Since March 2014, Turkish voters have gone to the ballot box five times; two parliamentary elections, one local election, one presidential election and one constitutional referendum.

Tomorrow, Turkey is heading to the polls again, this time for both parliamentary and presidential elections.

It is the most critical poll since the constitutional referendum of 16 April , 2017. The first elections were set as the date for the transition to the presidential system. In the new system, the president will be both the head of the state and head of executive. He or she can rule the country by issuing presidential decrees anytime.

The usual time for the elections should have been 3 November, 2019, but on 17 April this year the leader of the Turkish nationalist MHP, Devlet Bahçeli, in an alliance with sitting President Recep Erdoğan’s AKP, called for early elections on 26 August. But in an Erdoğan-Bahçeli meeting the next day, the election date was set for 24 June “hit-and-run elections”.

Strategies before the elections

The strategy of the ruling AKP after the June 2015 elections has consisted of three policies: a stick to the head of Kurdish movement (HDP), a carrot to the far-right nationalist (MHP) and the demonising the Kemalist centre left (CHP).

The “proven electoral success” of high-tension violent politics in the November 2015 elections in aligning the nationalist voters behind Erdogan, led AKP and MHP to change the electoral law to permit the electoral alliances. This Turkish-Islamist alliance named as the “People’s Alliance” projected an easy electoral win due to its aggregate vote of 60% in November 2015.

This strategy of’ ‘stick to the head’ for HDP included jailing several of its politicians, replacing the elected HDP mayors with appointed pro-AKP caretaker administrators, and open violence in a few Kurdish towns. The same strategy anticipated that the main opposition CHP would not create a countering alliance. The AKP-MHP campaigns depicted the CHP as the snobby party of the “white Turks”.

But this strategy did not go to plan. The first game-change came after the group splitting from the MHP created İyi Party, a nationalist, liberal conservative party under Meral Akşener. Since the creation of a right-wing alternative had been a clear threat for the consolidation of all right-wing votes behind AKP-MHP alliance, Erdoğan sought to prevent İyi Party entering the elections through legal measures. However, CHP’s “lending” of 15 MPs to İyi Party enabled Akşener’s party to qualify to run in the elections while Akşener herself became a presidential candidate against Erdoğan.

The second game-change has been the unexpected electoral alliance of the secular, centre-left CHP with the İyi Party and the minor conservative Islamist party, Saadet. This alliance provided two alternatives to the typical nationalist/conservative supporters of AKP on the ballot paper: there would be Islamist Saadet and nationalist İyi under the label of “Nation’s Alliance” together with CHP.

The third game change was the candidacy of Muharrem İnce by CHP in the presidential elections. The main opposition candidate has been carrying out an energetic campaign and cultivating an image of “an ordinary basic man” breaking the regular tagging of CHP by AKP spokespersons as “snooty”. One of the striking features of the campaign is that the dominance of the AKP discourse was broken, and after 15 years opposition became the agenda-setter with İnce.

After the elections, no substantial changes in Turkey’s relations with Greece are expected. The attention of Turkish foreign policy makers will continue to be pointed towards the Middle East.

Agendas in the Campaign

In the short two month campaign, the candidates’ agenda has mostly focussed on the economy, the political system and the status of the Syrian citizens living in Turkey.
Nearly 20% loss in the value of Turkish lira in the first five months of 2018 naturally made economic problems the hot topic of the campaigns.

In order to stop the collapse of the lira, Turkish Central Bank had to increase the interest rates two times in the last month, the rates reaching as high as 17. 5% contrary to Erdoğan’s Islamic preconceived notion against interest rate hikes.

The second big topic is the promise by the candidates on the future political system in Turkey. Both İnce and Akşener promised termination of emergency rule and a return to the parliamentary system contrary to the Erdoğan’s aim for an all-powerful presidential system.

The third topic in the election campaign is the situation of the four million Syrians in Turkey. The AKP campaign has been centred on Turkish hospitality towards the relligious brotherhood with the Syrians. İnce and Akşener have been promising to solve problems between Syria and Turkey and return of the Syrians to their country.

What of relations with Greece?

Other foreign policy issues such as the Cyprus problem, relations with Greece, Armenia, and the EU are not being voiced by the candidates. The only topic in the campaign raised a couple times by Erdoğan’s government regarding Greece was the issue of Turkish soldiers who sought asylum in Greece after the coup attempt of July 2016.

The Turkish government would continue to demand these soldiers to be extradited to Turkey, while a Greek court rightfully denied this claim on the basis of the nonexistence of a fair trial for the coup suspects in Turkey. Meanwhile, two Greek soldiers accused of military spying across the Turkish-Greek border jailed in Turkey would continue to be hold for exchange with the Turkish soldiers.

After the elections, no substantial changes in Turkey’s relations with Greece are expected. The attention of Turkish foreign policy makers will continue to be pointed towards the Middle East.

So what to expect?

0f the three million registered voters in 60 countries, roughly 1.5 million Turkish citizens living abroad have finished voting as of the evening of 19 June and the ballot papers were carried to Ankara to wait for the Election Day to be counted. 56.3 million registered voters exist in Turkey and the turnout is expected to be more than 85 % on Sunday.

Although Erdoğan’s performance is not as successful as his previous election record, AKP has a very strong and resistant base in the conservative Anatolian heartland. In the short period before the snap elections it will be very hard for İnce and Akşener to break this heartland. The most likely result will be a second round between Erdoğan and İnce on 8 July and a slight win by Erdoğan.

On the other hand, the new electoral system renders the parliamentary elections harder to guess, particularly the distribution of the seats inside the alliances. The seats in every electoral region will first be distributed between the “People’s Alliance” of Erdoğan’s AKP and the Turkish nationalist far-right MHP; the “Nation’s Alliance” of CHP, İyi Party and Saadet,and lastly HDP without an alliance.

These seats will be distributed inside the alliances to the member parties. The most crucial thing regarding the parliamentary elections will be whether or not HDP will pass the 10% threshold or not. HDP is an alliance in itself of the Kurdish movement and the Turkish far left and its vote is projected just above the threshold. The expectation in the parliamentary election is a hung parliament where AKP loses the majority in the case HDP gets more than %10 threshold.

In the case of instability due to a parliament controlled by the opposition and a weakened Erdoğan as the president, Turkey may go through a period of instability. In any circumstances, the post-June government will find it harder to reconcile its policy measures to cope with the worsening economic prospects and the populism necessary to winin the local elections of March 2019.

Dr. M. Murat Yurtbilir is Associate Lecturer, Centre for Arab & Islamic Studies (Turkish Studies Program),  College of Arts and Social Sciences,
the Australian National University, Canberra