- A reform of the electoral system, a draconian social media law and the 2022 budget will be the main priorities for Turkey’s parliament after its summer recess.
- While noise about a new constitution is likely to re-emerge in the weeks ahead, the prospects for a new charter to be approved in 2022 are very limited given the existing parliamentary arithmetic.
- On the foreign-policy front, Erdogan’s rhetoric will remain confrontational, but economic imperatives will restrain Ankara’s policy options.
Turkey’s parliament will reconvene on 1 October after its summer recess with President Tayyip Erdogan set to introduce a string of legislative changes in an attempt to suppress dissent, reverse the decline in his popularity and extend his grip on power at the next presidential and parliamentary elections, which are due to be held in June 2023 at the latest.
Opinion polls suggest that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is currently polling at around 31-32%, down from 42.6% in the last general election in June 2018. Meanwhile, support for the AKP’s election partner, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), has fallen from 11.1% to around 8.5%. If current polling data is confirmed at the next elections, the AKP-MHP will fail to secure a majority and Erdogan will lose control of parliament.
In order to try to preserve its parliamentary majority, the AKP-MHP is expected to introduce a radical reform of Turkey’s proportional representation system. This would include lowering the national threshold for representation in parliament from 10% to 7%, while increasing the number of electoral constituencies and reducing the number of deputies elected from each. This is aimed at ensuring that the AKP, which is still the most popular party in the country, can win a similar number of seats even with a significantly reduced vote.
The reforms were originally expected to be legislated in early 2021 but were delayed by pushback from the MHP, which feared that they will tilt the balance of power in its alliance with the AKP even more in the latter’s favor. Under Turkish law, any legislative changes cannot be applied to an election held less than 12 months after they have been promulgated. As a result, Erdogan is expected to push the reforms through parliament before the end of 2021 to give himself at least a little room for maneuver when it comes to choosing the most favorable time for the next elections.
Erdogan is polling better than the AKP. But the most recent polls suggest that, for the first time since he took office in August 2014, he would lose in any straight contest for the presidency against nearly all of his potential main rivals. Unlike parliamentary elections, the process for presidential elections is embedded in the constitution. With only 336 seats in the 600-member assembly, the AKP-MHP alliance lacks both the two-thirds parliamentary majority necessary to amend the constitution and the three- fifths required to put any changes to a referendum.
Instead, in order to boost his chances of securing re-election, Erdogan is expected to try to tighten his control over the flow of information to the public – particularly to reduce the slew of revelations of corruption, nepotism and incompetence circulating on social media. A draconian new law imposing additional restrictions on social media is expected to be approved before the end of the year.
It is mainly (if not all) about the polls, not inflation data
Although Erdogan’s authoritarianism and the flagrant corruption that has come to characterize his regime have accelerated the decline in his popular support, the Turkish economy is still likely to be the main determinant of the outcome of the next elections. There is already widespread public skepticism about the official data for inflation and unemployment, with a growing number of Turks convinced that the actual economic situation is much worse than the government is prepared to admit. In an attempt to stimulate economic growth ahead of the next elections, on 23 September Erdogan ordered the Central Bank (TCMB) to cut interest rates, marking the start of an easing cycle despite the sticky high inflation. Opinion polls, rather than economic data, will continue to shape the TCMB’s next moves.
In mid-October, parliament is expected to begin debating the 2022 budget amid concerns that Erdogan will substantially increase spending and further strain the government’s already limited resources.
Erdogan announced on 21 September that Turkey was ready to finally ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change. Ankara signed the landmark agreement in 2016, but it has yet to formally ratify the accord by a vote in parliament. The ratification process is expected to be completed in time for the November UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.
Economic reality will constrain Erdogan’s room for maneuver on the foreign front
The fear of exacerbating the economic situation appears likely to continue to restrain Erdogan’s foreign policy ambitions and prevent him from following through on his often confrontational rhetoric. During his recent visit to New York for the opening of the new session of the UN General Assembly, Erdogan lashed out at US President Joe Biden, accusing him of being less amenable to Ankara’s demands than any of his predecessors. Erdogan then threatened to buy more S-400 air defense systems from Russia – a move that would trigger additional, and likely considerably more severe, US sanctions.
However, a meeting between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on 29 September ended without the announcement of any new Turkish defense industry purchases from Russia. The meeting also failed to resolve the growing tensions between Erdogan and Putin over the Syrian rebel-held enclave of Idlib, where a recent increase in Russian and regime attacks against rebel positions has rekindled fears in Ankara of another potential mass influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey, where the economic downturn is aggravating already strong anti-immigrant sentiments and further eroding Erdogan’s support. Russia not only retains strategic leverage vis-a-vis Turkey in Syria but also on the critical energy front as gas contracts with Gazprom for around 8bn cubic meters per year will expire by the end of 2021.
Erdogan is currently hoping to meet with Biden on the margins of the G-20 Summit in Rome on 30-31 October 2021. However, even if the meeting goes ahead, it is unlikely to lead to a meaningful rapprochement. Equally unlikely, though, is a major rupture in the US-Turkey relationship.
In addition to Erdogan’s attempts to form closer ties with Russia, Turkey and the US are engaged in a long-running standoff over Washington’s support for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria. Nor has the Halkbank case yet been resolved. The trial of the bank on charges of violating US sanctions against Iran was originally due to begin in May but has been delayed by a combination of procedural issues and the repercussions of the pandemic. However, unless Erdogan is willing to accept a potentially domestically humiliating out-of-court settlement, once the case begins, it is likely to end in conviction and possibly a multi-billion dollar fine.
Although relations are likely to remain strained through the rest of 2021, the fear of the possible economic repercussions is also likely to deter Erdogan from playing to his nationalist support base by instigating a new confrontation with the EU, Turkey’s largest trading partner – such as by returning to aggressive exploratory drilling for natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean.