Turkey President's Vote Gamble Brings Him Closer to One-Man Rule

(Bloomberg) -- Recep Tayyip Erdogan caught opponents off guard and divided with his call for snap elections, making it even more likely he’ll emerge in a few weeks as Turkey’s first all-powerful executive president.

He had already changed election laws to his government’s advantage, primed the economy, and cracked down on rivals and the independent media, as well as being bolstered by swelling nationalism after the army began an offensive in Syria. The decision on Wednesday to advance presidential and parliamentary ballots from November 2019 to June 24 this year, improves his chances still further.

“Erdogan based his electoral calculations on the split within the opposition camp,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey. The president’s AK Party on Thursday put support for Erdogan at 55.6 percent according to a recent poll, without giving details of the survey.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. When Turks vote in just over two months, they’ll formally concentrate sweeping executive power in the office of the president. In essence, Turkey will be ruled by a single leader with the powers to appoint ministers and top judges, prepare the budget and declare a state of emergency restricting basic rights and freedoms.

Despite recent speculation over early elections, and a series of weekend rallies by President Erdogan, rivals failed to anticipate how swiftly he would move. Collectively, their problems run deeper.

The main opposition CHP insisted Thursday it will field its own candidate in the first round of the presidential election, and will only consider joining with other parties to pose a sterner challenge to Erdogan in any run-off vote.

“Our party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu is the strongest candidate but I am not authorized to say that he is our candidate right now,” CHP spokesman Bulent Tezcan told NTV television. The party is open to a pre-poll alliance for the assembly ballot, he said. Kilicdaroglu has lost all seven elections and referendums held since he took the party’s reins in 2010.

Among other Erdogan opponents, the Iyi Party of former Interior Minister Meral Aksener is in danger of being barred from contesting as it hasn’t been established for long enough.

Lawmakers Jailed

But that’s nothing compared to the woes of the pro-Kurdish HDP, which has eight of its lawmakers and 56 mayors languishing in jail. After winning almost 11 percent of the vote in the last general elections in 2015 -- enough to enter parliament for the first time -- the HDP has been hounded to the margins.

It’s accused by the government of being a front for the separatist PKK, which Turkey, the U.S. and European Union consider a terrorist group. Turkey’s mainstream media effectively boycotts the party.

“The CHP could have serious difficulty in explaining an alliance with HDP to its patriotic grassroots,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said Thursday, in a jab at both parties.

Temel Karamollaoglu, head of the small pro-Islamic Saadet Party, has talked vaguely of an “alliance based on principles” with Iyi and Demokrat Parti.

Erdogan won most of his parliamentary landslides during 16 years in power with less than 50 percent backing. Under the new system approved narrowly in a referendum last year, the leading presidential contender must secure more than half of votes to win in the first round. If no candidate prevails, then a second round will be held July 8, when the winner would be the one with most ballots. The parliament is expected to vote and officially approve early elections on Friday.

Law Changes

In March, Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party pushed through changes to election laws allowing parties to form alliances that would help them enter parliament, relaxing the current rule that requires each to secure 10 percent of the national vote. The most likely beneficiary is his chief partner, the nationalist MHP.

Yet he’s been setting the stage for the coming vote for far longer, turning the largely ceremonial president’s office into a nexus of authority since 2014. In the process, he quashed protests and muzzled media critics. Under a state of emergency imposed after a coup attempt nearly two years ago, Erdogan fired more than 110,000 people and jailed 78,000, including academics, journalists and judges, alleging they had links to a U.S.-based preacher he accuses of instigating the plot.

Economy Worries

“With early elections, uncertainties will decrease, opportunity to speed up reforms will be born, a new and strong governing system will be realized,” Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, the former Merrill Lynch strategist who is often considered a counterweight against Erdogan’s drive for lower interest rates, said on Twitter.

Even the president’s chief rival in the 2014 race now says he’ll cast his vote for Erdogan in June. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a parliament member for the MHP, cited party discipline for that decision. The MHP was elected as an opposition group but has since rebranded itself an Erdogan ally.

Concerns the economy may be overheating following post-coup stimulus have resulted in investors and economists giving the snap election a cautious welcome, as it shrinks the period of political uncertainty from 18 months to just weeks.

That’s exactly what keeps Erdogan’s rivals up at night. “Opposition parties now have little time to form election alliances, determine candidates to run for the parliament and reach out to the electorate,” said Ozcan, the Ankara analyst. “That enhances Erdogan’s chances of winning.”

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