Erdogan’s bid for absolute power at stake in Turkey's general election

People wave Turkish flags, and one bearing the image of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at a rally in Istanbul on May 30.
People wave Turkish flags, and one bearing the image of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at a rally in Istanbul on May 30. AFP

As Turks head to the polls on Sunday, the general elections are not so much about which party will win as they are about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bid to expand his authoritarian powers if his conservative AKP party wins an absolute majority.


The June 7 ballot will be a key test for Erdogan. For the first time since 2002, opinion polls suggest that the president’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) may not get enough backing to form a single-party government. A coalition would likely spoil Erdogan’s ambitious plan to rewrite the constitution and transform Turkey into a presidential, rather than a parliamentary, system.

Analysts say this ballot is more of a referendum on Erdogan’s powers than a general election. And so far it is not looking good for him.

Although the Islamic-rooted AKP still has strong chances of garnering a majority, a slowing Turkish economy coupled with growing national and international criticism of Erdogan’s authoritarian rule has put a dent in the party's popularity, severely shrinking its lead in the polls.

“The key issue in this election is whether the AKP will win an absolute majority or not, like it did in 2002,” Hamit Bozarslan, an expert on Turkey and a research director at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS), told FRANCE 24.

Jean Marcou, an expert on Turkish politics at Sciences Po in Grenoble, agreed. “This time, the outcome is far from predictable; pretty much anything is possible.”

'Golden toilets’ in a '1,000-room palace'

Everything points to Erdogan wanting to hold on to the reins of power. On his own.

According to Turkish constitutional law, Erdogan should have handed over the full prime ministerial dossier to his successor, Ahmet Davutoglu, when Erdogan became president last August after more than a decade as PM. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, Erdogan has ignored the legal obligation of remaining apolitical in the run-up to the elections and has thrown himself head first into the campaign with relentless rigour, organising numerous campaign rallies and making several speeches a day.

“He’s even gotten to the point where he inserts himself into public debates, like the one concerning the supposed golden toilets in his 1,000-room palace,” Marcou said.

“Erdogan wants absolute presidential powers,” Marcou said. “Already there is little separation of powers, since the presidency controls the judiciary, police and secret services. He wants to push it even further. Erdogan sees himself as the incarnation of Turkish history.”

“Since 2008, he’s been leaning toward [creating] a cult of power, one in which he, as the leader, intends to avenge Turkish history.”

When attending a May 30 rally celebrating the anniversary of the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Istanbul, Erdogan filled his speech with historic references.

“The June 7 elections will be a new conquest, God willing,” the president said, likening the AKP’s 12 years of successive rule with Sultan Mehmet’s conquest of Istanbul.


In leading his aggressive campaign, Erdogan has introduced a series of keywords into his rhetoric when talking about his rivals.

“The word ‘betrayal’ has become key in his speeches. He is talking a lot about ‘interior traitors’,” Bozarslan said.

In recent weeks Erdogan also appears to have stepped up his attacks on the left-wing People's Democratic Party (HDP), Marcou noted.

The mainly Kurdish party is the smallest in Turkey’s parliament but is gaining traction among other minorities, like Armenians and Assyrians. HDP promotes equal rights for women, protection of the environment, and respect for the gay and transgender communities. It also wants to represent the Gezi movement, whose 2013 pro-democracy and freedom protests shook Turkey to the core.

“The big question will be whether it (HDP) is able to cross the 10 percent threshold to enter parliament or not,” Marcou said. The Turkish 10 percent requirement is currently the highest in the world.

But polls show that the HDP is on the verge of getting the support it needs, with some forecasting that it will seize enough seats to deprive the AKP of a majority.

“That would be like an earthquake,” Marcou said. Kurds make up some 20 percent of the country’s population, and even if many of them voted for the conservatives before, this might be the election when they switch sides to lend their support to HDP.

If the HDP fails, however, almost all of its seats will go to the ruling party under the country’s system of proportional representation, making it possible for AKP to change the constitution and hand Erdogan the extra powers unopposed.

In a bid to circumvent the 10 percent rule, Kurds have previously fielded independents, guaranteeing their election since there is no threshold for those who run independently. In the previous election, 29 pro-Kurdish independents won parliamentary seats.

“The HDP is taking the risk of doubling down or folding,” Marcou said, adding that the duel with Erdogan is also about the Kurds’ growing importance as a part of Turkish society.

“Over the years they have become a part of the Turkish political system, and it’s not just about pushing the Kurdish (independence) issue anymore.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.


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