Addressing his Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) branch members in his Black Sea
hometown of Rize on Aug. 7, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan said the 2019 elections will be “difficult” and stressed that the party organization should work even harder.
This is the first time that Erdoğan has admitted that the presidential and parliamentary elections - scheduled to be held together in November 2019 - is not a slam dunk.
Clearly he does not see the 51.4 percent approval he received in the April 16, 2017 referendum for concentrating all executive power in presidential hands as a guarantee for 2019. Within that 51.4 percent there were not only AK Parti votes but also votes from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Islamist-nationalist Great Unity Party (BBP).
In yesterday’s speech Erdoğan recalled that the maximum vote that the AK Parti had ever reached was 49.5 percent (in November 2015). That was enough to give it a landslide victory but it will not be enough to win in 2019, because both he and the AK Parti will need 50 percent-plus-one vote according to the new rules. It may be possible for Erdoğan to get re-elected as president in the second round of voting, but there would be no second round for the parliament seats and the new executive presidential system cannot work properly unless the president rules a single-party government.
A recent incident showed that Erdoğan and the AK Parti could experience more difficulties without the support of the MHP. After a former executive committee member of the AK Parti said in a TV show that “a new state is being established and Erdoğan is its founding leader,” MHP head Devlet Bahçeli, (who supported Erdoğan in the referendum), strongly condemned the remarks and asked Erdoğan to respond. As a result, Erdoğan yesterday criticized the statement for a second time in two days, stressing that the AK Parti “only wanted to strengthen the Turkish Republic” and was not looking for any alternative.
The MHP won 11.9 percent of the vote in November 2015 but has suffered troubles ever since. A group from within the party resigned and they are about to establish a new party on the right. But even if the MHP loses half of its votes, the remaining half would be vitally necessary for Erdoğan in 2019. Bahçeli has made it clear that his limits, along with being strongly against Kurdish secessionism, are respect for the Republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the secular foundations of the Republic.
On the other hand, Erdoğan needs the support of Islamist-conservative votes in order not to fall below the 50 percent target in 2019. The minor Saadet Partisi (Felicity Party), which shares origins with the AK Parti but which has only 2.5 percent popular support, stood against Erdoğan in the referendum. By symbolically supporting the “Justice March” of main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, Saadet signaled to Erdoğan that it could damage his re-election targets. In addition, the “Jerusalem Rally” that Saadet organized against Israel
on July 31 also disturbed the AK Parti because it showed that Saadet knows the vulnerable points of Erdoğan’s AK Parti and can deliver blows there.
The BBP also took the opportunity of the crisis with Israel
to give a “Don’t forget we’re here” message to Erdoğan, sending members of its youth organizations to protest in front of synagogues in Istanbul. Similar moves are being made by certain religious sects and groups to fill the gap left by the Gülenists, who are being cleared from bureaucracy, the judiciary, and the AK Parti organizations. Erdoğan’s former ally between 2002 and 2012, U.S.-resident Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen is now accused of masterminding the July 15, 2016 military coup attempt in Turkey.
There are actually easy, populist ways to secure the votes of all conservative and nationalist circles, such as reinstating the death penalty for Gülenist coup plotters and terrorism convicts of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party
(PKK). But reinstating the death penalty would means facing a freeze or even complete break in relations with the European Union, which would not be good either for Turkish democracy or the economy before the 2019 elections, which carry crucial importance not only for Turkey’s future but also for Erdoğan’s political career.
So Erdoğan is right, the next elections really will be difficult.