President of the Republic of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated at the press conference on 1 February 2021 that preparations have started to draft the new constitution. “ It is time for Turkey to discuss a new constitution again,” he said noting that “the source of the problem in Turkey since 1960 is the constitution made by putschists.”
All political parties agree that the 1961 and 1982 constitutions were written after bloody military coups in 1960 and 1980 and do not accommodate for the current problems Turkey is facing. However, the opposition also demands early parliamentary elections.
On 22 January 2021 President Erdogan stated that he would not like to undermine the democratic standards of presidential elections and that states with long democratic tradition do not hold early elections at the whim of certain people. This was Erdogan's reply to the opposition's demands for early presidential and early parliamentary elections.
Amid the controversies over the calls for early elections, President Erdogan announced on 1 February 2021 that there would be no early elections and that regular elections will be held in June 2023.
This political swerve taking place within only seven days was the result of turbulent inner political and global events. In just a few days after his inauguration US President Joseph Biden reversed numerous decisions made by his predecessor, putting under question the new US administration's relation with its allies. In end January 2021 US administration announced that it had put a temporary hold on billions of dollars worth arms sales to United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Erdogan between a tyrant and a US ally
In the last three months of his election campaign Biden outlined his future policy towards Turkey and especially its President Erdogan whom he described as a tyrant, affirming that he would support Turkish opposition parties to enable them to defeat Erdogan, and that he would try to take a different approach to Turkey from that of Trump's administration. US-Turkey relations were built on good personal relations and sympathies between former US President Donald Trump and Erdogan, just as were Trump's relations with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS).
There are several grave open issues in relations between these two NATO members, starting from the position on the Syrian crisis and the support of US administration to Kurdish party People's Protection Units (YPG) in Syria which has had ties with the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) terrorist organisation in Turkey since the period of Obama's administration. Appointment of that party's close ally Ambassador Brett McGurk as coordinator of the National Security Council for Middle East and North Africa was a big diplomatic blow to Turkey. This represents continuation of Obama's politics that was detrimental for Turkey, such as the purchase of Russian S-400 missile system and the halt on cooperation in the production and sales of F-35 fighter jets with Turkish army. Other open issues include US position on Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish dissident living in Pennsylvania who is accused by Turkey of instigating the failed coup in 2016, and American sanctions against Halkbank, a Turkish state-owned bank.
As a gesture of goodwill, Ankara made some diplomatic steps towards the new US administration, such as sending positive signals for good relations to Greece and the EU as well as its regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. After years of hard-line policy, Turkey also called on the UN to continue negotiations over Cyprus after a deadlock. In recent days Turkey has also sent positive messages to its historical opponent Armenia and even expressed readiness to open the border.
Turkish government also opened a new chapter in relations with Greece after several months of tensions in the Mediterranean. Thus, on 25 January 2021 the 61 round of exploratory talks between Greece and Turkey was held in Istanbul.
Turkey's political swerve in Libya and the Mediterranean
In Libya Turkey has lost its yesterday's allies in the internationally recognised government in Tripoli. On 5 February 2021 members of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in Geneva elected a three-member Presidency Council led by Mohammad Younes Menfi while Libyan politician and businessman Abdul Hamid Dbeibah became the country’s Prime Minister.
It is not known what position the new Libyan government has on the Turkey-Libya Maritime Boundary Delimitation Agreementsigned on 27 November 2019. In 2000 Turkey used the agreement as the basis for sending its ships to find oil and gas in the Mediterranean, which sometimes escalated into clashes with Greece's and Frontex's patrol vessels.
Turkish opposition skilfully uses those unexpected new relations and foreign political lapses to further pressure the government and thus gain power in the presidential system. One of the sharpest critics is former high member of Justice and Development Party (AKP), Minister of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who founded the Future Party ( Gelecek Partisi) in 2019. He was known for his policy of zero problems with the neighbours, but at the end of his term of office Turkey had zero friends in the neighbourhood.
Emboldened Turkish opposition – restructuring the political landscape
Meanwhile, in late January 2021, Muharrem Ince, former presidential candidate running against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, resigned and withdrew from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP). He started a new party, the Hometown Movement, thus restructuring Turkey’s political landscape in a sensitive period for internal and external politics.
As CHP’s presidential candidate in Turkey's 2018 presidential elections, Ince received 30.67% of votes, second only to the first-round winner Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who won with 52.59%. Ince is a political veteran and an eloquent speaker, whose charisma is sometimes compared to that of President Erdogan.
President Erdogan realised the gravity of the situation for his AKP party which is losing the support of its traditional voters, especially among young people.
An opinion pollpublished on 1 November 2020 by the Eurasia research agency shows that the percentage of votes in support of the ruling AKP-MHP coalition has dropped to the lowest level since Erdogan came to power 18 years ago.
According to the results of that poll, 32.7% of votes would go to the ruling coalition People's Alliance - Cumhur İttifakı, which is an electoral alliance in Turkey established in February 2018 between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), while 32.2% of votes would go to the opposition coalition Alliance of Nations - Millet İttifakı, which is an electoral alliance founded in May 2018 and consisting of four opposition parties: the Republican People's Party (CHP), the İyi Party (İYİ), the Welfare Party (SP) and the Democratic Party.
It should be noted that at the 2018 general elections the incumbent ruling coalition won 53.7% of votes, while the opposition coalition won 33.9% of votes.
At the 2018 elections, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) had 42.6%, while the main opposition party CHP received 22.6%, which means that the ruling party and its coalition have seen a significant drop in popularity. According to this projection, at the next elections the opposition can reach 52.5%, while the ruling coalition will not get more than 47.5%.
The main and immediate reason for the ruling party's declining popularity is the economic situation, which has been further exacerbated by preventive measures due to the Covid-19 pandemic coupled with the depreciation of the Turkish lira and rising commodity prices, as well as increasing unemployment rates. This has a direct impact on the social base of the ruling party's voters (the middle class and the rural part of the country). Biden's election for US President has also contributed to the decline in Turkish economy and investment activity. This threw up a red flag about the future relations with the new democratic American administration and raised fears of imposing additional sanctions on Ankara.
President Erdogan has made it clear that his goal is not to amend the current constitution, but to adopt a new constitution with the participation of all Turkish political parties. Many opposition parties have expressed readiness to co-operate with President Erdogan in this regard. Thus, Erdogan passed the ball to the opposition, but the latter is not enthusiastic about this process since it also requires a referendum at the national level. At this moment the opposition is in a hurry, their only goal being early elections, as they are aware that such an opportunity in which the AKP and the ruling coalition are in a deep crisis will not happen again.
Is Turkey returning to the old electoral system?
Bearing in mind the current political situation in Turkey, analysts believe that the country is on the verge of new elections which may be expected to take place in a few months rather than two years. Some analysts hint at early elections that could take place by the end of this year at the initiative of Erdogan himself. Although at the moment he fiercely opposes early elections, he might feel confident of victory and take the chance instead of waiting for regular elections in 2023 and risking further deterioration of the economic situation.
Analysts believe that one of Erdogan's options could even be to return to the old parliamentary system, given that in the presidential system he needs 51% of votes to be re-elected, which is difficult to achieve. Return to the old parliamentary system gives him the opportunity to retain power if his party gets more than 30%, which is not difficult – this is the percentage AKP gets in any case, which keeps it in the first place among parliamentary parties.
Erdogan, with his growing self-confidence and increasing domestic defence capabilities, is no longer interested in being a loyal member of the Western Alliance, as he believes Turkey should seek its interests anywhere in the world (it has excellent economic and political relations with Russia and China).
President Biden's administration must turn a new page in relations between the two allies while respecting Turkey's geopolitical position on the brink of three crisis hotspots (Balkans, Middle East, Caucasus) and recognizing Turkey's new reality.
Ljubljana/Washington/Brussels, 26 February 2021