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Erdogan's snap polls: Bold gambit or checkmate?

  • Published at 10:18 pm April 19th, 2018
Erdogan's snap polls: Bold gambit or checkmate?

With his stunning call for elections in just over two months, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to wrong-foot an unprepared opposition and capitalise on surging nationalist sentiment after his operation in Syria, analysts say.

Erdogan and his party will be the strong favourites to win the simultaneous presidential and parliamentary polls on June 24 but may still be taking a risk against the background of a deteriorating economy.

The polls are significant because after the elections a new executive presidency - which critics worry will give the head of state authoritarian powers - will come into force.

And if he wins a new five-year mandate then Erdogan - who has already been in power as premier and then president for 15 years - will be able to enter a third decade in office.

"(Erdogan) wants to show he is the absolute master of the political agenda," said Dorothee Schmid, head of the French Institute of International Relations' (IFRI) Turkey Program.

The polls had originally been due to be held on November 3, 2019.

"The effect of surprise is part of his tactics to control the opposition, both inside and out, thus restoring the balance of power in his favour," said Schmid.

'Clear favourite to win'

The main opposition secular Republican People's Party (CHP) has yet to even name its presidential candidate while the breakaway nationalist formation of ex-interior minister Meral Aksener, the Iyi (Good) Party, was only set up in October.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), meanwhile, has been weakened by the arrests of its most prominent figures and will prioritise making the 10% threshold to win seats in parliament.

"Checkmate", read the headline in pro-government daily Yeni Safak on its front page Thursday.

Berk Esen, assistant professor at the department of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, said the timing reduced the chance of any opposition alliance that could rattle Erdogan.

"Erdogan may have wanted to go for elections before opposition parties could strike a deal on an electoral coalition."

Esen said Erdogan was the "clear favourite to win" as the opposition lacked a game plan and, except Aksener's party, did not even have its candidates ready.

'Economic pressures'

There has been a surge of nationalist sentiment in Turkey after the army prised control of the Afrin region of northern Syria from Kurdish militia after an operation ordered by Erdogan.

His Islamic-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will fight the election in alliance with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Erdogan's rhetoric has become more nationalist-tinged in recent years.

But in the forefront of the mind of Erdogan - a proven election fighter who has won every poll since the AKP came to power in 2002 - the economy was likely to have loomed large.

While growth in Turkey was 7.4% in 2017, double-digit inflation, a wide current account deficit and the need for debt restructuring at top companies could be harbingers of trouble ahead.

"There is no doubt the decision was made in large part because of economic pressures and the related concern that the AKP's and Erdogan's popularity will slip over the course of 2018 and 2019," said Anthony Skinner, MENA director at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.

'Grown disillusioned'

The government has appeared on an election footing since the start of the year with rallies hosted by Erdogan or Prime Minister Binali Yildirim almost every weekend.

And in a situation already angrily denounced by the opposition, the election will take place under the state of emergency in place since the July 2016 attempted coup, which was renewed for a seventh time on Wednesday.

"I see the decision as a calculated move, for which the costs and benefits have been carefully weighed up," said Skinner, noting that the AKP has an "effective" public opinion polling machine.

But it will not all be smooth sailing for the AKP in a highly polarised country roughly split between supporters and opponents of Erdogan.

The executive presidency was only approved in the April 2017 referendum with 51.4 percent of the vote, despite the 'yes' vote enjoying disproportionately favourable media coverage.

This also is the first time that Erdogan has felt the need to call snap polls, although he did order an election re-run in November 2015 after the party lost its overall majority in June 2015 polls.

"There are voters who have been seduced by Erdogan at one point and who may have grown disillusioned because of growing authoritarianism," said Didier Billion, deputy director of the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations.

"He may lose their voice," he told AFP.