Erdogan faces political storm with attempt to change voting law again

Turkish president may come to regret an alliance with an increasingly influential ultra-nationalist party

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli as they are flanked by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in Ankara, Turkey, June 27, 2018. Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is bidding to reverse an election law he brought in just four years ago as he seeks a third term but faces opposition from his nationalist partners, potentially threatening the governing alliance.

Mr Erdogan’s desire to water down or remove the 50+1 rule, under which a successful candidate must win at least 50 per cent of the ballot plus one vote, was revealed recently following a meeting he held with the head of a small opposition party.

The issue has exposed divisions between Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its junior partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), ahead of elections due in 2023 but which could come sooner.

Changes to Turkey’s political system, switching from a parliamentary model to an executive presidency that has concentrated power in Mr Erdogan’s hands, came in a 2017 referendum championed by the president.

With no single candidate capable of winning more than half the vote, the reform led to the creation of electoral alliances. The AKP and MHP joined forces to form the People’s Alliance.

Signs of disunity between them over the electoral reforms appeared last week after a meeting between Mr Erdogan and Temel Karamollaoglu, leader of the Saadet Party. Although Saadet is part of the opposition Nation Alliance, it hails from the same Islamist background as the AKP.

Erdogan is worried he won’t be able to cross the 50 per cent threshold in the upcoming presidential elections, so he would like to change the electoral law to make it whoever comes first, wins
Berk Esen, Sabanci University, Istanbul

Mr Karamollaoglu later revealed the president’s concerns over the new benchmark. This was followed by a senior presidential adviser, Cemil Cicek, speaking out to say the rule would “cause significant problems... and will drag Turkey into chaos”.

He was rebuked by MHP leader Devlet Bahceli, who described the comments as “strange and destructive... put forward by circles that want Turkey to be plunged into instability”.

Many commentators have noted that although the MHP is very much the junior partner, with 48 MPs to the AKP’s 286, it wields undue influence behind the scenes.

“The MHP wants to make sure the president is reliant on them because that’s the source of their oversized influence,” said Galip Dalay, a fellow at the German Institute for Security and Policy Affairs.

“Their current vote share doesn’t justify the influence they have and now the MHP is arguably in its most powerful phase since it was founded in 1969.”

The influence of the stridently nationalist MHP is seen not just in Mr Erdogan’s more nationalist rhetoric but in policy and the appointment of nationalists to key departments, particularly the defence and interior ministries.

“It’s a one-way street in terms of the policies and politics of the alliance and even the political profile of people at the top of the AKP,” Mr Dalay said.

Rising economic uncertainty

With the next elections due in June 2023 or earlier, Turkey is facing dire economic circumstances with high levels of poverty and inflation close to 20 per cent. Meanwhile, the Turkish lira has lost more than 30 per cent of its value against the US dollar since the start of the year.

This has translated into sliding opinion poll ratings for the government and Mr Erdogan, making it increasingly unlikely that he could pass the threshold even with MHP support.

“Erdogan is worried he won’t be able to cross the 50 per cent threshold in the coming presidential elections, so he would like to change the electoral law to make it whoever comes first, wins,” said Berk Esen, assistant professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University.

“Of course, the MHP opposes that because the 50+1 gives Bahceli enormous bargaining power and he can ask for all sorts of policy concessions, political perks, patronage and so on.”

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund in Ankara, said the AKP-MHP alliance was built on counter dependency.

Without its alliance with the AKP, the MHP risks not passing the threshold to enter parliament while the AKP relies on its nationalist ally to win the presidential race as well as give it a majority in parliament.

Mr Unluhisarcikli said it was now getting increasingly difficult for Mr Erdogan pass the new threshold even with MHP support”.

“Therefore, they want to change this. But the MHP has two objections: It would destroy the principle of counter dependency and political legitimacy would be questionable if they don’t get half the vote.”

Some suspect Mr Bahceli, who has led the MHP since 1997 and served as deputy prime minister in the coalition that preceded AKP rule, has proved the more astute of the two leaders.

Dr Esen suggested Mr Erdogan calculated the presidential system would make right-wing voters, who form roughly two thirds of the Turkish electorate, line up behind him.

“But rather than consolidating the right-wing vote, it actually led to the opposite outcome, which I think is what Bahceli hoped would happen,” he said.

“It seems Erdogan has fallen into a trap he himself set and Bahceli’s calculations seem more accurate.”

However, for now the two groups seem destined to continue their electoral alliance, according to Hatem Ete, research director at the Ankara Institute, who served as senior adviser to former AKP prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

“If there’s an alternative to the MHP, I think many people in the AKP would prefer it to the MHP but the relationship between them is not an optional one, it’s a necessity,” he said.

“Probably there are many people in the AKP upset with the ideological framework of the alliance but since there’s no other option, they accept it to maintain their rule.”

Updated: November 22, 2021, 9:40 AM