Turkey will go to the polls Sunday to elect both its president and the members of its 600-seat parliament. Confronted by a looming economic crisis as well as pressure from his allies on the far right, incumbent strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan chose to call early elections 17 months ahead of schedule. Polls indicate that opposition parties have a real shot at winning a parliamentary majority and forcing Erdogan into a runoff election for the presidency on July 8. The Turkish government is likely to rig the elections once again, yet regardless of the outcome, the unity of opposition parties across the political spectrum represents a major gain for Erdogan’s opponents.
Erdogan is taking Turkey into the most flawed elections since the country held its first free and fair vote in 1950. With his snap elections move, the Turkish president hoped to catch the opposition off guard and even to disqualify one of the leading center-right contenders for the presidency, but this gambit failed. Erdogan controls over 90 percent of Turkish media outlets, and the uneven playing field provides opposition candidates little or no air time. Over the course of the campaign period, human rights observers reported 125 attacks against opposition parties, in which 90 members sustained injuries. Undoubtedly, Erdogan will attempt to rig the ballots as he did in the 2014 local elections, November 2015 parliamentary elections, and the 2017 constitutional referendum.
Turkey’s opposition parties have shown remarkable resilience and resourcefulness in pushing back against Erdogan’s attempt to ambush them with snap elections. They have built a four-party Nation Alliance, which includes the entire political spectrum from the left to right and the secular to religious. The pro-secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) not only arranged for 15 of its lawmakers to join the center-right Good Party (IYI) to thwart Erdogan’s attempts to disqualify the party from running, but also called on its members to help other presidential candidates reach the 100,000 signatures required to be on the ballot.
The biggest success of the opposition parties has been their extraordinary ability to reverse Turkey’s trend of polarization that Erdogan nurtured as his key strategy to keep his seat. Since bringing his party to power in 2002, Erdogan has refused to appear in any public debates with opposition leaders, deliberately undermining political dialogue and deliberation. Opposition leaders, however, have succeeded in reversing this trend by holding regular and cordial meetings with one another and calling for the release of Selahattin Demirtas, the jailed presidential candidate of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). On May 9, CHP’s presidential candidate Muharrem Ince even visited Demirtas in prison. On Wednesday, the incarcerated contender thanked opposition candidates in an op-ed he penned for The New York Times by saying, “With the exception of President Erdogan, all of my fellow candidates have declared that I should be freed.”
The results of Turkey’s June 24 elections and the likely runoff on July 8 will be determined by the opposition’s ability to stop Erdogan’s rigging attempts. Despite the opposition’s best precautions, the Turkish strongman may yet again steal a razor-thin majority that gives him the parliament and the presidency. The Turkish opposition’s ability, after a decade-and-a-half, to join forces and reverse polarization, however, is a win that cannot be stolen. Turkey finally seems to have discovered a return path, albeit long and arduous, to deliberative democracy and pluralism.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.
Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.