ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey on Sunday votes in legislative elections with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted ruling party facing the biggest poll challenge of its 13 years in power as it seeks a mandate to change the constitution.
Erdogan, who served as premier for over a decade before becoming president in August last year, wants the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that he co-founded to secure a two-thirds majority to change basic law and transform Turkey to a presidential system from a parliament-based one.
But after winning three crushing victories in general elections in 2002, 2007 and 2011 there are signs support for the AKP is beginning to weaken as the economy slows and controversy grows over what critics see as Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies.
Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have crisscrossed the country in an all-out campaign to reach out to Turkey‘s 56 million voters, under the election slogan “They talk but the AKP acts.”
The main uncertainty is whether the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) — which also courts support from women and gays with its liberal social policies — can overcome the tough 10 percent threshold needed to win seats in the 550-member parliament.
Should it surmount that hurdle, the AKP’s ambitions of winning the two-thirds majority (367 seats) needed to change the constitution written in the wake of the 1980 military coup could lie in tatters.
It may also be short of the three-fifths majority (330 seats) needed to call a referendum on the issue.
And if the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), third-placed Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and HDP poll strongly, the AKP could even lose the overall majority and need to form a coalition for the first time since it swept the staunchly secular pro-military authorities from power in 2002.
Hung parliament possible
The elections are coming at a critical juncture in modern Turkish history with uncertainty hanging over the country’s stalled EU membership bid, its ability to police 1,300 kilometers of border with Iraq and Syria and the future of 1.8 million Syrian refugees in the country.
Opinion polls in Turkey can be unreliable and not always objective. But several more respected surveys have shown that the AKP is set to win far less than the 50 percent of the vote it reaped in 2011, giving it a score ranging from just under 40 percent up to 45 percent.
“The critical level for the AKP is 43 percent” said Ozgur Altug at BGC Partners in Istanbul in a report, arguing that if the HDP makes parliament and the AKP polls below this figure, a coalition will be inevitable.
Tellingly, Erdogan and Davutoglu have concentrated their fire on the fourth-placed HDP and in particular its charismatic leader Selahattin Demirtas, whose easy charisma and rhetorical skills have earned him the nickname the “Kurdish Obama.”
The AKP is hoping that voters will put faith in its track record of building new infrastructure and promising new projects, including a gigantic new third airport for Istanbul, a ultra high-speed Istanbul-Ankara train line and a multi-level new tunnel underneath the Bosporus.
The CHP has sought to match the AKP’s ambition with eyebrow-raising project of its own to build a new mega city in the heart of Anatolia.
Paying a heavy price
The campaign comes as concern grows about Turkey‘s current direction under the presidency of Erdogan, with the pious leader, often brandishing the Koran, defying the supposedly apolitical nature of his office with his support of the AKP.
Erdogan has bitterly attacked the media, warning the editor in chief of the secular Cumhuriyet daily Can Dundar he will “pay a heavy price” for a front page story alleging Turkey tried to deliver arms to Islamists in Syria.
Stung by an editorial in the New York Times that there were “dark clouds” over Turkey under his rule, Erdogan denounced the newspaper as “trash.”
Meanwhile the AKP has lost some of its carefully-nurtured credibility with financial markets due to a bitter row between Erdogan and the nominally independent central bank that undermined the Turkish lira.
Foreign governments are also worried about the authorities’ all out campaign against supporters of Erdogan’s ally turned foe, the US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, with dozens arrested on accusations of supporting a “parallel state” aimed at ousting the government.
“Insofar as a hung parliament reduces the risk of more authoritarian policymaking, it would be welcomed by the markets,” said William Jackson, economist at Capital Economics in London.