ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Wednesday for presidential and parliamentary elections to be held in June, more than a year ahead of schedule, clearing his path to assume sweeping new powers in a matter of months.
Erdogan is poised to assume the vast new authority under a system of government that voters narrowly approved last year. The changes eliminate the post of prime minister and weaken the parliament while empowering the president to unilaterally issue decrees.
Erdogan and his allies argued that the changes are necessary to prevent political instability after a failed coup attempt in July 2016. His critics have said the new system dooms Turkey to one-man rule.
Complaints about Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian leadership — marked by large-scale arrests and a crackdown on independent media — have also caused friction with Turkey’s allies, including the United States. Washington has called on Turkish authorities to release an American pastor who U.S. officials say was unjustly imprisoned during a purge after the coup attempt.
The pastor, Andrew Brunson, is standing trial on terrorism-related charges and faces up to 35 years in prison. His supporters say Turkey is using Brunson as a bargaining chip. Erdogan has demanded that the Trump administration extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania who is described by Turkish officials as the mastermind of the coup attempt.
The Turkish president has also said Brunson could be traded for Gulen.
Trump’s relationship with Erdogan is said to be warm, despite spiraling tensions between their governments. But in a sign that the personal ties may be fraying, Trump complained about Brunson’s treatment in a Twitter post Tuesday.
“Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason,” he wrote. “They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!”
Though an early vote had been widely rumored, Erdogan’s announcement and the speed of the approaching elections caught Turkey’s political class by surprise, in part because Erdogan had previously denied the poll would be rescheduled. “Our preference has always been to stick to the commitment we gave to our nation and grit our teeth in an appropriate manner until the elections of November 2019,” he said Wednesday.
“Although it may look like there is no serious problem because the presidency and the government are working harmoniously,” he added, “we can be confronted with the diseases of the old system at every step we take.”
Erdogan also mentioned the country’s military offensive against Kurdish fighters in the Syrian enclave of Afrin, invoking an operation that has stirred nationalism in Turkey and bolstered the president’s popularity. The Turkish military and allied Syrian rebels wrested control of the enclave in March after a weeks-long battle. Turkish officials said the operation was necessary to rid areas near Turkey’s border of Kurdish militants associated with a Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
The offensive killed scores of civilians and further fueled tensions with the United States, an ally of the Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Erdogan, one of Turkey’s most skilled politicians and leader of the Islamist Justice and Development Party, has been adept at exploiting a weak and divided opposition movement. In advance of last year’s referendum, Erdogan forged an alliance with a nationalist opposition party while leveraging the state’s power to keep the rest of the opposition on its heels, including by eviscerating a Kurdish-led party and imprisoning its leaders.
Even so, Erdogan had appeared vulnerable after his razor-thin victory. The measure was defeated in Turkey’s three largest cities and in areas where the president had previously garnered support.
Erdogan’s opponents have said the elections are impossible while the country remains under a state of emergency that has granted authorities extraordinary powers to pursue militants and stamp out dissent. The state of emergency was put in place soon after the coup attempt, and parliament extended it for a seventh time Wednesday.
As Turkey’s best-known opposition figures scrambled to react to Erdogan’s announcement Wednesday, a political novice, Levent Gultekin, a well-known columnist and longtime critic of the president, chose the moment to announce his candidacy and focused on complaints about one-man rule.
“Turkey is bigger than you,” he said, addressing the president in a videotaped message. “The ruling government is usurping the country. To hold an election on June 24 is to say that I already held the elections yesterday.”