News analysis

Turkey's leader has much to lose by calling snap elections

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a meeting at the presidential palace in Ankara.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a meeting at the presidential palace in Ankara. PHOTO: AFP

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's decision to order snap general elections in November was not surprising: The country's June parliamentary ballots were inconclusive, and the nation has been without a functioning government since.

Still, the new vote represents a huge and dangerous gamble for both Mr Erdogan and for Turkey. It also greatly complicates the management of the Middle East's other key crises, such as the civil war in Syria or the fight against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terrorist organisation.

There is no doubt that the June 7 elections delivered a crushing rebuff to Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The centre-right Islamist political movement founded by Mr Erdogan ran the country since it first came to power in 2002, but attracted barely 41 per cent of the June vote.

It secured only 258 MPs, well short of the 276 minimum required for an overall majority in the 550-seat Turkish Parliament.

The stinging defeat was due not so much to a revival in the electoral fortunes of Turkey's traditional secular opposition parties, but more to the meteoric rise of the People's Democratic Party (HDP), a new centre-left movement representing Turkey's Kurds - a restless ethnic minority which accounts for around a fifth of the country's population and has often clashed with the authorities over demands for autonomy.

Run by the charismatic Selahattin Demirtas, a 42-year-old Kurdish human rights lawyer, the HDP achieved the seemingly impossible: It smashed through the draconian Turkish constitutional requirement that any new party must obtain at least 10 per cent of the ballot before it gets any parliamentary representation, attracting just over 13 per cent of the popular vote and securing 80 parliamentary seats.

Mr Erdogan, who initially dismissed Mr Demirtas as a "one-day- wonder pretty boy", now accepts that the rising politician represents the biggest threat to the ruling AKP.

But Mr Erdogan never intended to allow his old party to share power with the opposition.

In theory, the provisions of the Turkish Constitution were observed: As the 45-day limit for coalition talks expired yesterday without producing a government, President Erdogan was entitled to order a new ballot, now tentatively scheduled for Nov 1.

In practice, though, Mr Erdogan ran roughshod through established legal provisions. He is the first president in Turkish history not to grant the party with the second-largest vote count a chance to set up a working coalition before ordering new ballots.

More importantly, the President has made an explicit link between the civil war in Syria, a country which also has a sizeable Kurdish minority, and Kurdish separatist threats inside Turkey. Turkish jets are now regularly bombing Kurdish positions inside Syria, which are alleged to be a threat to Ankara's territorial integrity.

An informal truce which operates inside Turkey between Kurdish separatists and the military is now also breaking down, with clashes occurring on a daily basis. Last week, nine Turks were killed in domestic sectarian violence, more than during the whole of the past year.

Mr Erdogan hopes that such rising tensions will deter voters from supporting Mr Demirtas' HDP in November. If that party's vote dips under the 10 per cent threshold, it would forfeit any parliamentary seats, allowing the AKP to regain its absolute majority.

And to increase that possibility, Mr Erdogan revived a proposal to allocate 15 seats in the next Parliament to the estimated six million Turks living overseas who cannot currently vote; many of whom are assumed to support the government.

But the political instability and economic stagnation which are the inevitable outcomes of the current political stalemate may backfire on the President. "It is highly possible that voters will hold the government responsible for not providing peace and order", argued Ms Seda Serdar, who runs the Turkish language service of Germany's state broadcaster.

Germany hosts Turkey's biggest overseas community. She also said that "recent polls show that the AKP won't have enough votes to become the sole ruling party".

Still, Mr Erdogan sees this confrontation in personal terms, as a struggle for the survival of his own political legacy, from which no compromises are feasible.

The result is a further polarisation of Turkey's political life, an increase in domestic violence and another grim reminder that, after four years of unchecked mayhem, the Middle East's bloodshed is spreading to all the region's states.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2015, with the headline 'Turkey's leader has much to lose by calling snap elections'. Print Edition | Subscribe