ISTANBUL — Election fever has gripped Turkey as it enters its centennial year and statements by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Thursday renewed frenzied calculations over the possibility of presidential and parliamentary polls being held sooner than expected.
The country’s 62.4 million-strong electorate is currently expected to head to the polling booths on June 18 in probably the biggest elections in recent Turkish history. At stake is whether voters decide to extend Erdogan’s authoritarian rule into a third decade or select the opposition’s yet-undetermined candidate.
Discussion over the prospect of early elections — a regular feature of Turkey’s election cycle — has extra significance this year, largely due to difficult economic circumstances.
The worsening economy led many to predict last summer that Erdogan was facing a perilous election landscape as runaway inflation — sparked largely by his own insistence on bringing down interest rates — led to a cost-of-living crisis.
In recent months, however, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have rallied and most pollsters now predict a closer race.
Although the president previously ruled out snap elections, on Thursday he told a meeting of party officials they were on the “verge of a new test” and “We will update [the election date] by taking into account the seasonal conditions, perhaps by bringing it forward a little.”
In recent weeks the government has embarked on a pre-election spending spree that most observers regard as a bid to ease the hardships facing voters.
They include raising the minimum wage by 55% to a monthly 8,500 lira ($453) and boosting subsidies for fuel, electricity and natural gas. Last month Erdogan also abolished a retirement-age rule, allowing more than 2 million Turks to potentially retire immediately, while on Wednesday working and retired civil servants saw their pay and pensions raised by 30%.
The government’s giveaways have come as the official annual rate of inflation fell to 64.3% in December from 84.4% in November, mainly due to technical reasons unlikely to provide relief to households. Independent economists, however, put the real rate at 137.6%. Inflation hit a 24-year high of 85.5% in October.
The rate at which these improvements to people’s incomes are eroded by inflation is seen as a key impetus to Erdogan calling an early election.
“AKP members know that improvements such as the increase in the minimum wage, the early retirement regulation … and now the increase in pensions and civil servants’ salaries will lose their effect in a few months in the face of the increasing cost of living,” wrote journalist Murat Yetkin.
As AKP strategists seek the most advantageous date for holding the polls, their preference for early elections is also governed by the summer vacation timetable.
If there is no clear winner in the June 18 presidential vote, a second round between the strongest two candidates would be held two weeks later. As schools break for the summer on June 16 and the Kurban religious festival runs from June 28 to July 1, many voters may have headed to their home villages or coastal holidays when the votes are held.
Meanwhile, debate is raging over the eligibility of Erdogan’s candidacy. Under Turkey's constitution, the presidency is limited to two terms.
Erdogan was elected president in 2014 and 2018, seemingly ruling him out of standing for a third five-year term of office. His supporters, however, argue that he was first elected under the system that existed before a 2017 referendum introduced the current presidential system of government, so therefore does not count.
Serap Yazici, a constitutional law professor and a senior figure with the opposition Gelecek Party, said that if the parliament decides to call an early election by a three-fifths majority, Erdogan could stand for a third time.
The AKP and its allies account for 335 of the parliament’s 600 deputies, leaving them 25 votes short of calling an early election. Erdogan could call it himself but, according to Yazici, “This decision will not give Mr. Erdogan the opportunity to run for a third time.”
Whenever the polls are held, it seems certain the opposition will come under increasing pressure from the courts.
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, seen as a potential candidate to stand against Erdogan, already faces the threat of a jail term and a political ban in the run-up to the summer.
The People's Democratic Party (HDP), which is based in the Kurdish movement and currently the parliament’s third-largest party, faces a legal battle that could see itself closed and hundreds of its members barred from political office.
In a sign that politically motivated legal cases will affect the elections, on Thursday the Constitutional Court ruled to freeze HDP bank accounts that hold state funds granted to it as a political party for the duration of the case.