With less than three critical weeks left before the June 7 parliamentary elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is running out of time and support to realize his dream of “Turkish-style presidentialism.”
According to the Turkish constitution, the president is supposed to be nonpartisan, but Erdogan is running his own electoral campaign and touring the country with a Koran in hand. In his public speeches, Erdogan tells supporters that the existing parliamentary system is ineffective and unsuited to transform the country into a world power and therefore the system needs to be replaced with a presidentialist system through the rewriting of the constitution. In order to do that, Erdogan is asking the electorate to give his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a supermajority of 400 seats – a minimum of 367 seats or 2/3 majority is needed to change the constitution – in the 550-seat national assembly. But in Turkey’s current political climate, this goal is out of Erdogan’s reach.
In the 2002, 2007 and 2011 parliamentary elections the AKP won 363, 341 and 326 seats, respectively; it has never commanded a 400-seat strong majority, even under Erdogan’s premiership. In order for AKP to gain 400 seats, it has to win about 60 percent of the popular vote. Considering that in the 2014 local elections the party gained only 46 percent of the popular vote, the goal Erdogan has set for himself and his hand-picked successor, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, is not a realistic one. Moreover, it is unlikely that AKP will be able to win even 330 seats (3/5 majority) in the parliament – the minimum number of seats required to take the proposed constitutional changes to a referendum.
In order for a political party to secure representation in the parliament it has to win at least 10 percent of the valid votes cast nationally. The current electoral threshold, put in place by the military regime in the 1980s, remains the highest in the democratic world. In the 2011 elections, only three parties were able to pass the 10 percent threshold: AKP, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Kurdish parties have never been able to clear the threshold. However, as projected in some recent polls, there is a good chance that pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) will pass the threshold in the upcoming election and win between 50 and 55 seats in the parliament. An HDP victory would likely come at the expense of AKP: The seats currently held by the governing party in the southeast region would most likely go to the Kurdish party – further denting the AKP’s parliamentary control.
In the 2014 local elections, AKP won 46 percent of the popular vote, while CHP won 28 percent and MHP won 15 percent. If HDP clears the 10 percent threshold on June 7 while AKP, CHP and MHP maintain their shares of the vote, the AKP will control approximately 286 seats. Although this would allow the AKP government to remain in power for another term – it takes 276 seats to form a government – it will fall short of Erdogan’s 400-seat supermajority and be a major roadblock for implementing a presidential system of government.
This would be one of the better possible scenarios for AKP and Erdogan. There is another possible – but less likely – scenario in which opposition parties increase their share of the vote and the AKP cannot secure 276 seats, forcing them to form a coalition government. Erdogan and Davutoglu seem to be keenly aware of this possibility: In recent weeks both have made public statements warning of the “evils” of coalition governments.
The goal of 400 seats is unreachable, but what about 330 seats? If the HDP falls under the 10 percent threshold and fails to gain representation in the parliament, and both CHP and MHP lose the share of the vote they had in 2014, it is possible that AKP could win 330 or more seats. But this is an unlikely contingency. According to a recent survey conducted by Koc University in partnership with the Open Society Foundation and Ohio State University, from 2014 to 2015 the share of the electorate who believe that the economy was in a state of decline increased from 30 percent to 48 percent. Similarly, about 40 percent of the voters surveyed identify unemployment as the most pressing challenge facing the nation. The survey results also indicate that a growing number of people, including some who supported the AKP in previous elections, think the Turkish political system is corrupt. Moreover, 42 percent of respondents believe that the CHP, the main opposition party, is better suited to address corruption than the governing AKP; whereas only 26 percent believe that AKP is best suited to address corruption. More than half of the voters also reportedly believe that in comparison to four years ago the AKP government’s performance has worsened in all but two policy areas: healthcare and urban transformation.
In brief, while the voter confidence in AKP’s ability to govern is in steady decline, the electorate’s confidence in the competence and ability of the opposition parties to solve Turkey’s problems has significantly increased in comparison to the previous eight years. These projections suggest that the opposition parties might actually increase their collective share of the vote, thus making it very difficult for Erdogan’s party to secure even 330 seats.
Having won two constitutional referenda in the past (2007 and 2010), Erdogan appears to believe that the public will again rubber stamp his wishes and usher in a new era of “Turkish-style presidentialism.” But even if the AKP wins 330 or more seats and brings the constitutional amendment to a referendum, voters may not grant his wishes. Although Erdogan claims that presidential systems are superior to parliamentary systems, according to the Koc survey, only 27 percent of the general electorate and 43 percent of the AKP supporters surveyed agreed. Even though 60 percent of respondents think that the country needs a constitution, 66 percent believe that the constitution should be the outcome of a compromise between the parties. More importantly, only 31 percent of AKP voters surveyed support the idea that the party that holds the parliamentary majority should be able to unilaterally decide on the question of the constitution and government type. Given the public skepticism toward presidentialism and the idea of a new constitution unilaterally imposed by a single party (e.g., the AKP), it is likely that Turkey will continue to remain a parliamentary democracy for the foreseeable future. This will, however, deepen the current governance crisis by worsening the existing principal-agent problems and fuel internal tensions within the AKP that may eventually bring about a split within the ruling party.
Yüksel Sezgin is an assistant professor of political science and the director of Middle Eastern Studies Program at Syracuse University.