At the time of writing Turkey’s (or nowadays Turkiye’s) immensely important elections, parliamentary and presidential, two simultaneous but complementary dramas, are but a few weeks ahead. At stake is much more than a mere change or not of government; at stake is basic premises for the nature and international role of the Turkish Republic facing its next century – more of the same (Recep Tayiip Erdogan’s presidential system) for the next five years, or a basic systems shift.

Why simultaneous elections?

One may ask why the two elections simultaneously, why opt for such added complications in an already tattered and torn political landscape. After all, this used not to be the case before, when for example there were presidentials (and municipals) in 2014 and then parliamentary elections – in fact twice – in the turbulent year 2015. So this was a novelty in conjunction with the 2017 constitution as imposed in a controversial referendum, the referendum that introduced the presidential system tailored for the incumbent, Erdogan. The idea, then, seems to have been that with elections on the same day, the popularity of the president and the standing of the AKP as ruling party would provide mutually reinforcing factors in favor of upholding and consolidating the power of the system.

Not so now, necessarily. Now, with the changed political landscape following developments during the preceding five years of Erdogan regime rule, and with the political opposition mobilized and united under a joint umbrella, all sorts of questions arise as to how the jointness of the two sets of elections will play out, in terms of opinion poll reliability and in terms of guidance for the 60 million or so electorate. It should be very difficult now to judge voter navigation in the current landscape and before the two simultaneous elections, and to judge which side benefits from the simultaneousness. Some in ruling circles may even regret having imposed the system.

Decisive first round unlikely, second presidential round near-certain; a forest of complications

It is possible, but according to a wide opinion poll consensus highly unlikely, that Turkey’s fate will be decided already in the first round, May 14. For this to happen one of the presidential candidates, in practice incumbent Erdogan or his opponent, the joint opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, will have, almost miraculously, reached above 50% of the presidential votes, as constitutionally required (perhaps also now regretted by the architects of the 2017 constitutional compromise). For that to happen in the case of Erdogan, he will have to been 100 % successful in massive mobilization of the full resources of the state, regardless of loss of legitimacy internationally and domestically. For that to happen in the case of Kilicdaroglu, he must have been 100 % successful in keeping the opposition united, including the Kurdish vote, and in exploiting in the campaign all the visible weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the president, the presidential system and the ruling AKP/MHP coalition. And then either of them also needs to achieve a successful parliamentary result, an acknowledgeable parliamentary majority, for the result to be complete. This is, then highly unlikely to occur. More on consequences below.

It follows that we can count on there to be a second round, on May 28, where either of the two lead candidates, Erdogan or Kilicdaroglu, will win by simple majority. And this is where the forest of complications open up as a result of the (perhaps unwise) decision regarding simultaneous elections.

One thing is that the second presidential campaign, between the first and the second round these sensitive weeks in May, will have to be conducted on the basis of the outcome of the decided-on parliamentary elections (if and when these are indeed decided on by the Electoral Commission), unavoidably affecting the nature, the strategy and tactics and the climate of the second presidential election, the then losing presidential candidate probably desperately striving to do better in the presidential than in the parliamentary elections – with a co-habitation arrangement his best possible outcome – and the winning coalition in the parliamentary election being inspired by a perceived wind of change and total victory. In any case an acknowledged victory in the parliamentary election will naturally be seen as a more than significant step, a decisive advantage in the final struggle.

Four alternative electoral outcome scenarios

And as regards the outcome of this final struggle for power – and for the decisive say on whether there will in and around Turkey be winds of change or frozen more-of-the-same – the separate second round opens up for four different variants, not listed in order of probability:

  1. Erdogan wins the presidential election having retained his coalition majority in the parliamentary election two weeks before – total victory, or almost total, depending on where his victory stands in the spectrum clarity-controversiality and clean slate-contestation. For his victory to be anything near “total”, or clear, the elections must be seen, domestically and internationally, as at least tolerably free and fair, or at least (in the clear and present absence of fairness in the Turkish polity) “free”. But regardless, this outcome means that Erdogan and his system remains in power and in office, formally for 5 more years (for starters). The attempts at regime and systems change have failed. For more on consequences, and costs, see below.
  2. Erdogan wins the presidential although having lost his (his AKP/MHP plus coalition’s) parliamentary majority, i.e., a co-habitation system and a “hung” parliament as seen from time to time in France. Many discussants, fear- or respectful of Erdogan’s magic and proven skills at winning elections (and in view of the fact that the Erdogan regime will remain in charge of the state apparatus throughout the second campaign)– but impressed by the momentum and the rightful cause of the opposition movement – appear to deem this outcome as highly probable, regardless of assessments of what it would mean going forward. But, yes, it would mean Erdogan and his presidential system and all else remains intact but enters a new, weakened stage, with all sorts of probable consequences concerning the viability of the presidential system as such.
  3. Kilicdaroglu wins a “total” victory, i.e., both the presidency (perhaps with a decisive Kurdish vote) and a winning majority for his “Table 6” opposition coalition, probably with the Kurdish-led separate coalition as a pivot. This variant opens up for all the sweeping changes pledged by the opposition and means the end of Erdogan rule, after 20 years of struggle. But the challenges facing the new team in seeking to achieve its transformative goals can be predicted to be formidable, inter alia in view of the reality that their majority in parliament is extremely likely not be sufficient for constitutional change (3/5), that the AKP even without continued alliance with MHP most likely will be the biggest party in the parliament, and that the inherited bureaucracy can be expected to provide stiff resistance to change.
  4. And then the very difficult variety nr 4: that Kilidaroglu wins the presidential despite having been unable to win the parliament majority for his side, i.e., the opposite co-habitation situation, but here with the added difficulty that this situation would seem to render impossible any thought of returning, as pledged in the campaign, to a parliamentary system in lieu of Erdogan’s presidential variety. Such an outcome would imply deadlock and a high probability of a recourse to new elections as the only way out. We are talking here about a potentially highly unstable situation.

Probabilities and consequences

These alternatives, all possible in view of the peculiarities of the outline of the elections and of the changes in the political landscape, can then be discussed in terms of probability of occurrence. But such a discussion is difficult, it is hard to judge and the nature of the remainder of the electoral campaign, and the uncertainties pertaining to the outcome of the first round will determine a lot of the outcome of the second round. In one scenario one can see the parliamentary winner on May 14 cruising into victory in the presidential second round, reducing probability of any of the two co-habitation variants. In Kilicdaroglu’s case, this would mean cruising to presidential win on the wind of change manifested in the parliamentary victory. In Erdogan’s case, it would mean continuing to build on the magic of political invincibility-cum-indispensability, as re-created in the parliamentary victory, and continuing to run the campaign for the second run with the incumbent’s full control of the powers of the state.

But there are other scenarios steering probabilities, including those in which a loss in the parliamentary elections can further energize mobilization for the presidential second round, even if unsteady and uncertain co-habitation is the only and best case. In any case, the two weeks in May between the two rounds, seem destined to be unprecedented in recent Turkish history as regards intense drama. Stakes are and will be high.

Cautious assessments

Summarizing the election scenario variants, it can be predicted, with all necessary caution, that alternative 1, the full Erdogan regime victory, whether already in the first round or, much more likely, after completion in the second, presidential round, would mean that he and his system has prevailed and now has to prepare for five more, secure, years in power, beginning with acute economic crisis management and with preparations for the celebrations in the autumn of the Republic’s 100 years anniversary. This outcome will mean constant, continued challenges for the West, NATO, EU, US et al, but considerable relief for Vladimir Putin. Ukraine war and crisis management will be chief among challenges, in addition, perhaps, to a flow of emigration from Turkey on the part of those seeing their hopes for change crushed.

As regards alternative 2 above, Erdogan remaining but now without the support of an obedient parliamentary majority, this seems to be a recipe for a weakened presidential system, raising questions whether the tailor-made presidential system can at all function without the automatic support of such a majority. How can co-habitation at all function in relation to Erdogan’s extreme variant of presidentialism? Will Erdogan start resorting to presidential decrees in order to tame an un-cooperative parliament, thereby further stiffening authoritarianism, to the detriment of the economy? A fog of uncertainty rises of such questions.

Jumping to alternative 4, Kilicdaroglu winning the presidency but without the support of a cooperative parliament majority, see above about likely deadlock and probable recourse to new elections, again probably simultaneous parliamentary and presidential (in view of difficulties to change these rules), in a more or less desperate attempt to break the deadlock – and its devastating economic consequences. In short, such an outcome would no doubt be highly problematic for Turkey, even if, for the democratic world, it would theoretically healthy democratic change at the top.

As regards the remaining alternative, alternative 3, a total Kilicdaroglu/Table 6 victory for change, one needs to be reminded of the scope of change presented by the opposition and its different leaders (representing such different brands of ideology) – on the economy, on restoration of rule of law in Turkey, on democratization, on amnesties, on an institutionalization of foreign policy etc. etc. – in adversial relation to the mountain of hindrances the new leaders will face in so doing, or trying to, as noted briefly above.

The sum total of – increasingly bold and optimistic – declarations from the emerging team of opposition spokespersons, specifying immediate actions during the first, sensitive 100 days after a victory, indicates general westernization of policies, expecting strong reciprocal responses from the EU and other quarters. Here there is increasingly specific mention of early action that includes release of Kavala and Demirtas, talks with IMF, return to the Istanbul convention on abuse of women, etc.,…

and ratification of Sweden’s bid for NATO membership (!?).

So Turkey is indeed at the crossroads. The next few weeks, and months, will be decisive. The outcome is of significant interest internationally, these days not least in Sweden.

The author is ambassador, holds a Phd and is a fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences.
The article is earlier published in Consilio International.