By Berat Berberoğlu
June 24, 2018—Turkey’s snap election today, triggered by the country’s nationalist party, will not only name the 13th president of the country. It could herald an executive presidency with sweeping new powers.
Turkey’s constitution was changed with a narrowly-approved referendum in 2016, championed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The new system abolishes the prime minister’s office and links the cabinet to the president.
Incumbent Erdoğan is fighting hard to be elected in the first round of the elections and fill the position that he created.
His opponents, however, are criticizing the existence of a super-powerful president. Muharrem İnce, the presidential candidate of the secularist People’s Republican party (CHP), said sweeping powers like this should not be given to anyone— including himself, if he were to win.
Opposition parties struggled to find a candidate who can go up against Erdoğan. who has been in power for the past 16 years.
Turkey is going to the elections under an emergency law that has been put in place since the coup attempt of 2016, as a crackdown on followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is blamed for the failed military coup.
The opposition has been criticizing the government for exploiting the emergency law as a means of silencing the dissidents. Journalists, activists and even pastors have been put behind bars in Turkey, often with extended jail time. One hundred twenty journalists have been jailed since the coup attempt. The opposition has been heavily criticizing that “the atmosphere of fear” had been putting pressure on the electoral campaign.
In fact, one of Erdoğan’s rivals, Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) presidential candidate and former co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş, is in jail on charges of links to Kurdish PKK militants, pending trial.
Demirtaş campaigns behind bars from a highly-secure prison in the western province of Edirne. He uses every opportunity to make himself heard to potential voters, including through social media. The Kurdish leader held his first and only ‘rally’ behind bars, a video published on social media showing Demirtaş’s family listening to his campaign promises during a weekly telephone call from prison.
Demirtaş’s HDP plays a key role in parliamentary elections. Turkey’s electoral threshold means that political parties must get at least 10 percent of the votes in order to be represented in parliament. If pro-Kurdish HDP, with their jailed candidate, manages to pass the threshold, Erdoğan’s ruling AK Party will lose the majority in parliament. A speech of Erdoğan that went viral on social media showed him urging his followers to do whatever is necessary in order to ensure HDP would not be able to pass the threshold.
If Kurds do not pass the threshold in parliamentary elections, his AK Party will have a landslide of 600 seats in the parliament. And if Erdoğan manages to get the majority of the votes in the first round of presidential elections, he will want a parliament that will not cause him any trouble.
In his public speeches, Erdoğan frequently slams HDP and calls Demirtaş “the terrorist in Edirne.” He also uses heavy rhetoric against western countries. At an Istanbul rally, he told tens of thousands of supporters “the west is closely observing the elections,” implying Western nations want to get rid of himself.
He had been trading barbs with many European leaders, as well as U.S. President Donald Trump. A strong ally of NATO, Erdoğan has been playing knife-edge politics by buying missile systems from Russia, raising alarm bells.
It is also worth mentioning that Turkish media is heavily dominated by Erdoğan’s campaign. Opposition candidates complain that the state broadcaster TRT and private news channels do not allocate equal air time to them and their campaigns.
Turkey will soon decide its fate. The electoral battle will determine the path that the country will take. In any scenario, nothing will be the same for Turkey — either Erdoğan will continue to rule the country with more power in his hands, or Turks will give a chance for a change.
The author, Berat Berberoğlu, has more than 30 years experience as a videojournalist in Turkey, working with major Turkish and foreign broadcasters.