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Who will win Turkey’s next general election?

Thoughts and predictions ahead of the next Turkish parliamentary vote

Some astonishing news for you: Turkey’s parliament is playing by the rules. That’s right. The Grand National Assembly is preparing for an election at the scheduled time.(*) For the first time in decades, longer than most of us can remember, Turkish people will not be dragged to the ballot box because of an exodus of MPs from the ruling party, or a collapsed coalition, or a military intervention. No, the 2011 general election will take place because the rulebook, Turkey’s constitution, says it is time for one.

You could say this is a sign of more stable, predictable times in Turkish politics. To a certain extent, you would be right. With six months to go until voting day it looks like AK, the party of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, prime minister, is set to win a third consecutive victory.

That shouldn’t surprise many people. Mr Erdoğan’s party has a solid record of progress, and it would take someone quite obstinate to argue Turkish people are not better off now than when AK came to power in 2002. Opinion polls suggest the ruling party is likely to win around 45 percent of the vote, close to what they got last time.

But even though the victor is already pretty clear, it is an important election for Turkey. This is what I will be watching out for over the coming six months:

1) Distribution of seats in the new parliament
An AK victory might appear inevitable, but the size of that victory is far from certain. One reason for this is the resurgence of the main opposition CHP. Their newish leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has been working to collect the anti-AK vote under one roof, and has had some success in broadening his party’s appeal to voters who supported the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) at the last election.
Analysts believe that if the CHP can win 30 percent of the vote (up from 20 percent in 2007), they can seriously dent AK’s chances of governing alone by winning enough seats to rival them in the chamber.
AK’s target is for at least 50 percent of the popular vote. CHP are aiming “to govern alone”. Both seem quite far-fetched at this stage, but both objectives reflect the two parties’ urgency to win as many seats as possible.
2) The fate of the nationalists
Turkey’s electoral system operates a 10 percent threshold. If a party’s national share of the vote does not cross that line, it cannot be represented in parliament, regardless of how well they do in individual provinces. As I blogged yonks ago, it’s too high and needs to be lowered, but it has helped the AK Party win two crushing parliamentary majorities. Unsurprisingly, they aren’t about to kick away the ladder that carried them up to where they are.
AK and the CHP are probably both going to cross the threshold this year, but the same can’t be said for the MHP. Polls suggest Devlet Bahçeli’s party is in trouble. By some estimates, they may crash below the threshold and out of parliament. That would be in the interests of the two larger parties, giving both of them more seats to play with.
It would not be in the interests of democratic representation. Just over half – 55 percent – of Turkish voters were represented in parliament after the 2002 election because AK and the CHP were the only parties who crossed the threshold. MHP joined them after the 2007 election, meaning that four in every five votes, a better proportion, were represented. Turkey is too pluralistic for at two-party system. A third party must cross.
Nonetheless, all three parties have been stepping up the nationalist rhetoric in recent weeks, which might explain Mr Erdoğan’s bizarre intervention to tear down a statue near the Armenian border or his recent war of words with German chancellor Angela Merkel over her recent visit to the Greek side of Cyprus. Expect Israel or the EU to come up before long.
3) What will the prime minister do next?
This is the biggie. Mr Erdoğan has already said that this next term will be his last as leader of his party. He has spoken somewhat wistfully of disappearing somewhere quiet and warm to write his memoirs, but most commentators reckon he has ambitions for the next rung of the ladder – the presidency.
Whether he can achieve this depends on what happens to the incumbent, his former deputy Abdullah Gül. When Mr Gül was elected by parliament in 2007, it was for a single seven-year term, much like his predecessors. But one month later the constitution was amended by referendum: Turkish presidents are now elected – by the people, not parliament – for a maximum two five-year terms.
It is still not clear whether Mr Gül’s term of office will measured by the old rules under which he was elected, or the new rules that replaced them. He could have to stand for re-election as early as next year, or serve until 2014. Of course, Mr Erdoğan could start work after the parliamentary election on a new constitution that changes the system entirely – rumours abound of a French-style presidential system, which Mr Erdoğan is understood to covet.
4) The date and the candidates
Sunday 12 June is everyone’s best guess for voting day, supported by both CHP and MHP. The government has until March to fire the starting gun, however, and chances are they’ll take their time.
In the meantime, the parties have been thinking about their candidates for parliament. Political parties in Turkey are extremely centralised, with every list – 81 of them, one for every province – being personally endorsed by the party leader. In 2007, AK notoriously culled large numbers of its 2002 intake to make way for those who had curried greater favour, and could do the same again.
Interesting names are being banded about, too. Erkan Mumcu – a former AK minister who held the key for Mr Gül’s first presidential run, dropped it, then disappeared into nothingness – is reportedly considering a run on the MHP ticket.
An interesting few months await.

(*) Well, nearly. Following the 2007 referendum, Turkish terms of parliament were reduced from five years to four, which means this year’s election should be held on 22 July, but given that people last time were queuing in temperatures above 35°C last time, voting looks likely to be brought forward a month.

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