Election on the horizon
Over the past 14 years, one sacrosanct principle of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was to stick to declared schedules and categorically refuse early elections. Elections were held a few months ahead of scheduled dates, and local elections were held in a shorter time, together with parliamentary elections. But talk of early elections was a taboo that the party’s ultimate, all-powerful and unmerciful leader was determined not to allow for any reason. Still, in past years and on many occasions, the AKP leadership has considered the possibility of going to early elections or even snap polls. However, they have so far managed to stick to schedules and rightly boast that political administrations serving their allocated full tenure was one of the cornerstones of political stability.
Now, perhaps for the first time, the AKP is in desperate need of an early election. Why? First of all to cleanse itself of the Fethullahist Islamist fraternity, or what has been dubbed “FETÖ” (Fethullahist Terror Organization) contamination. After all, if there was FETÖ contamination in the military, academia, business world, media and if for most of the past 14 years, AKP and FETÖ were in the same bed concocting strategies to hunt everyone that did not belong to their coalition, can anyone reasonably claim that there was no FETÖ member, or imam, as has become the tradition, in the political realm, particularly in the AKP?
The AKP has dumped over 300 people from its local organizations. Many provincial and district senior executives of the AKP were either forced to step down or expelled from the party. Photographs keep on popping up in social media, showing visits by top AKP executives, deputies and emissaries to Fetullah Gülen, the chief of FETÖ, who has resided in Pennsylvania for close to 20 years. Did anyone forget that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lamented, “What did they [the Fethullah fraternity] demand from us that we did not give them?” just last year?
Political immunity for parliamentarians is one impediment obstructing the hunt of FETÖ extensions in politics. The other equally important obstruction might be the domino effect such a hunt might unleash within the AKP if confessions might gush forth during interrogations. Worse, the domestic media was successfully and satisfactorily domesticated but even if Turkey has become the unchallenged global champion of restrictions to websites, Turks still manage to reach out and read “explosive” stories about some “nasty” affairs of some very influential personalities considered untouchable locally.
Now there is talk of moving to a Turkish-style super-president model with a president having all the legislative, judicial and executive powers in his hand, without any meaningful checks and balances. Some might call this autocracy, some others might prefer to describe it a dictatorship, but the AKP currently prefers to call a “Turkish-style presidential system.” After realizing that Erdoğan was in a difficult position, the AKP’s most trustworthy political enabler, Devlet Bahçeli of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), rushed to demand that the AKP initiate a constitutional amendment process to make the de facto presidential system de jure. What else could be expected from Bahçeli?
Bahçeli’s move helped Erdoğan and his AKP steer the country to the ballot box. It was obvious that an early election was becoming an absolute necessity. With Bahçeli’s constitutional referendum offer, the AKP was ordained with the power of limiting dissent in its ranks. How? Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım explained:
“Irrespective of the vote on constitutional amendments in parliament, the nation will be asked to make the final choice.” The AKP is 14 seats short of the minimum requirement of 330 votes to legislate constitutional reform through a referendum. To avoid going to a referendum, it needs to reach the magical number of 367 seats, and even if the MHP gives all-out support with its 40 deputies, the AKP cannot reach that majority. Yet, with the MHP’s support, the AKP might overcome probable defections within its ranks. Are the number of Gülenists who might still be loyal to FETÖ not more than 15, as AKP executives believe? What if the figure is as high as 50 to 80, as many political analysts claim? The referendum on a presidential system, irrespective of a parliamentary vote and a consequent parliamentary election, might limit defections.
On the other hand, past experiences demonstrated that when Turkey went to local and general elections together, the AKP suffered a decrease in its votes. Now local and parliamentary elections are scheduled for March 2019. Under the current election law, if the AKP does not want to have two elections together in March 2019, they must pull parliamentary elections to sometime before March 2018. Having elections in winter months is impossible. Thus, if it does not want to have them together, the AKP must have the parliamentary polls sometime between April and November 2017.
Now, the talk in the town is that the AKP is tilting toward an early election in April 2017 for many reasons. The two most prominent of these reasons explained earlier are: 1) The economy is going berserk. A crisis might be looming. Going to polls at the earliest possible date might limit the damage. 2) The atmosphere after the failed coup has boosted the AKP’s popularity to over 60 percent, according to public opinion polls. That popularity has started to erode for various reasons, particularly as the people have started seeing the advance of autocracy in the country. Thus an early election might limit further erosion in the AKP vote.