Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signalled that national parliamentary and presidential elections would be brought forward to 14 May, instead of mid-June, as had been planned.
The ostensible reason for this is to ensure the broadest possible voter turnout. Officials from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) explained that June was the beginning of the summer season, when school terms end and many people set off for their home towns in the countryside or for holiday resorts.
While the explanation seems reasonable, few take it at face value. Opposition quarters have little doubt that, by calling for early elections, Erdogan and the AKP intend to throw the opposition off balance. He hinted as much in his remarks to parliament. Referring to the coalition of six opposition parties, he said, “On the same day [14 May] 73 years later, our nation will once again say ‘Enough’ to those incompetent and ardent coup applauders who appear to us beneath the banner of the Table of Six.”
On 14 May 1950, Turkey held its first multiparty elections resulting in the victory of the right-wing Adnan Menderes over the ruling secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP). Menderes was subsequently overthrown in the 1960 military coup. The Table of Six parties, the largest of which is the CHP, have yet to agree on a presidential candidate and how to coordinate over the candidates they will field for the parliamentary elections.
By bringing the election forward, the ruling party also hopes to capitalise on some of the government’s foreign policy successes, especially the inroads Ankara has made towards ending tensions with the Arab region and a rapprochement with the regime in Damascus, which would generate an environment conducive to the repatriation of Syrian refugees. The contentious refugee question had become one of the hot-button issues working in favour of the opposition.
After a long and steady slide in the polls, Erdogan has made a comeback, and the likely decision to hold early elections is undoubtedly linked with that. According to a survey conducted at the end of October 2022, Erdogan’s popularity had risen to 47.6 per cent. The government had just increased the minimum wage by 55 per cent, raised the salaries and pensions of civil servants and public sector employees, and introduced other urgently needed economic relief measures.
On the other hand, the idea of early elections has once again sparked the controversy over whether Erdogan is legally eligible to run for office once again. Under the constitution as amended in April 2017, a president cannot serve more than two terms. However, in the event of early elections, an incumbent in his second term is still entitled to run for a third term.
Erdogan is also intent on exploiting nationalist sentiments that have been stoked by tensions with Greece over maritime boundaries and drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, and by military operations against what Ankara describes as Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) lairs in Iraqi Kurdistan and northern Syria.
Erdogan, who has been pushing “Islamic values” and a neo-Ottoman revivalist agenda throughout his more than 20 years as head of government, has recently called for a constitutional amendment explicitly stipulating women’s right to wear a veil. This has helped fire the ardour of Islamist hawks in the AKP and solidify support within the ruling party rank and file. It may also help explain the choice of the historically charged date for the early election, with its references to the Islamist oriented Manderes and the defeat of the party founded by Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic.
Although the headscarf had long been banned in Turkish public institutions on the grounds that it undermined the constitutionally stipulated secularist nature of state, there is nothing explicit in the constitution that prohibits the headscarf, and the restrictions against wearing it were lifted a decade ago. Nevertheless, the headscarf remains an Erdogan cause célèbre that he uses to energise his base election seasons.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the CHP, the largest opposition party, has stated that the CHP and the other parties in the opposition coalition, “have no problem with 14 May. What matters is that the people have the say.” But bringing the election forward could still throw the opposition into disarray.
The opposition parties have little in common apart from their belief in the need to reinstate the parliamentary system. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) Co-Chairperson Pervin Buldan has announced that her party would not take part in either the AKP’s People’s Alliance or the opposition’s Nation Alliance and that it would field its own candidate for president. Meral Aksener, head of the IYI (Good) Party, said that, in the 2023 elections, her party would come out first and on its own, not in an alliance. Such statements show the extent of the confusion in the ranks of the opposition.
Erdogan clearly believes that he and his party are recovering their edge and wants to seize the initiative. Developments related to the Ukrainian crisis have contributed to the impetus. Above all, the demand on Turkey to act as a mediator and its success in brokering the grain deals have worked to alleviate Western pressures on Turkey over contentious issues while Russian President Vladimir Putin has facilitated Ankara’s ability to obtain Russian gas by allowing it to pay for a portion of its imports in rubles.
If, indeed, the elections are held a month earlier than planned, it remains to be seen whether the opposition will rally its forces effectively and, perhaps more importantly, what Erdogan and his party are prepared to do stay in power. What is certain is that political temperatures will climb in Turkey’s already sharply polarised climate.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.