Opinion polls show a deeply polarized nation, evenly split between the pro-Erdogan camp and an opposition bloc led by pro-secular presidential candidate Muharrem Ince. Not only will the outcome affect the Turkish people. It also will determine whether Turkey — a critical Middle Eastern power and a vital member of NATO — continues its drift away from the U.S.-led Western security alliance or resumes its role as a stable and dependable ally.
On Sunday, for the first time, presidential and parliamentary elections will take place simultaneously — overshadowed by the state of emergency that was imposed after the failed July 2016 military coup. Over the past two years, Erdogan’s government has used emergency law to purge and imprison tens of thousands of the president’s critics.
Yet there is a possibility that Erdogan’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) will lose its parliamentary majority. If it does, life will suddenly become harder for the ruthless strongman who has ruled over the country for 16 years. Moreover, if Erdogan fails to win the presidency in a first round of balloting, he will be forced to face his rival — most likely Ince — in a runoff on July 8.
There is only one way Erdogan can avert this messy outcome: by ensuring that the country’s largest pro-Kurdish group, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), doesn’t secure the minimum 10 percent of the national vote needed to win seats in the parliament. With surveys indicating that the Kurds will just barely clear the hurdle, he may well be tempted to resort to fraud.
Erdogan suggested as much in a leaked video that went viral on social media. He exhorts party officials in Istanbul in a recent closed-door meeting to “finish the job” before balloting has even started. The president then adds: “If the HDP falls below the election threshold, it would mean that we would be in a much better place.” This is because under Turkey’s complex electoral rules, the ruling party would bag around 80 seats that would otherwise go to the HDP, leaving millions of Kurds ever more alienated and Turkey more unstable.
The odds are already heavily stacked against the opposition, and the HDP in particular. New rules allowing unstamped ballots to be counted as valid and the relocation of some polling stations will certainly make it easier to rig votes in the heavily Kurdish southeast region.
The HDP’s indomitable presidential contender, Selahattin Demirtas, is in prison — along with eight other HDP lawmakers, 56 popularly elected Kurdish mayors and thousands of Kurdish activists. The Turkish media, controlled by Erdogan’s business cronies, parrot his thinly evidenced claims that Demirtas and his associates are terrorists linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule since 1984. HDP offices across the country have been vandalized, its supporters violently attacked — leaving three dead — while the authorities turn a blind eye.
The Kurds make up about a fifth of Turkey’s 81-million-strong population and are its fastest-growing demographic. The secular opposition, which long dismissed them as “mountain Turks,” is finally courting their votes. Ince, who visited Demirtas in prison, called the Kurdish problem a political one that should be solved in the parliament and hinted that education in the long-banned Kurdish language would be allowed in government schools. Many secular voters will vote tactically for the HDP to make sure it gets into the parliament. HDP supporters will return the favor by backing Ince in a potential second round of balloting.
Hobbled by a weakening economy and mired in allegations of massive corruption, Erdogan will likely stop at nothing to cement his rule. He has thousands of armed loyalists, making a peaceful transition of power, should he lose the election, more elusive by the day.
Yet Erdogan’s apologists (including some in the Trump administration) recall that he was the first Turkish leader to initiate direct talks with the PKK, which broke down in 2015 amid mutual recriminations. They insist that a smooth electoral win will allow Erdogan to relax his grip and resume HDP-brokered peace talks with the rebels.
It is easy to see why Washington wishes this were so: The Pentagon’s four-year-long partnership with PKK-friendly Kurdish militants in Syria in the fight against the Islamic State has sent U.S.-Turkish relations into a tailspin.
Meanwhile, the United States has upped intelligence-sharing with Turkey against PKK targets in northern Iraq, encouraging Turkish leaders to perpetuate the myth that a military solution to the Kurdish problem is possible, while sharpening the sense of betrayal among the Kurds. Administration officials hope all of this will buy it time to figure out its next steps in Syria while it patches up relations with Turkey.
But this is a pipe dream. Only a change in leadership can put Turkey back on the path to democracy — which will necessarily involve a genuine search for a just and lasting peace with the Kurds.