Lessons from Turkey’s election season

Lessons from Turkey’s election season

Turkish politics will be on a much-appreciated break this week, as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made his way to Osaka for the G20 summit. The Istanbul rerun is over. After Japan, Erdoğan will be hosted by President Xi Jinping in Beijing, and all together, he will be away from Ankara for about 10 days. Turkey’s Parliament is also in summer recess. So this is a time when Turkey’s political class can get some distance from their routines, and maybe even begin to think ahead a little bit.

The Istanbul rerun has changed Turkey’s political calculus. The opposition’s umbrella candidate put a nine-point lead between him and Erdoğan’s candidate. Here’s one thing you might want to do: When looking at the national map from the election last March, substitute this election result with Istanbul’s head-to-head result then. The share of the governing bloc declines from 49.3 to 48.1 percent. This means that the governing block now only has the support of a minority of the population.

With all this in mind, here is a short list of lessons to contemplate in this recess:

First, the ballot box is the only place Turks feel completely free. It still works wonders in Turkey. Elections may not be fair, but they are still free. Every political faction, no matter how powerful, needs to respect that.

Second, coalitions are back. Since the constitutional reform of 2018, the new rule of Turkish politics is 50 percent plus one vote. This means that large parties can assemble a coalition of smaller parties ahead of elections and beat a much larger rival. Both Istanbul elections have shown us that this is possible. It is no longer a fantasy to think that the right coalition could contest Erdoğan in the 2023 presidential race, and win. It will not be a surprise to see new political parties and alliance in the four years ahead.

Lesson three is on polarization. At first glance, the split into smaller parties forming coalitions (the 50+1 system) is not bad for individual voters. Elections are the only way for Turkey’s citizens to have direct contact with their politicians. The more competitive the elections, the more the needs of individual voters can be taken into account. Yet this is not good for the country as a whole. In a society divided down the middle, a strong structural reform agenda cannot become operational. The temptation to simply squash the losing half of the country is too big. You need checks and balances.

Lesson four is don’t upset the Kurds. The Kurdish vote is important in getting the majority. According to TEPAV surveys, that’s more than 15 percent of the population. If you add up those who say “I have a Kurdish grandfather,” self-proclaimed Kurds reach 18 percent, and their share of the population is rising rapidly. This brings in so many possibilities in domestic, regional and international politics, mostly for the better.

Turkey is about to enter a four-year period of no elections. That is more than enough time to set the economy straight. The September 2018 New Economy Program’s forecast of 2.3 percent growth for 2019 is no longer realistic. The government should start the new program by adjusting its outlook.

Lastly, Turkey’s opposition leaders may take some time to think about these things, but unfortunately for the president, the G20 is no time of blissful contemplation. The G20 is important for Turkey, if for nothing else but a series of bilateral meetings. Far too much rests on the meetings with President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin, I’m afraid.