Turkey election: It's all about Erdogan and expanding his power

There is a critical power play at the centre of Turkey's parliamentary elections this weekend. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to be Turkey's sole leader and broaden his power base, Nil Köksal explains.

Controversial Turkish president not on the ballot, but election seen as test of his rule

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2014 REUTERS/Osman Orsal (Osman Orsal/Reuters)

We know one thing for sure about Turkey's parliamentary election Sunday: no matter which of the 20 parties Turkish voters stamp "evet" or "yes" beside on their ballots. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan isn't going anywhere.

His name isn't even on the ballot, but his ambitions are. This election is all about how much power the controversial and increasingly autocratic Turkish leader will be able to wield in the future should his party gain enough seats to make the now-ceremonial presidency the real seat of authority.

It is a frightening prospect for millions in Turkey, even for many who were once Erdogan supporters.

Erdogan wants to ditch Turkey's parliamentary system, which he led for 12 years as prime minister, and replace it with a presidential one. If his former party, the ruling AK Party secures enough seats, it can start the process of changing the constitution to do just that.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. His role would be greatly diminished if there is a constitutional change. ((Ole Spata/AP))

The party needs to win at least 330 seats, 60 per cent of the legislature, to be able to take the issue to a referendum vote, 367 seats (67 per cent) to do it without one.

As president, Erdogan has already gone far beyond blurring the boundaries of what is supposed to be a largely ceremonial role — alarming critics and democracy activists in the process.

In this election, Ahmet Davutoglu is the one running for office. He is the prime minister, but you might forget that after seeing Erdogan's presence everywhere in the campaign.

Turkey's constitution demands the president be neutral, show no allegiance to any party and certainly not campaign for one.

But Erdogan has dropped all pretense of neutrality, and is constantly on the campaign trail for the AK Party, his voice strained and cracking after months of rallies across the country selling the party's platform for a "New Turkey."

The rallies have generally been light on policy and heavy on provocation, with Erdogan attacking anyone who dares challenge him.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party makes a heart shape with his hands after delivering a speech in Istanbul earlier this week. (The Associated Press)

For example, Erdogan threatened to sue opposition leader Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, who, while commenting on the excess of Erdogan's much-maligned thousand-plus room palace, said the president uses a gold-plated toilet. (The president dared Kiliçdaroglu to inspect the palace, but he declined.)

Erdogan has also picked public fights with international news outlets, including the New York Times, telling the paper it should "know its place" after it published an editorial critical of him.

At home, while monopolizing media coverage, Erdogan lashes out at any journalist who challenges him or his authority.

Newspaper editor Can Dündar is once again the Turkish president's main target, and Erdogan has threatened to prosecute him and put him away for life for publishing an investigative piece about gun running from Turkey to ISIS fighters in Syria, which contained allegations that Turkey's intelligence agency MIT was involved.

The Koran and the Kurds

In the past, the key to Erdogan's popularity has been his ability to use Islam to divide Turks along secular and religious lines.

But he stunned many conservatives and secularists alike when he used a Koran as a prop during an election rally last month.

Trying to appeal to Kurdish voters in southeastern Turkey, he waived a copy of a Kurdish-language Koran, telling voters it was his party that made sure the Holy Book was published in their native tongue.

In Sunday's vote, it is the Kurds and their supporters who might keep Erdogan from getting the seats he needs to push his presidential plans ahead.

"Will the HDP pass the threshold?" That is the question in Turkey these days and refers to the Peoples' Democratic Party — the HDP, a Kurdish party led by lawyer Selahattin Demirtas.

He's a refreshing voice for some younger voters. And even for some older voters who would never have dreamed of voting for a Kurdish party just a few years ago.

Selahattin Demirtas leads the Kurdish party HDP. The party is vying to be the first Kurdish party to be elected to Turkey's parliament and could be the spoiler. (Associated Press)

Most are not doing this out of any particular belief that Kurds should play a role in Turkish politics, but because they want to do anything possible to stop Erdogan from amassing any more power.

The HDP isn't expected to form a government by any means — just getting enough seats to have a place in parliament would be a major victory. In fact, that would be a first for a Kurdish party in Turkish history.

It was just 13 years ago that Erdogan was the one making history in Turkey.

Even then there were concerns that he would take Turkey away from its secularist roots. But the promises of a stronger democracy and fairness for Turkey's marginalized communities — devout Muslims in particular — won many voters over.

It could have made Erdogan a model leader for the Muslim world and beyond. Instead, he has become a worry for the West and more importantly his own country. Turks are paying attention to the power play, and Erdogan's political future hangs in the balance.


Nil Köksal is the host of World Report, CBC's flagship national radio news show. She begins her mornings with more than a million loyal listeners. She returned from her post as CBC’s foreign correspondent in Turkey in 2018.