Saturday

3rd Dec 2022

Turkey elections: A worst case scenario

  • Ankara: Erdogan’s popularity has fallen (Photo: Jorge Franganillo)

A big win for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday (7 June) could spell “goodbye” to the EU accession process, or worse.

The parliamentary vote is, on paper, not about Erdogan, who resigned from the ruling AKP party when he became president, a “neutral” figure in the Turkish constitution.

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  • Erdogan (c): 'Not a true Western ally' (Photo: consilium.europa.au)

But you wouldn’t know it from the campaign trail.

Erdogan is speaking at AKP rally after rally, in which he recites the Koran and in which crowds chant “Allahu akbar” in return.

His main message is that four more years of single party rule means stability.

To the extent the EU is mentioned, it’s “negative”, Sinan Ulgen, an analyst with the Carnegie Europe think tank, told EUobserver from Ankara on Thursday.

“We’re seeing a return of anti-Western rhetoric, the idea that the West is plotting to oust his government”.

The rhetoric includes attacks on gay people and the Armenian minority.

But it’s neither the Koran nor the populism which is causing alarm in EU capitals.

If the AKP wins 330 seats in the Grand National Assembly, Erdogan can call a referendum on transferring power from parliament to the presidential palace. If it wins 367, he can change the constitution without a plebiscite.

If the Kurdish opposition party, the HDP, fails to enter parliament, it will alienate the Kurdish minority.

It will also alienate Turkish liberals, a constituency which, in 2013, held mass anti-Erdogan protests in Gezi Park in Istanbul, and which has rallied round the HDP’s progressive leader, Selahattin Demirtas.

If people think the election's rigged, it could prompt unrest.

Goodbye?

Ulgen said a big AKP win means, at best, that Erdogan will focus on internal politics and constitutional change instead of EU relations.

But Marc Perini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey who also works for Carnegie, warned that Erdogan’s project, to create a presidential republic, will take him further down the path of authoritarianism.

“It will mean a different Turkey: fewer civil liberties: further restriction of judicial independence; restriction of free speech; dissent will be called treason. This is the trend", he said.

“I fail to see how an Erdogan presidential republic could be EU-compatible … It’s saying a firm goodbye to reform and to the EU accession process”.

Alon Ben-Meir, a Middle East specialist at New York University (NYU), who knows Erdogan in person, added: “He cannot be described as a democrat, in fact the precise opposite. Nor a European, and certainly not a true Western ally”.

Gezi 2.0?

For his part, an EU diplomat, who is based in Ankara, also warned of election fraud.

He said the narrow margins in polls and the high stakes - coalition rule would stymie Erdogan’s ambitions - pose the question: “Is it realistic he won’t use his full control of the state apparatus to get the right result?”.

The ODIHR, a European election-monitoring body, has 29 observers in Turkey, a country of 75 million people.

Its spokesman, Thomas Rymer, told EUobserver “if there are credible allegations [of fraud] … we will mention them in our assessment”.

But the EU diplomat said the small size of Rymer’s mission is a “trap”.

“It can’t really monitor what happens, so it’s likely to endorse the official result”, he said.

“The ODIHR assessment is the most important one for the EU. We always hide behind it and we parrot what it says word for word. But what will the opposition do if it believes the vote is fixed?”.

He noted there's already violence in the run-up to Sunday, for the most part, by pro-AKP nationalists against the Kurdish HDP.

“If there are large post-election protests, Erdogan will probably use force to stop them, as he did in Gezi. It’s hard to imagine what direction things could go in”, the diplomat said.

Better scenarios

The worst scenario is not the most likely.

Erdogan’s popularity has, over the past two years, waned due to corruption allegations.

His crackdown on judges and free media has, Perini said, also created “discomfort” in Turkish society and spooked foreign capital, prompting a downturn.

Ben-Meir noted: “The AKP has been losing ground not only because of the slowing economy but also because of the heavy-handed manner in which Erdogan is governing”.

“The problems in Turkey are finally catching up with him”.

Ulgen added that coalition rule, or AKP single party rule but with a real opposition in parliament, would make Erdogan more EU-friendly.

He also said it would give prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who is more moderate, a chance to assert his role.

Blame game

Turkey's EU accession is, in any case, on hold for various reasons: Erdogan misrule; the Cyprus conflict; and EU concern on its ability to absorb such a big country.

Perini predicted the EU will, in the coming years, focus on micro-projects, such as Customs Union and visa facilitation, instead.

He said the EU should take some blame for the rift.

He noted that, between 2007 and 2010, when Erdogan was more pro-EU, member states blocked accession progress, with leaders saying: “We can’t incorporate Turkey”.

“The issue was never about incorporation, it was about shaping Turkish democracy, and we missed an opportunity”.

The Ankara-based EU diplomat said Erdogan is the main culprit.

“Turkey won’t enter the EU any time soon. But he could still press ahead with reform. He could Europeanise the country and make it ready for membership. He could put the ball in our court and say: ‘Look we’ve done all you asked’.”

“That’s not happening here. He has a very different agenda”, the diplomat said.

The NYU’s Ben-Meir went further.

He said it's not the case the EU didn't deliver on accession, but that Erdogan perverted the process.

He said the Turkish leader used EU demands for separation of powers to dismantle the main check on AKP rule, Turkey’s secularist military establishment. He moved ahead on EU single market reforms, but neglected chapters on rule of law.

It attracted foreign money, boosting his popularity, but the economic boom was decoupled from political change.

“This is exactly what he wanted to do all along and he used EU membership talks as an excuse to justify his actions”, Ben-Meir said.

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