Turkish officials, and President Recep Tayyib Erdogan in particular, reassured that the elections will be held as scheduled in June 2023 and not earlier. Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdag, on August 19, said that both the presidential and parliamentary elections will be held on the same day on June 18, 2023. Despite the reassurances, there are doubts in Turkey as to whether Erdogan may surprise the opposition and call for early elections by the end of the current year. Some reports claimed that the early elections are likely to be held in November this year.
The likelihood for early elections is backed by signs, as well as by motivations of President Erdogan as well as the Justice and Development Party, or AK Party. Yet, at the same time, there are caveats that may hinder the ruling party from taking such a step.
Recently, the AK Party and the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, its ally in the People’s Alliance, made moves towards preparing for the next elections, which indicates that the country will possibly witness early elections. The development came ten months ahead of the elections scheduled for June 2023. These include:
1. Erdogan’s official announcement in a speech at a consultative meeting of the AK Party held in Izmir in June 2022, that he will be the candidate of the People’s Alliance. He even called on the leader of the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, to declare either his candidacy or the candidate who would challenge Erdogan on behalf of the opposition.
2. Reports confirming that the AK Party’s commissions received instructions from Erdogan, during a meeting held on August 25, 2022 to discuss an initial roadmap to the elections, and work on the party’s election manifesto.
3. Turkish sources confirmed, on August 28, that the AK Party, has decided to center its attention on those planning to boycott the elections. A special team of experts set up by the party will work on convincing boycotters to participate and vote for the ruling party, especially as opinion polls reveal a rapid decline in the number of AK Party’s voters.
4. MHP launched its campaign for presidential and parliamentary elections as early as July 29, 2022. It also began to hold mass rallies on September 4. The MHP leader Devlet Bahceli, on his first tour to Turkish provinces at the start of his campaign, said that the main goal of the People’s Alliance is to re-elect Erdogan as president with a large number of votes.
In his comment on potential early elections, the deputy chairman of the AK Party Numan Kurtulmus, said on September 2, “we are a party that works as if there would be elections every day.” He added “I hope the elections would be held as scheduled in June 2023. Claims such as early elections are normal happenings ahead of every election during our preparation for electoral campaigns.”
The following factors are among Erdogan’s motives for calling for early elections.
1. Putting an end to the controversy about Erdogan’s bid for a third term:
Every now and then, political and legal controversies revive about Erdogan’s eligibility to run for presidency in the coming elections. The opposition believes that he may not run for a third presidential term. His first term was between August 2014 and June 2018 and the second which began in June 2018 ends in June 2023. Now, according to the constitution, a president may not stay in office for more than two five-year terms.
The opposition says that Erdogan’s chances for running for a third term hinges on early elections and that he cannot make the bid if the elections are held on time.
The CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, in June 2022, said that Erdogan insisted on holding early elections although he repeatedly denied plans to do so, and his aim is to run in the presidential race for a third time. He stressed that according to the constitution, Erdogan will have to dissolve the parliament before he can hold early elections.
Temel Karamollaoglu, leader of opposition Felicity Party, in August 2022, said that Erdogan can only run the coming presidential elections, if the parliament approves it, because the constitution allows only two terms in a row.
On the other hand, the AK Party reiterates that Erdogan has the right to run for a third presidential term based on constitutional amendments, which were approved in April 2017 shifting Turkey to a presidential system of government. Accordingly, Erdogan, who was elected for the first presidential term under the new system on June 24, 2018, is eligible to run for another term in the coming elections in June 2023. This was reiterated by Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdag on several occasions.
To circumvent this legal controversy, AK Party Deputy Chairman Ali İhsan Yavuz, who is responsible for election affairs, proposed the reinstating Article 116 of the constitution which states that “if the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (parliament) decides to renew the elections during the second term of the President of the Republic, he/she may once again be a candidate.”
2. Erdogan places his bets on improvement of the economic situation and a decline in the public’s confidence in the opposition’s ability to achieve this goal:
Despite rising inflation in Turkey over the past three months, Erdogan bets on his ability to bring it down by lowering interest rates, in order to boost production and exports and achieve a current account surplus.
Moreover, Erdogan seeks to benefit from a package he approved to support businesses and mitigate the impact of rising consumer prices. Minimum wage was increased twice: first in January 2022 (by 50%) to 4250 lira, and again in July (30%) to 5500 lira. Additionally, the government offered financial support to 4 million households to help them pay soaring domestic cooking gas and electricity bills. It also opened more outlets for selling subsidized bread across the provinces.
3. Erdogan’s desire to surprise the opposition and take advantage of their inability to agree on naming a presidential candidate for the coming elections:
There are rifts within the group of six opposition parties, known as the “Table of Six,” about the candidate who will run against Erdogan in the coming presidential elections. The group includes the CHP, the Good Party, Felicity Party, the Democrat Party (DP), the Future Party and the Democracy and Progress Party, known as DEVA. The CHP leader, Kilicdaroglu, presents himself as a candidate representing the opposition alliance, but some parties of the alliance reject his bid because being a secular and an Alawite are enough reasons for a large number of conservative Islamist voters not to vote for him. Moreover, Kilicdaroglu lacks the charisma and remarkable achievements that are among Erdogan’s strengths.
For his side, leader of the Democracy and Progress Party, Ali Babacan, in early September, said that if the Table of Six parties fail to reach an agreement on naming a joint candidate, then any leader of any party is a presidential candidate.
4. Employing nationalist rhetoric over regional tensions:
Tensions are escalating between Turkey and Greece over sovereignty and related rights on the Aegean Sea islands. Moreover, Ankara is preparing for a military campaign against Kurdish militants in northern Syria. This escalation can be used by the ruling party to stir nationalist sentiments among the Turks and win more votes in the coming elections. Embraced by the AK Party in previous elections, this approach proved to be a success. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons why Erdogan recently ramped up his tone in statements against Greece and went as far as to threaten to launch a military operation to restore the Greek-occupied Aegean islands.
Caveats about early elections
Despite the several factors that may motivate President Erdogan to hold early elections, there are other caveats that might prevent that. Of these, the following are the most outstanding:
1. Amendments to the electoral law did not go into effect:
Approved by the parliament in March 2022, these amendments were proposed by the AK Party and the allied MHP party to increase their chances in the coming elections. As a result, the election threshold for political parties was lowered from 10 to 7 percent. The election threshold refers to the minimum share of the primary vote, which a candidate or political party requires to achieve before they become entitled to any representation in a legislature. The reduction was a major demand by the MHP, which was concerned that it would not be able to make it to the parliament because of a decline in its popularity.
The new amendments ban members of the parliament from switching to another party. The aim was to prevent newly-established parties, especially DEVA and Future Party which deviated from the AK Party, from running in the elections and taking away votes from the ruling party. Previously, any group of twenty or more MPs were allowed to resign from their party to join another and form a new parliamentary bloc to run in parliamentary and presidential elections.
2. Erdogan’s and AK Party’s declining popularity in recent polls:
A majority of opinion polls agree that the AK Party is set to win the coming legislative elections and win a majority of seats in the parliament with about 33 percent of the votes. But compared to the 42.6 percent the Ak Party won in previous elections held in June 2018, the expected percentage of 33 percent reflects a decline in the popularity of the ruling party.
Moreover, President Erdogan leads a majority of opinion polls as a potential winner of the presidential elections with an approval rating as high as 40 percent. He is followed by Ankara mayor, Mansur Yavas, who is a member of the opposition CHP party, leader of the Good Party, Meral Akcinar, Istanbul mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, who is also a member of the CHP. However, a majority of these polls agree that Erdogan will not be able to obtain a landslide win with an absolute majority of the votes in the first round of the elections as he did in the 2014 and 2018 elections. Accordingly, he will have to fight an opposition candidate in a repeat round of elections. This is a major source of concern for President Erdogan who fears a repeat round of voting will be required. In the 2019 municipal elections in Istanbul, opposition parties formed an alliance to back the CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu against the AK Party’s candidate Binali Yildirim, enabling Imamoglu to inflict a heavy defeat on the ruling party’s candidate and win the position of mayor held by the AK Party since 2002.
To conclude, holding early elections in Turkey hinges on the discretion of President Erdodan and the AK Party and their assessment of the domestic political and economic situation. If the government’s expectations that the economy will move into an upturn by the end of this year hold true, and if assessments conclude that the rift between the opposition parties continue unresolved and if they fail to agree about naming a presidential candidate, which will give better chances of winning to him and his party, then Erdogan is likely to make a decision to hold early elections.