ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey holds parliamentary elections Sunday in which there's little doubt about the overall outcome: victory for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party. Still, the elections may turn out to be the most important since Erdogan's Justice and Development Party swept to power in 2002. The reason is that make-up of the new Parliament promises to determine whether Erdogan can achieve his dream of giving himself sweeping new powers — or whether his official presidential role will remain circumscribed. Here is a look at the key factors.
Erdogan is not on the ballot, but the election is all about him. The longtime leader took a big risk last year by running for president, a mostly ceremonial post under the current Turkish constitution. Erdogan was elected after Parliament, stripped of the right to appoint the president, put the decision to a national vote. Erdogan gambled on two things: that a democratic mandate would give him a stronger mandate to take an active role in Turkish politics, and that his party could win a big enough majority in Sunday's election to allow it to change the constitution and give the president vast new powers. That calculation has been cast into doubt.
THE KURDISH VOTE:
All eyes are on whether Turkey's main Kurdish party will cross the 10 percent vote threshold required to enter Parliament. If the HDP party succeeds it will all but extinguish any chance for Erdogan's AKP to achieve the supermajority it needs to push through constitutional change. The HDP says it is opposed to new powers for Erdogan. For the Kurdish party, the attempt to make it into Parliament as a party — instead of fielding nominally independent candidates as in the past — is also a gamble. If a party misses the 10 percent target, its votes are distributed to the other parties that surpassed it. In that case, the AKP as the anticipated top vote-getter would benefit greatly. But led by the charismatic Selahattin Demirtas, the Kurdish party sees the critical 10 percent within reach.
Turkey's constitution requires the president to be above politics. And Recep Tayyip Erdogan took the oath for neutrality when he was elected to the position last year. But that has not prevented him from campaigning intensely for an AKP victory. Erdogan has dominated airwaves and used state openings and functions as a pretext to address crowds, overshadowing Ahmet Davutoglu, his hand-picked prime minister. As in previous elections, Erdogan's campaign has been divisive. In election speeches, he tried to portray Demirtas, the Kurdish party leader, as un-Muslim, even claiming he eats pork. Most recently he said the party was supported by "agitators" — including the foreign media, a purported "Armenian lobby" and gays.
For the first time in more than a decade, Turkey's main opposition parties are creating buzz, campaigning on positive economic agendas instead merely criticizing Erdogan and the AKP. The secular, main opposition Republican People's Party has unveiled proposals for a $200 billion mega-project that would turn impoverished central Anatolia into a technology hub. The nationalist MHP party is also set to make gains — potentially siphoning votes from Erdogan's camp, with which it shares a common nationalist and conservative support base. Many MHP supporters had switched to the AKP over its economic successes. The MHP could now win back the votes of nationalists who oppose the two-year old peace process that the AKP initiated with Kurdish rebels in a bid to end three decades of violent conflict. Fearing a loss of nationalist votes, Erdogan has recently slammed the brakes on the peace talks.