By Oscar Rotundo *
What has been the change in the electoral system with respect to 2018 and what is its importance with respect to the future of the country?
Yunus Soner – Good afternoon Oscar from here in Istanbul, I am going to try to provide you with an analysis of the situation.
Candidates and coalitions
On May 14, presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in Türkiye. The country has recently changed in 2017 to the presidential system. Before we had a parliamentary system with a prime minister, now we have a president with broad powers and a parliament with less authority. Before we had a prime minister elected by the majority of parliament, now we have direct election of the president and separate from it the election of the Parliament. The two things will be chosen on May 14. For the presidential election there are two coalitions with four official candidates. One is the current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is seeking re-election as a candidate for the coalition called the Popular Alliance, despite the fact that they are right-wing, and which is made up of his party, the Justice and Development Party, in government, the Nationalist Action Party, and is supported by the New Welfare Party and the Free Cause Party, which are conservative and quite Islamic.
The Nationalist Action Party is from the national right, less Islamic, and the Free Cause Party is a small, Kurdish party, but very Islamic and has a very strong past because it was previously involved in terrorist actions; it has a program that contemplates dividing the country in ethnic terms and establishing the law of religion.
In the opposition we find the Nation Alliance that is led by the Republican People’s Party, founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923, supported by the Good Party, which is right-wing and nationalist party. In his coalition there are four smaller parties, which are all from the right. Erdogan’s previous prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, leads one of them: the Party of the Future. A former Economy Minister of Erdoğan, Ali Babacan, leads another of them: the Democracy and Progress Party. These two parties separated from the government in 2019 and are part of that coalition. Their presidential candidate is Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who is also the Chairman of the Republican People’s Party and is running for the presidency himself for the first time (In 2018, when there was also a presidential election, that party put forward another candidate).
Apart from these two coalitions, we have two more candidates for the presidency. One is Muharrem İnce, who was the main candidate of the opposition in 2018. He is a former politician of the Republican People’s Party. He started politics there, he tried to reach the presidency of that party after 2018 and when he failed, he left the party and now he is a separate candidate. He defines his new-founded Homeland Party and candidacy with the slogan ‘Neither left nor right, our path is Atatürk’. He presents himself as an oppositional secular Kemalist. There was a lot of pressure against him, to join the opposition, with the intention that he would simply stop being a candidate. This was not possible. The opposition could not reach an agreement with him, giving him a seat in parliament, for example. And the fourth candidate is Sinan Oğan from the nationalist, non-Islamic right. He is a candidate for the Ancestral Alliance, (small recently founded parties) and his program revolves around the issue of Syrian refugees, of which there are millions here. The latest figure, I think, is around 7 million. He demands the immediate return of these to Syria.
I’ll try to give you an idea what challenges the country faces and how these candidates and parties respond.
Matters of national integrity
First and most important point is the national integrity of Türkiye. Here we must remember that the United States occupied Iraq in 2003 and imposed a new constitution there, which divided the country into three sectors: Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. This was written in the constitution and the Kurds were given their autonomous zone in the north and the whole division of the state, of the bureaucracy, was made according to that division. The United States began to create or cause a war in Syria with the same demand. They expressed it in the United Nations, through decision 2254, proposed by the United States, so that Syria also has to have a new so-called inclusive constitution.
The idea is very similar, in the northeast there is already a so-called Kurdish area supported militarily by the United States. The U.S. wants that Kurdish area to be recognized, and the Kurds to be incorporated as a separate people into the Syrian constitution, just like the groups Sunnis and Alawite, who are similar to the Shiites.
Türkiye has been facing the same pressure for years to become a federation with Kurdish regional autonomy, and with a constitution that is no longer based on citizenship as we have inherited from the French system, but on ethnicity. Here, ‘Turkish’ is not it is defined as a member of a State regardless of language or origin, but converted into an ethnic term. It is a challenge that we have, it is the strong struggle of the separatist movement that for the moment in its program demands this recognition of the Kurdish people in the constitution as a different subject from the rest. Hence follows the regional autonomy and the position of turning the country into a federation, which in Türkiye would result in Balkanization.
It would be necessary to see what the Kurds or the so-called Kurdish party does in the election. They did not present a presidential candidate. They openly and officially support the opposition candidate, but in the parliamentary elections they did present a coalition of their own made up of the Kurdish party and supported by small parties on the left that do not have much power.
At this point of national integrity, the government has already proposed introducing a so-called civil constitution that includes eliminating many points of the unprecedented secularism of the foundation of the Republic. Secularism is the separation of religion from the state, and despite 20 years of Islamic government, there are still many rules limiting the role of religion in civil society and many changes the government envisions. I would equally include this also a kind of constitutional change in terms of the definition of nation, as I have said before. The government has not gone into details, but this was a government proposition previously.
The opposition is more open about it. Its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the Republican People’s Party announced that if he wins the election, he would meet the Kurdish party. He argues that the solution to the Kurdish problem, or so-called Kurdish problem, has to be found in Parliament and not in the military fight against that armed group. And he proposed to meet the Kurdish party in parliament and seek a peaceful solution to the conflict. He has not gone into details, but it is assumed that this envisages a constitutional change. The opposition in general also demands to change the presidential system and return to the parliamentary system.
That would be accompanied by a change in the definition of the nation. There are demands for education in the mother tongue, demands for regional autonomy, for decentralization. All these things would have to be negotiated in case of the opposition’s victory. If he wins, he would put the unitary system that we have right now and national unity up for debate and negotiation because, as I said before, right now the nation is not officially defined by being an ethnic group. There is fundamental expression by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the republic: “The people of Türkiye who founded the republic, is the Turkish nation”. That means, this definition is based on a connection of citizenship with the State to define what the nation is. And in case the opposition wins, sooner or later a negotiation will start on what level can divide the national unity, divide the state institutionalization. The Kurdish movement is waiting for that.
U.S. threats and Ukraine conflict
A second politically important point, obviously, is that the United States is behind this plan to divide the country, because they have carried it out in Iraq, they are trying it in Syria, they are trying it in Iran as well and in Türkiye for years. The so-called Kurdistan is their old project that they support politically in Türkiye, militarily in Syria, militarily and economically in Iraq.
Also the war in Ukraine that puts the whole region at risk, leads to the brink of a nuclear escalation, and considering that Türkiye is just on the other side of the Black Sea, we are maritime neighbors, let’s say, of Ukraine and Russia at the same time. And with the two countries we have, as a government and a country, good economic and military relations.
Russia is a very important country for Türkiye in terms of energy import. All these relations between Türkiye and Russia are under US pressure. The American trade department has already published letters to the Turkish government that the diversion of trade, the diversion of sanctions that are imposed against Russia through Türkiye, cannot be accepted. This responds to a practice where European countries carry out trade via Türkiye. They sell their merchandise to Türkiye and from here these same merchandise is sold to Russia as if they were Turkish products, to avoid sanctions and vice versa as well. But this is already under a lot of American pressure.
Likewise, when there were sanctions against Russia and its exclusion from the SWIFT system, a payment system called MIR in Russian was introduced or proposed here, an alternative system to SWIFT, to the banking system for transferring coins and money, which was received with great joy in the Turkish banking system until the United States vetoed it. Their veto ended the system.
Right now the construction of a nuclear plant in Türkiye of Russian origin continues, but there is also American pressure there to stop it. And the Americans also want to militarize the Black Sea, with a stronger NATO presence, as the entrance to the Black Sea passes through Istanbul by the Bosphorus, Türkiye is holding out, but it’s under pressure because of the Ukraine conflict.
The government takes a balancing position, let’s say, it is taking advantage of the fact that Russia is under pressure. The grain deal opened up the possibility for Türkiye’s agricultural industry to process grains coming from Ukraine and Russia. At the moment there is a lot of tourism from Russia, because Russia almost no longer has air access to other parts of the world in the western direction except for Türkiye. There are some Russian investments in the country, in real estate among others. All these things benefit Türkiye, but they are under pressure.
The Erdogan government maintains a position of neutrality and mediation because it is at the same time maintaining good relations with Ukraine. It is selling them unmanned military aircraft that are being used there. Also within NATO, the Erdogan government recently approved the inclusion of Finland in that alliance.
It is a balanced position and with the elections approaching, it seems that they do not want a strong conflict with the United States, despite the fact that the United States is also putting pressure on them in Syria.
The opposition proposes in its document of consensus to renew relations with the West and with NATO. One expression of this is that one of their candidates for Parliament is the former Türkiye ambassador to Washington, an important ambassador who was also an adviser to a former Türkiye president. And their document also says that they, in case they win the elections, will remind Russia that Türkiye is a member of NATO.
In this context of confrontation between NATO and Russia, the opposition clearly proposes a return to the Western camp. It must be remembered that one of the leaders of the opposition parties, Ahmet Davutoğlu was not only Prime Minister but also Foreign Minister under Erdoğan. He was the main person in charge of the policy that Türkiye still carries out against Syria.
The economic crisis would be a third point. Here we have an officially recognized inflation of 55% unofficially of around 70%. An incredible increase in food prices, a negative trade balance in the first 3 months of this year (of approximately 35,000 million dollars). And Türkiye is having difficulties obtaining credit abroad to balance that negative trade balance.
To win the elections, the Erdogan government recently made reforms in retirement, in tax policy. There has been a lot of extra spending to win votes. And in general we have an uncertain situation in the economy and we have housing problems, with very high rents, people are leaving the cities, in part, because they cannot pay any rent.
To this, we must also add the problem of the earthquake in which, according to official figures, more than 50,000 people died and where there is a profound need for reconstruction that will weigh even more on the state budget. In terms of the economic crisis, the government proposes to continue on the same path to find solutions day by day. They have very low interest rates to be able to carry out construction works within the country.
Construction is a very important sector in Türkiye. The important sectors are construction; let’s say maquiladoras in automobiles, textiles, tourism and agriculture, those five, I would say, are the most important sectors. And having low interest rates and causing inflation, they also put pressure on salaries and allow an extension of the credit sector, but the government does not seem to have a general strategy. Their economic plans are not met, their inflation goals, rates, course of change are not fulfilled and life is getting a bit complicated.
An important relief has been provided by Russia: Türkiye had to pay this year, I think, about 10 billion dollars for the energy imported from Russia and Russia has given the government time until next year to pay the debt. In this way, let’s say, they saved a lot life because there is a lack of foreign currency. In fact, exchange controls on currency transfers and capital are being introduced every day. These are very small steps not to cause panic, but that’s how it is. The government also managed to get other funds in the Gulf, in Qatar and in Saudi Arabia. The latter deposited 5 billion dollars here in Türkiye, but these are funds that come in the form of credit and that are not converted into production nor into export.
The opposition, on the other hand, proposes here also a return to orthodox politics, that is, probably to raise rates if necessary, meet the International Monetary Fund, also economically turn to the West and introduce neoliberal policies. And they have the plan, to bring about 300 billion dollars from abroad of Turkish money that is deposited in Europe in banks in London etc.. But it is not very clear how they are going to do it and what money it is and why it is there and how they are going to bring back. In general, the electoral campaign in terms of economy in both cases promises expenses, promises to lower rates, promises extra payments, holidays, but it is not really noticeable that there is a clear and deeply analyzed program.
Institutional problems with the presidential system
Another issue is institutional dysfunction; the change to the presidential system, where the government also recognizes that there are problems and Erdogan himself has proposed reforms. The opposition says that this presidential system has to be changed and we have to go back to the parliamentary system. For this they need not only to win the presidency, but also to get at least 400 of the 600 seats in the parliament to be able to introduce a constitutional reform that would later lead to a referendum.
In general, there is the problem of corruption; there is the problem of dysfunctionality. The power is in the highly centralized bureaucracy, not in a regional sense, but in a personal sense. It is a bureaucracy that does not work very well, that does not react quickly to situations and where the bureaucrats are always looking up waiting for the order to act. It looks a bit like the old Soviet system in its final years and that was particularly noticeable in the earthquake.
The earthquake, as I said, has caused more than 50,000 deaths, some say 100,000, but the official figure announced, no more figures are announced, the last figure announced was a little above 50,000. Well, thousands of people also lost their homes. And that earthquake was exceptional in its geological dimension because it covered a large area, 12 different provinces were affected, including Syria as well, but it also showed many weaknesses in part of the government.
One of them was the somewhat slow reaction, despite the fact that politicians appeared quite quickly in the earthquake sector, they discouraged sending, for example, the army to the region, and the army is usually always the most prepared force, the most organized for these things, but they took time to send it. Then there were scandals because the Red Cross of Türkiye, sold shops to those who had survived the earthquake. During the two days, the first two days, no help came in any form to much of the earthquake zone and people actually died because of it, from cold and from lack of help.
State mobilization was difficult, as I said, due to the magnitude of the earthquake, but also due to political incompetence. There was no coordination between municipalities governed by the government with those of the opposition. There were cases of competition between them. And on the way to the earthquake, in relation to the deaths, there was a very important factor. A zoning amnesty was made in 2018, where in the region of the earthquake approximately 300,000 illegally built buildings were legalized.
And, illegally built means, in this case, that they did not have papers indicating that they were prepared for an earthquake. That says the law. And the amnesty law openly said, it’s incredible, that the preparation of the house or the building for an earthquake, that responsibility, belonged to those who lived inside it.
It is a total neoliberalism, where the State lets the inhabitants check if their building is well prepared or not, obviously they cannot do it, and that has also contributed to the fact that this number of deaths later occurred to a large extent.
In reaction to the earthquake, because there is a great reconstruction movement, quite quickly, the government shows its speed to build the houses, but that also means that the people who have lost their house now have to buy it back, beyond the fact that they will receive very low rates and very affluent. But people, well, some of them, had invested all their life’s earnings in that house or that apartment and now they have to buy another one or the same again.
The opposition here proposes to rebuild the houses at no cost and give it to the survivors at no cost, but it is a bit difficult and it is not known how they could finance it. The earthquake is a symbolic issue, many politicians show up there, there is a lot of campaign for help, but it was not an issue, it was not an event that caused a rethinking of the neoliberal economic model, which has played a role in the damage, has not had a role of questioning the role of the central government or the municipalities, it is sad but it is so.
In short, the two parties, the government and the opposition, seem to me to be unprepared for the great challenges Türkiye faces. They do not have a complete program. They are betting on winning the elections and then to see what happens. What nobody doubts is that after the elections a very strong economic crisis will come. Many think that this economic crisis will lead Türkiye to re-enter the Western camp stronger due to the economic dependence on credits that we have with the European Union and international or financial institutions, despite the fact that right now, the country does not have debts with the IMF, but it does have debts in the western financial market and the World Bank.
I anticipate that after these elections the country will calm down for a while, a month, maybe two months, but then these contradictions in the economy and security will become visible again. And I understand that neither the government nor the opposition are prepared to this, because they are ultimately dependent on the strong economic classes of the country, who earn their living, so to speak, in cooperation with the West. The export sector is very strong, very dominant. The construction sector is very dominant, strong. The needs of the working class are largely excluded from the election. No one talks about the rights of workers. They talk about prices, but they don’t talk about salaries, specifically. They are totally excluded.
Regionally, foreign policy will be carried out under more pressure as well, and I believe that Türkiye does not expect a period of stability, but rather of instability. It may be that on election days there may be some act of violence. There are many notes out there, many rumors, although nothing has been heard yet. But there is a very strong polarization between the two sides, very strong, and it is difficult to imagine that either side could accept defeat in the elections.
* PIA Global Team Editor. This interview was published previously on Pia Global in spanish. Translation by UWI.