Erdoğan asks Davutoğlu to go to referendum

Erdoğan asks Davutoğlu to go to referendum

Foreign investors and diplomats have for the last few weeks been wondering about the possibility of a snap election in Turkey in 2016. This is not a natural situation, as Turkey just had its last general election in November 2015. That was the fourth national election in the space of two years, and it saw the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) win almost half the votes, giving it 317 seats in the 550-seat parliament.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was then able to form a single-party government.

Investors look for the continuity of political stability in Turkey and the simplest formula they can think of for this is a one-party government with no change in economic policies. So why on earth have foreign investors and diplomats recently been asking about the possibility of yet another snap election?

Is it because of a wave of opposition shaking the government? Hardly so. Two of the three opposition parties in parliament, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), are in disarray. The MHP is preoccupied with intra-party problems and the HDP is locked in an existential situation, squeezed between parliamentary politics and terrorist acts committed by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with which it shares a major part of its grassroots. Meanwhile, the representation of the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in parliament is currently nowhere near to shaking the AK Parti’s power.

Are questions being asked because of the heavy security problem in the predominantly Kurdish-populated southeast of Turkey, in regions close to civil war-hit Syria and Iraq? Not likely. Prime Minister Davutoğlu - together with two of his deputy prime ministers, two ministers (including the interior minister), and the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) chief – is this weekend visiting Saudi Arabia not only to talk about the Syrian situation but also to pay a visit to the Kaaba in Mecca to go on the Umrah pilgrimage. With the backing of Turkey’s NATO allies in the fight against the PKK, and also engaged in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Ankara does not seem to be obliged to consider holding another election so soon.

No, foreign investors and diplomats are asking questions about a snap election because of continuous remarks by President Tayyip Erdoğan in favor of a shift in the administrative regime from the current parliamentary system to an executive presidential one, through a new constitution.

There are two ways to achieve that new constitution. The first is to secure a two-thirds majority in parliament, which means 367 seats. Since no other party supports Erdoğan’s system change agenda, this scenario could only be realized through another election. But would it be possible for Erdoğan and the AK Parti to increase their seats from 317 to 367? It might be possible under a certain set of circumstances – for example if both the MHP and the HDP are pushed below the 10 percent election threshold and the CHP is not able to increase its votes. As a result, the speculation regarding this scenario is that if and when Erdoğan thinks the MHP is falling toward 10 percent thanks to support for the government’s security campaign against the PKK, he could push Davutoğlu to call a snap election. 

The second way to achieve a new constitution is through a referendum. That is exactly what Erdoğan demanded on Jan. 28 and 29, saying parliament should let “the people” decide on adopting an executive presidential system. “It is not my personal matter,” he added. 

But in order to hold a referendum, a constitutional draft must secure at least 330 votes in parliament - 13 seats more than the AK Parti has, (or 14 if the impartiality of the parliamentary speaker is considered). In a way, Erdoğan’s call was on Davutoğlu to close the gap, since it is Davutoğlu who is responsible for moving the AK Parti group as its leader. To do this, Davutoğlu could try to either convince some members from other parties to support Erdoğan’s plan, or he could try to close the gap by accepting defections from other parties’ MPs to join the AK Parti.

Davutoğlu has so far repeatedly ruled out transferring MPs from other parties, describing such moves as an “improper” tactic resembling the pre-AK Parti era. But now Erdoğan is asking him publicly to do whatever it takes to pass the referendum call from parliament. This brings Turkey one step closer to passing a systemic change centralizing and empowering the executive authority of the president even further. It would ultimately mean curbing the powers of the prime minister, making it another difficult choice for Davutoğlu to make.