Turkey may be heading for a political earthquake

President Tayyip Erdogan turkeyReuters / Murad SezerTurkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during an opening ceremony in Istanbul, Turkey, May 26, 2015.

In the coming week, Turkey, a prominent US ally and a member of NATO, will be facing one of its most consequential political shakeups in years.

Turkish voters will head to the polls on June 7 for parliamentary elections that could shape the future of the Turkish political system. And it looks like the all-powerful Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by the colourful and authoritarian-minded Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, could be facing an embarrassing defeat.

Erdogan, by legal precedent, is no longer an affiliated member of any political party in Turkey. But that distinction has not stopped him from continuing to campaign for the AKP party that he helped to form in the early 2000s. Erdogan’s goal in the coming election is to steer the AKP into winning the magic parliamentary number of 330 seats — a supermajority.

This supermajority would allow the AKP, under Erdogan’s guidance, to launch a referendum aimed at changing the Turkish constitution and reforming the Turkish parliamentary system into a “unique” executive-style presidential system supposedly customised for the country’s needs. Erdogan would of course be at the head of this system.

Currently, the presidency in Turkey is intended to serve as a non-political appointment with the president overseeing the implementation of laws and the upholding of the country’s constitution.

But Erdogan “seeks to transform his new position, currently largely ceremonial, into a role as the country’s chief administrator,” Micha’el Tanchum, a fellow in the Department of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, writes for Foreign Affairs. “He would have strong executive powers without the checks and balances of an American-style system.”

The upcoming election could spoil his plans.

Depending on how the vote goes, Erdogan could get his supermajority. But there’s a chance he could lose his parliamentary majority altogether.

Erdogan TurkeyAdem Altan/Pool/REUTERSTurkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan walks down the stairs in between soldiers, wearing traditional army uniforms from the Ottoman Empire, as he arrives for a welcoming ceremony for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (not pictured) at the Presidential Palace in Ankara January 12, 2015.

Erdogan’s project to reshape the Turkish political system in his image is at the heart of the current AKP campaign and reflects the president’s growing authoritarianism. Although the AKP originally campaigned in the early 2000s on a platform of inclusiveness and economic and democratic reform, the party has become enmeshed in a series of political scandals, protests, and corruption allegations over the past two years, while Turkey has become one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists.

These scandals have forced Erdogan’s hand. If the political system were not reformed, Erdogan would lose power gradually because of the ceremonial position of the president under the current constitution, along with Erdogan’s inability to run again for prime minister because of party term limits.

“Erdogan is aware that every passing day his power is being eroded, that’s why he is pushing so hard for the presidential system,” Sinan Ulgen, head of the Istanbul-based EDAM think-tank, told Reuters.

Most recently, Erdogan has called on Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the chief opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to resign after he insinuated that Erdogan has golden toilet seats in his presidential palace. The palace was recently constructed and has over 1,000 rooms and cost an estimated $US589 million to construct.

Turkey palaceYouTubeThe new Turkish presidential palace

Erdogan’s combative style, growing public discontent with the thirteen years of AKP rule, and adownturn in the Turkish economyhave created openings for opposition parties to chip away at the AKP’s parliamentary majority. Now, the AKP is in danger of losing its parliamentary majority, something that would turn Erdogan’s much-cherished parliamentary supermajority into a pipe dream.

Among opposition parties, the Kurdish-led HDP party has the largest chance of blocking Erdogan’s political aspirations.

“The fate of the presidential system is tied to the HDP’s performance,” Aaron Stein, an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, wrote for the Atlantic Council.

“If the party exceeds the 10 per cent threshold [necessary for a political party to gain seats in parliament], Erdogan and the AKP have no chance of securing more than 330 seats in parliament — the minimum amount needed to pass a self-drafted constitution on to a national referendum.”

If the HDP fail to pass the 10% threshold necessary to enter parliament, though, any seats that would have gone to the party would be redistributed to the second-most popular party in their districts. In this case, that would be the AKP.

This redistribution would likely enable the AKP to reach a supermajority in parliament while also stoking extreme discontent within the Kurdish regions of Turkey.

“If the HDP fails to clear the 10 per cent hurdle, the Kurdish movement — without any representation in the parliament — may move to unilaterally implement its agenda of autonomous rule for Turkey’s southeast,” Marc Pierini and Sinan Ulgen write for Carnegie Europe.

“The real risk is that popular support might shift from the HDP to more radical elements of the Kurdish movement.”

PKK militantJames Gordon/en.wikipedia.orgA PKK militant in the mountains, December 2008

This potential radicalization of the Kurdish minority could have disastrous results. Fighting between the Turkish military and Kurdish separatistshas raged at various levels of intensity since 1984 before Erdogan spent considerable political capital to end the conflict.

During the three decades of fighting, over 40,000 people were killed and the east of Turkey suffered substantial economic damage. In total, it is estimated the fight against the PKK has cost Turkey upwards of $US450 billion.

Should fighting between the PKK and Turkey resume, the fight against ISIS will become even more complicated as the PKK, one of the most capable forces in the fight against the group, would also return to a state of war with Turkey.

This disruption would not only play into ISIS’ hands, but it would also undermine the political process in Turkey and contribute to instability in a key NATO ally as the Middle East steadily unravels.

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