who constitute some 15 to 20 percent of the country’s electorate.
Erdogan, by contrast, can no longer count on Kurdish goodwill in the southeast. The AKP is still the second-strongest party in Kurdish areas, after the HDP, and religious Kurds are one of the party’s core constituencies. But Erdogan’s aggressive counterinsurgency campaign against the PKK and military operations against Kurdish fighters in Syria’s Afrin have alienated moderate Kurds, who had previously given him credit for stewarding peace talks with the PKK. Erdogan’s hawkish, anti-Kurdish stance has opened the door for the opposition to court Kurdish voters as part of its two-pronged electoral campaign.
The HDP is not a member of the National Alliance, but its success is critical for the bloc’s parliamentary strategy. The HDP will have to surpass the ten percent threshold in order to prevent the AKP from retaining its parliamentary majority. The HDP won 13 percent of the vote in 2015, but that result may be hard to replicate—the HDP’s candidate for president, Demirtas, is in jail on charges of spreading propaganda for the PKK and reliant on surrogates to campaign on his behalf.
The National Alliance has a lot invested in Demirtas’ success because support for his presidential campaign is closely correlated with the party’s overall popularity. The National Alliance needs high turnout from HDP voters in order to prevent Erdogan and his alliance from winning outright majorities, and Demirtas gets people to the polls. Erdogan, on the other hand, would benefit from low HDP turnout and is doing everything he can to ensure that result. For instance, the government recently decided to move ballot boxes from certain HDP-leaning villages to villages controlled by the AKP, citing security concerns. This could depress HDP turnout and have national repercussions for the presidential and parliamentary races.
Demirtas, who is currently polling around ten percent, will not make it to the presidential runoff. Yet his potential endorsement of the second-place finisher is critically important to the National Alliance. If Erdogan does not win outright, he will likely face Ince in the second round. The HDP has signaled that it will endorse Ince, as has Meral Aksener, the presidential candidate and leader of the IYI Party. Two remaining questions will determine Ince’s fate in a runoff. The first is whether nationalist voters from the IYI Party will defect and vote for Erdogan over Ince, whom they may see as pandering to Kurdish nationalism. The second is whether HDP voters will turn out in a second round when Demirtas is not on the ballot.
THE END OF ERDOGAN?
The outcome of Turkey’s elections remains uncertain. Erdogan has the easiest pathway to win the presidency, either on the first ballot or in a runoff with the second-place finisher. His efforts to empower himself, however, have opened the door for the opposition to challenge his party’s hold on power, while he and his party’s foreign policy and commitment to remilitarizing the Kurdish issue have undercut his support with Kurds. Ironically, it was Erdogan’s initial trailblazing talks with the PKK, which continued off and on between 2006 and 2015, that lessened the stigma for Turkish politicians to openly court the Kurdish vote—a strategy now being pursued by his main rival, Ince.
Turks will wake up to a new parliament on June 25. Potentially, they will have to wait another two weeks to learn who their president will be. The AKP and Erdogan remain Turkey’s most powerful and popular political force. But the signs of decay are obvious, leaving open the possibility that the opposition can take advantage of AKP-led legal changes to topple Turkey’s most powerful man.