Middle East

Turkey election a high-stakes gamble for Erdogan

His June election setback sparked headlines proclaiming "the beginning of the end".

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is fighting back, desperate to restore his absolute grip on power in a new vote Sunday after his Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority five months ago.

The opinion polls are almost unanimous, however: despite the fallout from this month's massive Ankara bombing and the revival of the bloody Kurdish conflict, Turks are likely to vote on Sunday as they did on June 7.

And Erdogan has shown no signs of rolling back on what critics see as an increasingly autocratic rule, again going on the offensive to silence rivals and critical media.

Riot police on Wednesday stormed television stations owned by a conglomerate accused of links to Erdogan's arch-rival, US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a move that alarmed Turkey's allies as well as rights groups.

"The persecution of the critical media outlets has reached an extremely worrying level because of the elections," said Johann Bihr of Reporters Without Borders.

If the conservative, Islamic-rooted AKP fails to win a majority on Sunday it will have to forge a partnership with one or more of the other parties that wins enough votes to sit in parliament — or call yet another election.

"Will Erdogan allow power to slip from his hands?" columnist Murat Yetkin wrote in the Hurriyet Daily News.

"The answer… will be directly related to the quality of democracy in Turkey. Only in democracies do governments bow to the will of the people and have respect for what they are told through the ballot box."

After 13 years of single-party government, the June result was a stunning blow for the charismatic but abrasive Erdogan, the most powerful leader since modern Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

It damaged, at least temporarily, his ambition to push through constitutional changes that would see Turkey shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system and give him greatly expanded powers.

Torpedoed coalition efforts 

Refusing to admit defeat, Erdogan torpedoed efforts in the weeks that followed to form a coalition government, and declared there was nothing for it but to hold fresh elections.

"I didn't get here by falling out of the sky," Erdogan said recently. "I was prime minister for eleven-and-a-half years. There are still projects in progress, we have a duty to follow them through."

But experts warn that Erdogan, who became Turkey's first directly elected president in 2014 after more than a decade as premier, will not be willing to join forces with anyone who might act as a brake on his power.

Even the party that shares the AKP's conservative voter base — the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) — is demanding that Erdogan step back from daily politics as a condition for joining any coalition.

"The (idea of an) executive presidency proposed by the head of state was widely rejected in June," Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Europe think-tank and former EU ambassador in Ankara, told AFP.

"If, as the polls suggest, Sunday's result is similar, Europe hopes that Turkey will move on from the current interim situation, which is not good for the country, and form a coalition cabinet," he said.

Before the last election, Erdogan was giving daily campaign speeches — against the rules of the constitution — to try to ensure the AKP won enough votes to clinch the 400 parliamentary seats needed to change the system.

This time around he has appeared far less often, and when he does take to the podium, his fiery speeches are focused on security and the battle against the "enemies" he says are determined to destroy the country.

Different tactics, same goal

"He has changed his tactics," said Sinan Ulgen, from Istanbul's Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.

"The polls have shown his interference in the June campaign damaged the AKP. He has adjusted his style, but his ambition remains the same."

The country remains fragile following the Ankara bombings and the revived conflict with rebel Kurds, which come as it struggles with the burden of more than two million refugees from the Syrian conflict.

"Blood is flowing in Turkey. So Erdogan and his government are trying to profit from the climate of tension by forcing the country to choose between chaos and the established order," said the former star editorialist of Milliyet daily, Kadri Gursel, recently sacked for a tweet which angered the president.

"But there is little chance that strategy will allow him to recover his absolute majority," he said. "Turkish society is so polarised, each side so stuck to their convictions, that there is little chance of big political change".

The polls also point in that direction, showing AKP winning between 40 percent and 43 percent of the vote — well below the threshold needed to govern alone, leaving a large question mark over Erdogan's next move.

"The coalition negotiations will be even more complicated now than they were five months ago," Ulgen said.

"And if AKP does better and only winds up a bit short of an absolute majority, president Erdogan could be tempted to send the country back to the polls, for a third time."

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