There can be no two opinions that the significance of Turkey’s forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24 goes far beyond the country’s political economy. The advantage lies with President Recep Erdogan but then he must also win a parliamentary majority.
Turkey’s new constitution provides for an executive presidency but the parliament must still provide legislative support. The two institutions are conjoined at the hips. If they pull in different directions, there will be disharmony. But if there is a dominating president, he can be a veritable sultan. Turkey is moving into untested grounds. All this makes the outcome of the June 24 election very consequential.
Erdogan’s victory will cause unease in the US and Europe. Israel will feel devastated and the US’ Middle Eastern allies will be disappointed. In happier times, the regional capitals used to leave it to Washington to “manage” Turkey. But Washington’s leverage is nil today. Even the Pashas won’t cooperate. Their last waltz was the failed coup in July 2016, which many Turks suspect to have been a CIA-inspired conspiracy to overthrow Erdogan. It resulted in a slump in the military’s reputation, and cemented civilian supremacy.
But then, there could be coups by other means. Such as, for example, causing turmoil in the Turkish economy on the eve of the election with a view to cast the incumbent leader in a poor light. Such attempts are probably under way. The S&P, Moody’s and Fitch downgraded Turkey’s credit rating in recent months. It is a familiar story. No doubt, Turkey is in need of short-term money and foreign direct investment and its economy is dependent on the EU in terms of trade, investment, and technology.
Meanwhile, western analysts are hyping up the prospects of the opposition candidate Muharrem Ince, a stormy petrel and an archetypal rebel in Turkish politics, gifted with oratorical skills that can match Erdogan’s. Inflation in Turkey stands at 12.5%, unemployment is over 10% and the lira has fallen 25% against the dollar this year. Therefore, it is far from clear what emotions Ince could whip up through his speeches laced with razor-sharp wit. In a speech recently, he reportedly said, “We’ve got the flour, the butter, the sugar, but we cannot make helva (Turks’ favorite sweetmeat) because the chef is stealing the flour.” The audience roars and Ince doesn’t even say who could be the “thief”.
Nonetheless, no one expects Ince to receive 50 percent-plus-one vote in the multi-cornered contest in the first round on June 24. The big question is whether he can force Erdogan into a runoff to be held two weeks later. The western analysts are pinning hope on a potential runoff where it will be Erdogan versus Ince with the fragmented opposition rallying behind the latter.
The stakes are very high because if Erdogan remains in power, Turkey’s relations with the West will remain problematic and may well deteriorate further. Turkey’s ties with the US have been on roller-coaster. An air of unpredictability envelops the relationship. Following the foreign-minister level meeting in Washington on June 4, Ankara wasn’t even given a couple of days to celebrate that a road was been agreed upon with regard to the withdrawal of the Kurdish militia to the east of Euphrates and in the northeastern Syrian town of Majib, which has been a pressing Turkish demand. The US state department literally pulled the rug from beneath the feet of the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu no sooner than he left Washington.
The state department spokesperson said harshly on June 5: "The Secretary (Mike Pompeo) endorsed along with the foreign minister of Turkey a general roadmap, I want to be clear that this is going to be conditions based. That means that things can change over time as conditions change on the ground." The snub conveys three things. One, Washington will keep Ankara guessing and hopes to manipulate it like a puppet on a string. Two, the US intends to create new facts on the ground in northern Syria and will keep all options open. The alliance with the Kurds has been not only critical to the American presence in the region but also indispensible in a medium term perspective to keep Erdogan under check.
Three, Washington prefers to put things on hold until the results of the forthcoming Turkish elections get known. Washington seems to be pinning hopes that Ince may pull off an upset victory. The US fears that if Erdogan gets re-elected, he is bound to be a powerful sultan and coercive methods may become necessary to curb him. A situation similar to the provocative and restrictive American moves against Venezuela, involving embargo and sanctions and so on, may become necessary where the Kurdish militants may serve a purpose.
There is no dearth of alibis for Washington – ranging from the anticipated delivery of Russian S-400 missiles to Turkey (and retaliatory sanctions) to delay in the transfer of F-35 fighter aircraft to Turkey to even an invocation of the infamous Magnitsky Act to punish Turkey for incarcerating an American pastor in Istanbul facing up to 35 years behind bars for alleged involvement in the 2016 coup d’etat attempt. The stakes have never been so high in a Turkish election.