Turkish election moves: Chess or backgammon?
Many outside observers of Turkish politics may have thought until a week ago that the domestic political scene has come to a point of stagnation, due to the near-total dominance of President Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti).
And they seemed to be right, even up to when Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli, who is allied with Erdoğan and the AK Parti for the next elections, called for early elections in his speech at parliament on April 17. The call came as a surprise to everyone, probably including Erdoğan. Many people think Bahçeli did this in order to not lose momentum from the rise in nationalist feelings after the military’s operation in Syria’s Afrin against outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) affiliates and fluctuations in the economy.
Nobody predicted any real change in the situation when Erdoğan raised the bar the next day on April 18, calling for snap elections to be held on June 24. Under normal circumstances people would probably think that Erdoğan and Bahçeli were aiming to catch the opposition - which is already fragmented and in disarray – unprepared, guaranteeing Erdoğan’s re-election in the first round and dominating parliament with a clear majority.
Very few people, even from the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) could have guessed the game-changing move from CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in response to Bahçeli and Erdoğan’s early election move. After meeting right-wing İYİ (Good) Party Meral Akşener later on the same day, Kılıçdaroğlu asked 15 CHP MPs to resign and join the İYİ Party in order to allow the latter to cross the 20-seat threshold in the 550-seat parliament and enter the election race, eliminating possible obstructions due to bureaucratic formalities by the Supreme Election Board (YSK). They suspected that the rush behind the Erdoğan-Bahçeli alliance was partly aimed at preventing the İYİ Party from taking part in elections, trying to attract disillusioned voters back to the MHP.
The CHP-İYİ Party move was unexpected by the government bloc and infuriated both Erdoğan and Bahçeli. In the meantime, Kılıçdaroğlu was also in contact with Temel Karamollaoğlu, leader of the religious-conservative Felicity Party (SP), to explore the possibility of nominating a joint opposition candidate to run against Erdoğan in the elections.
Karamollaoğlu’s favored candidate is former President Abdullah Gül, who served for many years as prime minister and foreign minister in AK Parti governments but now thinks differently from Erdoğan on accumulating all executive power in the hands of the president. Kılıçdaroğlu is seemingly ready to accept the SP’s proposal if Gül also agrees, while the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is leaning to vote for Gül, instead of its jailed former co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, if Gül stands for the presidency.
However, Akşener has already announced her candidacy and made it clear once again on April 24 that she will not withdraw from the race even if Gül announces his candidacy. Karamollaoğlu said he would meet with Gül on the issue and, if necessary, would like more talks with the CHP and İYİ Party leaders for a possible alliance.
Meanwhile, Gül has reportedly had a meeting with former AK Parti foreign and then prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who has seemingly moved close to Erdoğan in recent months after remaining distanced after his under-pressure resignation in 2016. In another surprise move, Erdoğan reportedly scheduled a meeting with former parliamentary speaker Bülent Arınç, who was the part of the original AK Parti founding triumvirate (together with Erdoğan and Gül) but who has also stayed at a distance since 2015. All these contacts might be part efforts to understand internal balances of the AK Parti regarding recent developments.
Bekir Ağırdır, head of the polling company KONDA, wrote recently on T24 website that if the opposition is unable to gather itself around a strong candidate then the result is likely to be in favor of Erdoğan. But it is still hard to predict the direction in which this power game will proceed in the coming days. At the moment it looks more like a game of backgammon rather than a game of chess, with the players throwing dice at every turn.