Turkey’s next general election will take place on Sunday, and the stakes are the highest they’ve been in years. A fresh political party hopes to upset the dominant AKP party’s control on parliament, after nearly 13 years of AKP rule.
Turkey faces criticism for leaving its border with Syria open to jihadi groups, including Islamic State, giving voters a chance to rebel against a narrowly focused Syria policy that has led to repeated disasters. And as the AKP tries to expand its grip by redefining the role of the president, even the constitution could face radical changes.
The upstart People’s Democratic Party (abbreviated HDP in Turkish) faces its first general election this year. It has close ties to several Kurdish nationalist organizations, representing the rights of Turkey’s largest ethnic minority group.
But to gain seats in Parliament, a party has to win at least 10% of the popular vote. If the HDP fails to do so, the Parliamentary seats it wins will go to the runner-up, likely the AKP. That’s why the HDP, led by a charismatic 41-year-old Kurd named Selahattin Demirtaş, has expanded its efforts to win over every Turkish voter disgruntled with AKP rule, especially other political and social minorities. (RELATED: Turkish Students Demand Jedi, Buddhist Temples Alongside Campus Mosques)
Kurds have been traditionally marginalized in Turkish politics, following some Kurdish groups’ decades-long violent struggle for independence from Turkey — and peace talks between Turkey and the terrorist Kurdistan Worker’s Party are still ongoing. The Turkish election also comes at a time when Kurds are on the front lines against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The HDP is currently polling right at the margin of 10 percent. As Michael Rubin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Daily Caller News Foundation, non-Kurdish voters are attracted to the Kurds “not because their party platform appeals to those potential voters, but because if they pass the 10 percent threshold they automatically dilute the AKP.”
By contrast, a disqualified HDP means that the AKP’s proportion of seats will automatically surge — even before the final votes are counted.
The AKP has its own hopes for that supermajority. Former AKP Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan now serves as president — a role meant to be politically neutral, but in which he has continued to enjoy unprecedented political power. The AKP’s platform proposes a constitutional reform to make the president an American-style executive rather than a ceremonial head of state. (RELATED: Turkey’s President Takes Credit For Obamacare)
Despite resistance from opposition parties, the AKP may be able to cut a post-election deal to promote its proposal. Soner Çağaptay, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told TheDCNF that Erdoğan could offer the Kurds “some cultural and political rights” — a key goal of Kurdish nationalists — in exchange for their backing his constitutional reform.
Meanwhile, just across Turkey’s southern border, Syria’s civil war has raged for 4 years. The AKP’s Syria policy entails arming rebels against Bashar Assad’s government without regard for those rebel groups’ extremism or reliability. But as Islamic State militants start taking credit for attacks in Turkey, and the leaky border proves a boon to radical Islamists, many voters are skeptical of giving more the AKP more leeway.
However, few expect that an electoral upset would change Turkey’s Syria policy for good. Through nearly 13 years of AKP power, Rubin said, Erdoğan has placed unusual responsibility in the hands of allies in the Turkish intelligence service, who wouldn’t be unseated even if the AKP lost control. And his support for Islamist rebels in Syria isn’t a mere strategic move: “he’s an ideologue — this isn’t House of Cards.”
Turkey’s politicians are exploiting the electoral season for all it’s worth. On Saturday, Erdoğan vowed to resign if critics of his extravagant 1,000-room palace found “a golden toilet seat.” And for his part, Demirtaş has warned that under Erdoğan’s proposed executive presidency, there would be a calculated “clean-up” against the political opposition.
Amid the uncertainty, Turkey will continue to be an indispensable tool against ISIS, and a key actor in whatever results from the Syrian civil war. The question is whether voters will choose to adjust Turkey’s role in an increasingly hostile neighborhood.
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