Crucial Turkish election could redefine president’s role

Crucial Turkish election could redefine president’s role
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey is preparing for a parliamentary election on June 7 that will define the future role of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and could herald foreign policy shifts.

Mr Erdogan, 61, is asking voters to give him enough support in Parliament to push through sweeping constitutional changes handing him wide-ranging executive powers as president, a move that the opposition says is an unprecedented power grab.

Observers say the vote could mark the beginning of a period of uncertainty, as polls predict that Mr Erdogan will probably fail to get a mandate for the switch to a presidential system but will remain a powerful player.

"In any scenario, there will be no political stability in Turkey," said political scientist Behlul Ozkan of Istanbul's Marmara University. "The outcome can turn into a political crisis for Erdogan," he told The Straits Times.

The election is also likely to shape the way Turkey deals with the outside world in coming years.

Mr Erdogan and his Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu see Turkey as a regional leader with a strong export-oriented economy whose interests range from Europe to Asia to Africa, but opposition parties say Ankara has strayed from the path of European Union reforms and has become a party to conflicts like the one in neighbouring Syria.

"This election will resonate in the whole region," Dr Veysel Ayhan, director of Ankara-based think-tank International Middle East Peace Research Centre, told The Straits Times.

Mr Erdogan has been crisscrossing the country to address voters, even though the present Constitution says he has to stay out of party politics as a head of state with largely ceremonial functions.

But he says he will keep on campaigning. The country is facing a crucial decision on June 7, he said earlier this month. "It is unthinkable for me to stay on the sidelines."

Columnist Murat Yetkin wrote in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News that "if he cannot achieve this goal, it could mark the first defeat in his political life" since he founded the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001.

After serving as prime minister for 11 years since 2003, Mr Erdogan was elected president last year.

Despite the constitutional restraints on the presidential office, he has been wielding considerable influence over both the government and the AKP.

The present parliamentary system had led to crises and coups that held Turkey back in the past, he said in a recent campaign speech.

A presidential system was needed to strengthen the country's role in the world, he says, although he has given few details of the system he has in mind.

Polls show wide-ranging scepticism. Mr Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), Turkey's main Kurdish party, says Mr Erdogan's plans amount to a "constitutional dictatorship".

Most pollsters expect the Muslim-conservative AKP to win between 40 and 45 per cent of the popular vote on June 7, much more than any other party.

The two biggest opposition groups, the secular Republican People's Party and the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, are on course to rake in around 24 per cent and 18 per cent respectively.

But Mr Erdogan's ambitions go beyond a simple election victory. He needs the support of at least 367 out of 550 deputies to change the Constitution from the present parliamentary system to a presidential one; with at least 330 lawmakers, a party can send a Bill with constitutional changes to a referendum.

At the last election in 2011, the AKP won 327 seats, with almost 50 per cent of the vote.

The HDP's performance could prove decisive. As Turkish parties need at least 10 per cent of the vote to be represented in Parliament, the question of whether the HDP can overcome that threshold will be crucial.

Projections show it will be impossible for the AKP to get a majority of 330 deputies with the HDP in Parliament.

The Kurdish party hovers around 10 per cent in the polls. No other minor party has a chance to cross the 10 per cent hurdle.

dayibey@yahoo.com


This article was first published on May 19, 2015.
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