Turkey held early parliamentary and presidential elections on June 24th in the wake of a controversial 2017 referendum that transformed the Turkish government from a parliamentary system into a presidential system. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has run Turkey for more than 15 years, has been re-elected to the Presidency with a more powerful role. Despite Erdogan’s success, the failure of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to secure an absolute majority in parliament means he fell short in his quest of achieving full control over checks and balances. Given the current political situation in Turkey, the Latin American experiences under executives with authoritarian leanings offer comparative lessons for Turkey.
This election also paved the way for the unification of the opposition. The previous parliament passed a law that allows electoral alliances. This law has been marked as a game changer because it permits smaller parties to overcome the 10% threshold by joining a coalition. Under this regulation, the AKP and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) created an alliance. Just afterwards, the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) and newly founded right-wing İYİ (Good) Party, as well as the new center-right, Islamist Felicity Party (SP) decided to form an alliance to run against Erdogan and his alliance.
Unofficial results showed that five parties had passed the 10% election threshold required to enter parliament. The AKP got 42.5% of the vote and will hold 295 seats, but it has lost its parliamentary majority. Erdogan’s ally, the MHP, received 11.1% of the vote and obtained 49 seats in parliament.
In the opposition side, the CHP received 22.7% of the vote overall and gained 147 seats in parliament, the second largest percentage after the winning AKP. IYI Party passed the 10% threshold on its own merit and secured 43 seats in parliament. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), whose leader, Selahattin Demirtas, ran his campaign from prison, also managed to get into parliament with 67 seats. This parliament will be the most diverse in more than 40 years; each significant political wing will be represented.
New Period in Parliament
Erdoğan won the presidential elections in the first round with 52.5% of the vote while his party fell short of an outright majority in parliament. The new makeup of parliament is less favorable to Erdoğan than before the election. He needs to cooperate with a parliament that is now much more diverse. For the first time in its 16 years of government, the AKP will have to enter into a coalition to secure the majority in the parliament. This point is critical for Erdogan as he seeks to eliminate obstacles to consolidating power.
Erdogan’s first choice for a governing coalition will be MHP, which partnered with his party during elections. The head of MHP, Devlet Bahceli, was, until recently, one of Erdogan’s harshest critics. However, electoral challenges pushed the AKP to establish a formal pact with MHP ahead of elections. After the elections, the MHP has become the key party in parliament, providing checks and balances to Erdogan’s rule as a governing partner. The leader of MHP recently asserted that the MHP might not be as obedient as Erdogan would like. An uncompromising MHP could compel the Erdogan to lay aside his coalition partner and seek new alliances in parliament. That will be difficult in the context of a seemingly unusually unified opposition.
For the first time in a while, the opposition has seized the opportunity to challenge the increasingly authoritarian AKP’s parliamentary dominance. However, the process ahead is littered with obstacles for the opposition in the foreseeable future.
Lessons from Latin America
To better understand what lies ahead in Turkey, the Latin American experience should be seen as a cautionary tale. The experiences of the region, where such stalemates have often proved to be costly, hold important lessons for current Turkish politics.
The gridlock we’re currently seeing in Turkey is common in Latin American politics, particularly when Presidents have lacked majorities in legislatures. When political gridlock has emerged in Latin America, political actors have mostly opted for two options: either the president has prevailed by bypassing or even dissolving the legislative branch, or the national assembly has moved to unseat the president through the impeachment process.
The region has quite a history of “self-coups” (auto-golpes), in which the executive branch undemocratically takes full authority through eliminating other branches of government. Authoritarian regimes in Latin America concentrated power in the executive branch and controlled all state institutions including legislation and judiciary. In this critical juncture, some autocrats in Latin America have not refrained from dissolving the national assembly and imposing states of emergencies to overcome obstacles in the legislative branch.
Peru’s President Alberto Fujimori’s “self-coup” constitutes one of the most striking examples of this reality. In 1992, President Fujimori suspended the constitution, disbanded the legislature, and fired a critical mass of supreme court judges. He claimed that the congress was acting irresponsibly, and that politicians were creating obstacles to the reforms that he aimed to pass in order to end the economic crisis. While he drew serious criticism of international community, he nonetheless managed to remain in power for nearly another decade. Fujimori made this unprecedented attempt while his popular support stood at 60 percent.
Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori’s successful “self-coup” inspired other Latin American countries to carry out similar attempts. The most recent example is in Venezuela, after the opposition coalition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) won a landslide victory amidst record turnout against President Nicolás Maduro in 2015 legislative elections. The opposition achieved a three-fifths majority, which enabled them to pass laws and censure and remove government ministers. However, the Maduro government had no intention of sharing its power with a parliament dominated by opponents. The legislative branch has been blocked from exercising its constitutional functions by Venezuela’s supreme court, which Maduro packed with loyalists. Authoritarian leader Maduro also ordered all state agencies to ignore legislative oversight. He has repeatedly sought to dissolve or delegitimize the legislature through various undemocratic maneuvers to govern without congressional checks and balances, the most recent of which was the internationally condemned decision to call a referendum on a Constitutional Assembly, which has effectively replaced the fairly-elected legislature.
A possible stalemate after elections
For a long time, AKP has never been challenged by an opposition block due to its outright majority in Parliament. Beyond that, after the failed coup attempt in 2016, under the longstanding state of emergency, AKP has been able to govern through emergency decrees granting the full force of the law without any checks and balances. Now, however, a potential post-election wedge between AKP and MHP will severely constrain Erdogan’s room for maneuvering. During the election campaign, Erdogan faced a surprisingly strong opposition challenge. It seems plausible that the opposition will preserve its pre-election unity and pose a serious challenge to an increasingly autocratic ruler through legislative measures.
On the other hand, AKP’s failure to secure an absolute majority in parliament may provoke Erdogan to opt for more authoritarian rule, as like-minded executives did in Venezuela and Peru. By diminishing the separation of powers, and shrinking the checks and balances inside the system, the new constitution could effectively help Erdogan establish his authoritarian rule in Turkey. His extended powers in the new system would further push crackdowns on political opponents and dissent. He even has the power to remove opposition leaders from office and jail them. During the election campaign, Erdogan had accused the Kurdish party HDP of being “terrorists” and criticized the main opposition CHP for aligning with “terrorists”.
The building of an effective opposition in the parliament is now essential to challenge Erdogan, who will likely seek to defang the parliament as witnessed in autocratic regimes in Latin America. Starting now, the most important task of the opposition is to avoid a possible split within opposition ranks. The heterogeneity of the opposition and Erdogan’s polarizing maneuvers against opposition will likely increase the risk of split among opponents. However, if the opposition retains its initial doggedness and determination to confront the authoritarian rule of AKP and resolve fundamental problems of Turkish democracy, a new political trajectory will severely constrain Erdogan’s ability to consolidate his power without pushback. The failure of the MUD coalition in its struggle with the Maduro regime in Venezuela, however, offers stark warning signs for the Turkish opposition.
Imdat Oner is a PhD student at Florida International University.