By Xander Snyder
Turks will head to the polls this weekend in snap parliamentary and presidential elections called by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan just two months ago, almost certainly as a way for Erdogan to consolidate his position for another five years before the economy takes a turn for the worse. Erdogan likely wanted to give the opposition as little time as possible to organize, but it has nonetheless put up a much tougher fight than many anticipated.
Erdogan is facing three challengers in the elections. The Kemalist Republican People’s Party, or CHP, led by Muharrem Ince, is in second place in the polls; the moderate, center-right Iyi Party, led by Meral Aksener, is in third place; and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, led by Selahattin Demirtas, a former member of parliament who was arrested on terrorism charges nearly two years ago, is in fourth. The CHP and the Iyi Party have formed a coalition for the parliamentary elections, although Ince and Aksener are both running for president.
The first round of voting will take place on June 24, and if any presidential candidate receives over 50 percent of the votes, they will be declared the winner. If not, then the two candidates with the most votes will compete in a runoff vote on July 8. Though GPF doesn’t predict election results, and polls in Turkey are particularly unreliable, Ince of the CHP is seen as a frontrunner among the opposition candidates. He’s not expected to win in the first round, but if the opposition can force a runoff, then it’s possible that the anti-Erdogan vote could coalesce to beat the president. Erdogan is still considered the favorite by far, but by no means is his re-election a done deal.
Historically, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has depended on the HDP for support, which has helped the AKP in the past win in the second round. Many, however, believe that Erdogan has isolated Kurds in Turkey through the detention of many HDP members in the run-up to the election – not to mention Turkey’s invasion of parts of northern Syria held by the Kurds. Even though opposition parties have faced an uphill battle – their media access has been limited since a pro-AKP media conglomerate acquired a major Turkish media company – the HDP held a rally June 20 that, according to Kurdish media, drew hundreds of thousands of supporters. Whatever the accuracy of these figures, there’s no doubt that there has been major public support for the opposition despite the barriers the AKP has erected.
On a geopolitical level, the question is whether anything in Turkey would change under a different administration. Regardless of who’s in office, Turkey will face the same sets of fundamental problems with the same menu of potential solutions. It has ongoing operations in Syria and Iraq related to core security interests. There is a standoff in the Mediterranean over energy rights that could substantially benefit the Turkish economy and, therefore, whoever’s in office. There are 4 million refugees living in Turkey, which strains the country’s economic resources and administrative and physical infrastructure, and has caused enough discomfiture among segments of the population to lead Anksener to call for the refugees’ expulsion. The lira is weak and likely will continue to be. Inflation will still strain peoples’ daily living expenses, and the country will still be burdened with high external debt that threatens to exacerbate all these problems.
Even if the CHP, the party that seems most likely to challenge the AKP, manages to edge out a win, not much is likely to change. Much of the CHP’s platform mirrors policies supported by the AKP. Party platforms may be mainly aimed at winning elections, but they still give some idea of what a party might do if elected. For example, despite decrying the “adventurism” and “sectarianism” rife in Middle Eastern politics, the CHP has said it will maintain support for Turkish Cypriots, hold firm on energy rights off the coast of Cyprus, continue to contain threats in northern Iraq and fight terrorism in Syria. In other words, while paying lip service to international peace initiatives and territorial integrity, the CHP still supports military operations against terrorist threats in Syria and Iraq, which in Turkey refers to the Kurds.
There are hints, however, that some things may indeed change with a new administration. Perhaps the most important hint is in the CHP’s emphasis on repairing relations with the European Union and the United States. This may just sound like rhetoric, but such a pivot would reflect an underlying reality: Turkey’s economy is struggling. Forging better ties with the EU and the U.S. would increase Turkey’s chances of receiving more foreign investment, which Turkey desperately needs. More capital flowing into the country would also strengthen the value of the lira, which would ease the inflation problem. This is probably a decision the AKP, too, would be forced to make after the election, but what remains unclear is how any realignment toward the West may affect Turkey’s understanding with Russia. For Turkey, cooperation with the U.S. in the Middle East may prevent cooperation with Moscow, which at this stage would be content to leave Syria with Bashar Assad still in power and at least the appearance of victory. All that said, the CHP still argues that Turkey will not abandon its core security interests to make compromises with the EU.
Perhaps the least ambiguous position in the CHP’s foreign policy platform is its stance on Israel. Despite Erdogan’s harsh rhetoric toward Israel, he has been condemned domestically for not doing enough to support the Palestinian cause and has been attacked for his son-in-law’s business ties with Israel. The CHP has said it would cancel an agreement, signed by the AKP in 2016, that re-established diplomatic ties with Israel after it raided a Turkish-led flotilla in 2010 that was trying to bring supplies to the Palestinian territories.
That the CHP’s platform recognizes the same security threats facing Turkey as the AKP is an indication that even if the political landscape in Turkey were to change, not all policies are up for debate.