ANKARA – In February of this year, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stood before members of his Justice and Development Party (AKP), and with a fiery disposition and aggressive rhetoric, he aroused the nationalist sentiments of those in attendance. “It’s clear that those who say, ‘We’ll respond if they hit us,’ have never in their lives received an Ottoman slap,” he said, referring to the legendary Ottoman soldiers who were said to practice open-handed slaps on blocks of marble and could crack a man’s skull in battle. The metaphor works well for the strongman persona Erdoğan has cultivated, with recurrent themes of hostility towards the West and an underdog Turkey rising against its supposed enemies. It’s with this kind of rallying cry that Erdoğan hopes to swing the electorate in his favor in late June. The AKP was founded in 2001 by a coalition of right-wing and Islamist politicians emerging from the chaotic 1990s to embrace a platform of social welfare and capture disenfranchised, working class conservatives. It cemented its control over the Turkish political system after a series of vast electoral wins, controlling both the parliament and the presidency in every election since it was founded. But the tides seem to be turning, and after 14 years in power, the AKP is starting to appear desperate to retain its absolute control. Like a frightened animal retreating into a corner, it has become aggressive and paranoid. In a surprise move in early April, Erdoğan called for snap elections for both the presidency and the parliament to be held on June 24, a year before they were planned. Erdoğan is, and has been for at least a couple of years, afraid of the possibility that he might no longer win elections fairly and outright. The state of the economy—a key indicator all over the world for satisfaction with the ruling power—is rapidly degrading. Vicious suppression of political opponents has soured previously supportive segments of society. And, while a recent survey by Turkish polling group Mediar Analiz showed Erdoğan’s share of the electorate at around 42 percent, Erdoğan’s public support is slowly slipping away if the past few elections and referenda have anything to show. It may be easy to point to the April 2017 referendum, which Erdoğan called to consolidate constitutional power into the hands of the president, as the turning point at which the ruling party realized it may be losing its grip; the cracks had begun to show as early as the June 2015 parliamentary elections. Under the influence of anti-government protests, a scandalous corruption investigation that swept up Erdoğan and his son, and a straining peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a terrorist organization in Turkey’s southeast, Erdoğan and his AKP failed to gain an absolute majority of parliamentary seats for the first time since the party was founded. Turkey has the highest electoral threshold of any country in the world, in which a party must receive at least 10 percent of the vote throughout the entire country to be able to have any representatives in the parliament. The laws also say that all votes for parties that do not pass the 10 percent threshold are automatically awarded to the winning party, solidifying the AKP’s lead. In the June 2015 elections, the leftist Kurdish party, the People’s Democratic party (HDP), broke the threshold, succeeding in also breaking the dominance of the AKP, if only temporarily. After refusing to form a government with any of the opposition, the AKP held elections again in November in which it was able to win back a majority. Fast forward to April 2017, when Erdoğan held a referendum on the massive expansion of constitutional authority granted to the president. Many viewed this as a referendum on Erdoğan’s power, and, in another first, he failed to win a majority in Ankara and Istanbul, the two largest municipalities in Turkey and also typical AKP strongholds. Although the referendum passed, it did so by an incredibly narrow margin, 51.4 percent of the vote. Nationalist sentiments in the wake of the failed July 2016 coup and a recent invasion of Afrin across the border in Syria to seize control from a Kurdish group operating in northern Syria with ties to the PKK, both succeeded in temporarily propping Erdoğan up. These actions, Erdoğan’s fiery rhetoric, and a budding alliance with the head of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) represent a slight shift towards capturing the votes of Turkey’s passionate nationalists. But a new contender for the nationalist icon in the country has been threatening Erdoğan’s popularity among these groups: Meral Aksener, once a member of the MHP, broke off after political infighting in the MHP and started her own organization, the Good Party. Her own vivacious nature and energetic speeches have made her a serious candidate, winning just under 20 percent of the vote in the Mediar Analiz poll ahead of the June 24 elections. As of now, four parties are polling above 10 percent for the presidential election: the AKP and MHP have formed an alliance and together are bringing in about 42 percent; the main opposition party, the CHP, is at 22 percent; the Good Party is at 17 percent; and the HDP is at 13 percent (the HDP candidate for president has been in jail since 2016). While experts on Turkey aren’t seriously entertaining the possibility of a complete upset of the AKP’s control, the discord the entrance of Aksener and her Good Party have brought about seems for some to be a promising development. She does, however, face her own obstacles, including constitutional rules about party organization and party congresses relative to the election. It is still unclear whether the Good Party will be allowed to run in the upcoming elections. In order to overcome potential issues, the CHP and the Good Party have been working together, even trading members of parliament so the Good Party can satisfy certain requirements for the election. While winning the election is the optimistic goal, the realistic one would be to break the AKP’s majority and therefore its dominance over parliament. Both parties understand that any action to take votes away from Erdoğan is key to realize this goal. But one theme put forward by Turkish and foreign scholars is that if an opposition figure were to come to power, Erdoğan would likely be arrested and prosecuted for a series of crimes ranging from corruption to fraud, encompassing many of his undemocratic tendencies. Many have pointed out that with such a possibility waiting on the other side of the election, Erdoğan will do anything within his power to retain his grip on Turkey: election fraud, suppression of political rivals, ballot-stuffing, and more. A law passed in March made changes the opposition viewed as an attempt to undermine the elections, including articles that make it legal for votes to be counted that don’t have official stamps and that allow for private security officials to oversee the counting of votes. Erdoğan holds enormous power over the process and for all other candidates, it is certainly an uphill battle. Each election brings an excitement of its own, but with the influx of new rules, new candidates, new parties, and new sentiments in Turkey, this election in particular seems to be culminating as a new kind of spectacle. All that’s left to do is wait and see who gets an Ottoman slap.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.