Why has Turkey started debating an early election?
Despite President Tayyip Erdoğan’s persistent rhetoric about elections being held “on time,” meaning November 2019, his main political ally Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli on April 17 suggested holding early elections.
Speaking at his weekly parliamentary group meeting, Bahçeli said “the nation cannot wait” until Nov. 3, 2019 for the polls and the best time would be Aug. 26 this year. His reasoning was so that they could shift as soon as possible to the executive presidential system, which was narrowly approved through a referendum last year. This suggests that Bahçeli wants a new parliament as soon as possible, formed through an election alliance with Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), amid opinion polls showing the alliance barely reaching 50 percent.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) instantly welcomed the challenge in a “let’s see if you can” kind of way. CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu recently launched a campaign against the state of emergency that the government declared shortly after the July 2016 military coup attempt. As a part of that campaign CHP members have started a sit-in campaign in city centers across Turkey. Saying the next election will pose a choice between pluralist democracy and Erdoğan’s one-man-rule, Kılıçdaroğlu also stresses that elections should not be held under emergency law.
Bahçeli’s unexpected call for an early election, on the other hand, came two days before parliament’s vote for an extension of the state of emergency on April 19. Bahçeli has said he sees the extension of emergency rule, in which the government can bypass parliament on matters related to security, as a “national necessity.”
Judging from Erdoğan’s first reaction, Bahçeli’s call might have come as a surprise for Erdoğan. He said he did “not want to comment” on Bahçeli’s comments before the bilateral meeting they are due to have on April 18. The fact that Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül visited Bahçeli in his office in parliament while Erdoğan was addressing AK Parti deputies in parliament shows that Erdoğan likely wanted to understand what is going on. Gül has been one of the architects of the AK Parti-MHP alliance. He also recently submitted a report to Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım about a possible restructuring of Turkey’s state apparatus, suggesting a decentralization in local security affairs (giving boosted authority to provincial governors) but linking governors directly to the president, thus leaving no say to the cabinet on the appointment of top bureaucrats.
Bahçeli did not give any other reason for his call for an early election, but the possible factors pushing him to make such a call to Erdoğan could be summarized as follows:
• ECONOMY: Turkey is growing fast, with recent figures for 2017 showing 7.4 percent growth. But the current account deficit, inflation, and private sector debts are all growing and depreciation of the Turkish Lira against the U.S. dollar and euro seems impossible to stop. Recent debt restructuring requests from two big business groups (Ülker and Doğuş) to Turkish banks - perhaps setting an example for others - could further increase risks in the currency and debt outlook. As economic uncertainties linger, political risks could grow too. After all, it was a major economic crisis in 2001 that caused the coalition that the MHP was part of to collapse, carrying the AK Parti to power in 2002.
• AFRIN OPERATION: The Turkish military operation in the Afrin region of Syria, aiming to clear the border area of threats posed by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has caused a rise in nationalist and populist feelings in Turkey, leading to a rise in the potential of both the AK Parti and the MHP. But the operation has now ended and the future targets that Erdoğan has indicated are likely to be tried through diplomacy with Russia and the U.S. Any fading of the “Afrin effect” could cause a drop in the combined potential of the allied parties.
• ALLIANCE RISKS: One of the expected side effects of the AK Parti-MHP alliance by its masterminds was a convergence - or even an alliance - between the CHP and the Kurdish problem-focused People’s Democratic Party (HDP). That could in turn help them campaign based on the “national forces vs. subversives” dichotomy. However, the CHP has not taken that path. On the contrary, it has started to flirt with right-leaning parties like the İYİ (Good) Party, as the main rival of the MHP, and the Saadet Party, where the AK Parti’s origins lay.
• KURDISH FACTOR: Amid the ongoing state of emergency, a number of HDP deputies in parliament (including former co-chairman Selahattin Demirtaş) have been jailed on charges of helping or being a member of a terrorist organization, the PKK. That was mainly due to the HDP’s unfortunate apparent support for the PKK’s barricades-and-ditches urban uprising attempt in 2015-16 after an earlier peace process broke down. Demirtaş admitted in his defense testimony in court last week that this was a mistake. And that mistake caused the HDP to lose many urban, liberal-left Turkish votes. However, the AK Parti’s alliance with the MHP may have boosted the HDP’s potential again, with opinion polls still showing it around the 10 percent national threshold.
Amid all this, there are also reports about MHP assessments regarding a possible second move by the supporters of the now-illegal network of U.S.-resident Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen after the July 2016 military coup attempt. Such a move is believed to be possible through stay-behind members still present in the state system and politics.
Up to today, whenever Bahçeli has made a call for an early election there has indeed been an early election in Turkey. There is only one exception: When Erdoğan agreed to legalize election alliances through parliament in order to secure the partnership with Bahçeli.
So far the most pressing factor for Bahçeli’s move seems to be the economic one, but the others should certainly also be taken into account.