After the embarrassing losses in this year’s local elections – not once but twice in Istanbul – Recep Tayyip Erdogan has come to the bitter realization that time is not on his side. As 2019 draws to a close, his sense of urgency is even more palpable. The next presidential election is scheduled for 2023, but almost no one in Turkey believes Erdogan will wait that long. With a moribund economy no longer producing jobs, newly emerging political parties threatening his base, the incursion into Syria giving no hope of solving the refugee problem and a worsening crisis with Washington, Erdogan has no good options.
What is certain is that long term trends are not in his favor so it will surprise no one if Erdogan takes a calculated risk and calls early elections in 2020. This would not only catch the opposition off guard – giving the two new political parties formed by former allies Ahmet Davutoglu and Ali Babacan no time to organize – but also rally Erdogan’s nationalist base around the flag before things get even worse.
In retrospect, Erdogan must know that he made a critical strategic mistake by establishing a presidential system that requires him to win more than 50 percent of the national vote to get elected. Under the former parliamentary system, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was able to form a strong government with as low as 35 percent of the votes. And as prime minister and head of the executive branch, Erdogan had all the powers he needed to run the country in a centralized, patriarchal manner, just as if there were a presidential system in place.
Now, with the new system he himself imposed, Erdogan is at the mercy of the smaller, ultra-nationalist, Nationalist Action Party (MHP) for both his presidency and parliamentary majority.
The polls say Erdogan’s popularity is in decline and popular support for his AKP is at an all-time low. Even with MHP support, it is far from guaranteed that he will win that 50 percent. What is abundantly clear is that even small desertions from the AKP vote are likely to have major consequences for his prospects of securing another presidential term. This is why recent developments, with two new parties entering the political fray, are deeply worrying for both Erdogan and the AKP.
The first of these, the Future Party, was founded last week by a former AKP prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, and is expected to attract disgruntled religious conservative voters from the AKP base. The second is expected to be formed within a month by Ali Babacan, the former AKP economy czar who is highly regarded by financiers as the architect of the growth years between 2003 and 2013. Most polls show that these two parties, combined, have the potential to win 20 percent of the votes. It is therefore in Erdogan’s interest to deny them a chance to gain traction in the next couple of years.
Another reason the presidential system has proved to be a strategic mistake for Erdogan is because it provides a strong incentive for a notoriously divided Turkish opposition to band together in a coalition and select a single candidate as the main challenger to Erdogan.
By losing Istanbul not once but twice to the charismatic, young and highly popular Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, Erdogan has inadvertently created that challenger. In the highly probable scenario of Erdogan failing to win outright in the first round of voting, Imamoglu is likely to emerge as the consensus opposition candidate for president in the run-off.
Unlike previous CHP candidates, Imamoglu comes from a conservative family. His background and conciliatory style appeal to both progressive secularists and the moderately religious masses. As witnessed in Istanbul’s mayoral elections, Imamoglu also has a proven track record of appealing to both Kurdish and Turkish nationalists, represented respectively by the People’s Democracy Party (HDP) and Good Party (IYI party) which broke away from the MHP.
No one will be surprised if Davutoglu and Babacan also end up supporting Imamoglu, which makes him a formidable challenger to Erdogan. The next chapter of Turkish politics is very likely to be written by this new generation of politicians composed of Imamoglu, Babacan and HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas.
It is certainly still too early to rule out yet another Erdogan victory. In the 2018 presidential election, he won in the first round with 52.6 percent of the votes for two main reasons. First, the economy was still keeping its head above water. Unemployment and inflation were showing disturbing signs but the Turkish lira was stronger and Erdogan appeared to be in control. Second, the opposition candidate, Muarrem Ince, was far less appealing to the conservative masses than Imamoglu. This time, Erdogan will be facing much more difficult economic conditions and a much more talented opponent.
Can Erdogan still win despite all that? His aura of invincibility is long gone. But never underestimate a wounded tiger. Erdogan is ready to play the nationalist card again. His threat to shut down Incirlik air base in retaliation for the US Senate unanimously passing the Armenian Genocide resolution is also a clear warning to American legislators not to approve a package of military and economic sanctions against Turkey as punishment for invading Syria and purchasing a Russian anti-missile system.
The US Senate is in no mood to listen, however, and sanctions probably will pass in the next couple of weeks. They will have limited short-term impact on the economy but over the long-term they will undermine Ankara’s ability to attract external financing.
All these factors indicate why Erdogan would be wise to call early elections. His only hope is to mobilize the nationalist vote before the economy and relations with the US deteriorate even further. His chances of winning are not strong, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
Omer Taspinar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.