Turkey on Sunday holds its second parliamentary election this year amid deepening polarization, political instability and security fears. President Erdogan’s popularity is nose-diving, and analysts ask if he would accept a coalition government that curbs his power.
Turkey’s voters are tired, and the country’s ongoing election campaign is lethargic compared with the vigor and zest of the year’s first vote for parliament in June, which resulted in a hung parliament and failed coalition talks.
As the country prepares to return to the polls Sunday, elections rallies are few and far between, vans blasting party slogans have disappeared and hardly a volunteer hands out flyers on street corners.
The main opposition party, the centre-left People’s Republican Party (CHP), blames President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for putting a spoke in the wheel of the coalition negotiations and pushing the country to another election.
“This election is sort of Erdogan’s last chance,” said Gareth Jenkins, a Turkey expert at the Silk Road Studies Program, a trans-Atlantic research and policy institute.
The president’s moves have an air of “desperation,” Jenkins said, warning that it seems Erdogan senses his long run as Turkey’s strongest politician could be nearing an end.
Erdogan’s grip on control depends on his Justice and Development Party (AKP) being able to govern alone, a privilege it lost for the first time in June. If the party shares power, critics said, Erdogan would be sidelined.
According to the Pew Research Center polling institute, Erdogan is fast hemorrhaging support. More than half of Turks have a negative view of the president while 39 per cent see him favourably.
The AKP had a good stretch. From 2002 until June, it controlled a solid, single-party government, allowing it to weaken the political influence of the military and start a peace process with the Kurdish ethnic minority. Social changes along conservative lines were enacted.
In 2013 when he was still prime minister, Erdogan’s approval ratings were at a whopping 62 per cent, but then anti-government protests erupted nationwide, corruption scandals dominated headlines and a crackdown on the opposition became widespread.
The Islamic-rooted AKP dropped from 49.8 per cent of the vote in 2011 to about 41 per cent in June.
Combined with the emergence of a new pro-Kurdish movement, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which won 13 per cent of the June vote in a better-than-expected performance, the AKP lost control over parliament.
The party must now recapture a majority of seats or Erdogan can all but give up on his aspirations for democratically changing the constitution to empower the presidency and keep him as the most important player in politics.
“I don’t think he could then stage a comeback,” Jenkins said. “The only question is how quickly his power decreases.”
The past few months have not been easy for Turkey. The conflict with the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) revived in July after a suicide bombing killed 34 people at a pro-Kurdish youth gathering in the south-eastern city of Suruc, ending a two-year ceasefire.
The militant organization blamed the state – either for carrying out the attack or collaborating with the Islamic State militant group, the prime suspect – and a cycle of violence quickly spun out of control.
Since then, hundreds of people have died in the conflict, including security forces, militants and civilians. Turkey is also conducting airstrikes against PKK targets in northern Iraq, causing an unknown number of additional fatalities.
Then came a twin suicide bombing October 10 in Ankara, also targeting a pro-Kurdish gathering. It killed 100 people.
Like Suruc, no group claimed responsibility for the attack in the heart of Turkey’s capital, but fingers again pointed to Islamic State as anxiety rose throughout the country.
The worst attack in the republic’s history, however, did not unite Turkey. Instead, it highlighted its long-festering fault lines.
Sinan Ulgen, the director of the Edam think tank in Istanbul, said he worries about the “extreme political polarization this country is experiencing.” Perhaps, he said, the elections can be the remedy.
“If we have a coalition emerging out of the elections, this would help alleviate polarization because it would be a more broad-based government,” he said.
Polls indicated an outcome similar to June’s election with the AKP remaining the top vote-getter.
The CHP, seen as the AKP’s main potential coalition partner, might make demands for the secularization of the education system and the prosecution of allegedly corrupt AKP leaders. It would also want Erdogan’s influence vastly diminished.
The big question citizens are asking is whether Erdogan could be persuaded to let the AKP enter into a coalition if it falls short of a majority. Surveys predicted the party would not take most of the votes.
Sitting at a teahouse in Istanbul’s busy Beyoglu area, 55-year-old Mustafa Akay voiced his concern.
“I think we can still have a third election because they can’t seem to agree on a coalition,” he said.
The professional analysts, too, struggle to reject his assessment.