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Erdogan under pressure ahead of Turkish vote

Thomas Seibert, Istanbul / cmkApril 4, 2015

Two months before Turkey's general election, doubts are growing over whether the ruling AKP can pull off another sweeping victory. The rise of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party could throw a wrench in the works.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Peter Steffen

With nearly 50 percent of the vote four years ago, Turkey's Islamic conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002, achieved its best-ever election results.

Despite some defections over the years, today it still holds 312 of the 550 seats in Parliament in Ankara. Ahead of the June 7 election, the bar has been set significantly higher: Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who after his move into the presidential palace last year remains the de facto head of the AKP, has publicly called for his party to claim 400 seats. With such an overwhelming majority, the AKP could easily push through constitutional amendments that would strengthen Erdogan's role as president.

Pollsters skeptical

However, many pollsters believe 400 seats will be unattainable for the AKP. Recent surveys, which have predicted a repeat of the AKP's 2011 election victory, have concluded that the party will be unable to claim more than 375 seats. However, this would still be enough for Erdogan to unilaterally change the constitution.

Most experts anticipate the AKP taking anywhere from 40 to 47 percent of the votes. With such a result, the AKP would remain by far the strongest power in Parliament, but its ability to form a one-party government will depend on whether the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) makes the leap beyond the 10-percent threshold and enters Parliament.

According to some calculations, if the HDP gains seats, the AKP could lose its absolute majority. Even Bulent Arinc, the deputy prime minister and an AKP veteran, recently admitted that the HDP could win as much as 12 percent of the vote.

Selahattin Demirtas
Demirtas is relying on undecided voters and those dissatisfied with the AKP and other partiesImage: picture alliance / abaca

Closely watched

The rise of the Kurdish party is due not least to the popularity of one of its co-chairs, the telegenic Selahattin Demirtas. At age 41, he is a generation younger than Erdogan and other Turkish leaders. Demirtas has tried everything to increase the HDP's election potential among loyal Kurdish voters and present the party as a modern left alternative.

So far his strategy seems to be working, said Behlül Özkan, an associate professor of politics at Istanbul's Marmara University. "When he speaks, it's clear that Demirtas is quite different from the older politicians. He has managed to appeal to voters in Turkey's [non-Kurdish] west," Özkan told DW.

Demirtas has potential with the dissatisfied or undecided voters who turn up their noses at the AKP and the secularist and nationalist opposition parties CHP and MHP.

Cracks appearing in AKP's ranks

Demirtas' growing appeal is closely related to another important factor in the election. "The key will be whether voters have had enough of Erdogan," said Okay Gönensin, a columnist at the daily newspaper Vatan, in an interview with DW. Erdogan has dominated the Turkish political scene for 13 years and wants to expand his presidential powers. The presidential system is the overarching theme of the election, said Gönensin.

Polls have revealed conflicting information about whether Erdogan will be able to inspire voters with his presidential project. What's clear, however, is that Erdogan's claim to power has run into opposition in the government. Arinc recently publically forbade Erdogan's interference in the peace negotiations with the Kurds, and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is said to be reluctant when it comes to promoting the presidential system.

Polarization in society

To make the AKP as strong as possible, Erdogan is counting on - as in previous elections - a strong polarization between government supporters and opponents. And after the fatal hostage-taking of an Istanbul prosecutor by left-wing extremists this week, observers expect further tensions.

Already, a newspaper loyal to Erdogan has accused the anti-government Gezi protest movement of having the prosecutor's death on its conscience. Until now, said Gönensin, Erdogan has always benefited from the polarization of society.

But Erdogan's recipe will not necessarily lead to success once again. Societal polarization may be a means to motivate the AKP's followers and to keep them loyal, said pollster Tarhan Erdem in an interview with the newspaper Bugun. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the AKP will be able to use that strategy to attract new voters.