Muharrem Ince, the presidential candidate of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), speaks during a party gathering in Ankara on May 4, 2018 [Reuters/Umit Bektas]
In April, when Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for snap parliamentary and presidential elections to be held on June 24, more than a year earlier than planned, most analysts expected to witness a relatively dull campaign season.
The decision had caught the opposition unprepared and fractured, with no apparent candidate to challenge the incumbent.
Campaigning on the promise of stability and security and praising the transformation to the presidential system after the June 24 elections, Erdogan seemed slated for another easy victory.
Yet, two months later, we are facing a significantly different situation. In fact, the election campaign season has moved the public debate on the elections from the question of stability to the question of pluralism and inclusivity.
Uniting the fractured opposition
Erdogan’s snap election gamble had several unintended consequences. First of all, it brought together opposition forces that are at the opposite ends of the political spectrum. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the newly-formed centre-right Good Party (IP), the centre-right Democratic Party (DP) and the Islamist Felicity Party (SP) formed an unexpected electoral coalition called the National Alliance.
Despite their fundamental differences, all four parties had campaigned for a “no” vote in the 2017 referendum on the transition to a presidential system. In the upcoming parliamentary elections, these parties will be running under a joint banner, with a promise to enable a return to the parliamentary system.
They promise to “strengthen the parliament” and build a “democratic parliamentary system” that would restore checks and balances. They had promising results so far, with most recent polls showing that they have a real chance of securing a parliamentary majority.
They also managed to change the discourse surrounding the election. At the beginning of the process, Erdogan was successful in framing the election as a choice between stability and uncertainty. But in the past few weeks, the National Alliance moved the discussion towards issues like the separation of executive, legislative, and juridical powers; the independence and impartiality of the judiciary; the independence of regulative institutions such as the Central Bank; decentralisation and equal citizenship rights for all sections of the population.
The National Alliance’s success has increased the importance of the parliamentary poll – which was initially seen as secondary to the presidential one – considerably. Despite the minimal power that the new presidential system accords to the parliament, if the National Alliance secures a majority, the parliament will become a crucial checks and balances site that can limit the powers of the executive president, and eventually have a real chance of reversing the country’s transition into the presidential system.
Moreover, if the opposition secures the majority in parliament, and the presidential election goes to a second round, the chances of an opposition candidate winning the presidency would also increase. Of course, Erdogan would still be in a strong position, but the opposition candidate would also find him/herself in a better position to act strategically to pass the 50 percent national threshold.
The opposition forces that formed the National Alliance failed to agree on a joint presidential candidate in the first round of the presidential election, but they still pose a real threat to Erdogan’s presidential ambitions.
At the moment, polls show that Muharrem Ince, the CHP’s presidential candidate, is the most likely candidate to face Erdogan in a runoff, if no candidate gets more than 50 percent in the first round. And thanks to his message of inclusivity and pluralism, it is likely that anti-executive-presidency and anti-Erdogan voters would put their ideological differences behind and vote for him.
Crucial lessons for the next administration
It is impossible to know what will happen at the ballot box on Sunday, but the relative success the opposition managed to achieve in this unfair race provides some crucial lessons for Turkey’s next president.
First, the Turkish people may prefer strong leaders, but many of them do not want to live under a system in which the leader has absolute power over everyone else. In other words, they prefer effective and inclusive leadership respecting the system of checks and balances, advocating pluralism and power-sharing.
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Second, the Turkish people take seriously, and are concerned about, the very serious threats to their country’s security and economic stability. Yet many of them do not think that the system that has come to be known as the “Turkish-style executive presidency” – in which all power is concentrated on the presidency – is the recipe to tackle these threats effectively.
Third, the Turkish society is not as polarised as it appears to be. Some politicians, like Erdogan, seek to stir up divisions within society to win elections and consolidate their power. But the opposition’s ability to form a wide-based alliance – which includes staunch secularists, liberals, Islamists and nationalists – and the public acceptance of a presidential candidate like Ince, who emphasises “inclusivity”, clearly demonstrates that with the right leaders, Turkish society can easily overcome polarisation.
Fourth, this election season showed that Turkey is ready to be governed based on “shared values”, like the right to education and independence of the judiciary, rather than “identities”.
Fifth, this election season showed that Turkey is larger than Erdogan. With its history, modernity, and dynamism, Turkey is a complex, plural, and resilient society that cannot be reduced to a leader, an identity, or an ideology.
Whether Turkey switches to an executive presidency or reverts back to a parliamentary system, separation of powers should be respected. The judiciary should remain independent. And every Turkish citizen, regardless of their ethnic background, religious beliefs or political point of view, should have equal rights. This is what Turkey wants, and this is what Turkey deserves.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.