Turkey will hold snap presidential and parliamentary elections on 24 June 2018 under the shadow of a deepening currency crisis and ongoing Emergency Rule. The Turkish Lira has lost more than a fifth of its value against the dollar this year. Also, many observers believe that elections are taking place under unfair and unfree conditions. Imprisonment of Selahattin Demirtas, the presidential candidate of pro-Kurdish the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), without a charge raises questions about the impartiality of the election process. The current Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is widely expected to win the elections. However, for the first time he is under pressure from the worsening Turkish economy and increasingly charismatic Muharrem Ince, the main opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) presidential candidate.
Economic difficulties have historically triggered coups and have changed the behaviour of the electorate which has eventually influenced the direction of Turkish politics. Let us consider the relationship between previous military coups and the financial crises. The 1960 coup, the 1971 military intervention and the 1980 coup took place as a result of conflict over economic policy making. Following the balance of payment crises, slowing down of economic progress compared to the previous five-year period and political difficulties in implementing fiscal programmes, the military staged a coup and implemented a new Economic Reform Programme. Only the 28 February 1997 memorandum against the Welfare Party-led coalition government does not fit this trend. However, the Welfare Party’s victory, first in 1994 local elections and later in the 1995 general elections, was related directly to the state if the economy. The party came to power following the 1994 financial crises, as the Turkish Lira lost almost 70 percent of its value against the US dollar in the first quarter. The Turkish Central Bank heavily intervened in the foreign exchange market, resulting in the loss of more than half of its international reserves.
Turkey has also witnessed political crises and weak governments in the 1990s. Turkey had 13 prime ministers and 17 foreign ministers and 12 finance ministers between 1980 and 2002. Following the 1980 coup, the State transformed the Turkish economy, integrating it into the world economy, by creating a new set of institutions, rules and norms that would help the export-oriented economy. However, Turkish industrial policy and new institutions were undermined at the hands of populist politicians. Economic slowdowns either pushed the governments to take an authoritarian approach or led to a succession of weak governments. This created a political vacuum which was mostly filled by the military.
Erdogan’s election victory in 2002 was also focused on the economy. Previously, alternative parties had shown themselves not only incapable of dealing with economic disaster but also unable to form stable coalitions at a time when effective leadership was vital. In 2002 voters were deeply frustrated with government corruption. The AKP, or the AK Party as it was formally known, is a clever abbreviation of its Turkish name: ak means clean (or white) in Turkish, allowing the party to brand itself as the clean party.
It is true that the AKP’s economic management was a success. There have been significant improvements in public health, transportation, public services the economy, and a new middle class has emerged. Under the AKP, Turkish GDP (Gross Domestic Product) has tripled, reaching almost US$800 billion in 2014, up from US$231 billion in 2002. In addition, Turkey’s inflation rate fell from 29.7% in 2002 to 6.2% in 2012. The economy experienced what can only be described as a ‘golden age’ between 2002 and 2007, with an average 7% growth rate. Thanks to this economic stability, by 2005 Turkey had removed six zeros from its national currency, with the establishment of the new Lira. This was a sign of optimism in Turkey that the economy was on the right track.
By 2008, optimism disappeared first, in relation to the economy, and then in relation to Turkish politics. During the financial crisis, the Turkish economy performed much better than many European economies, but it still shrank. In the following years, structural problems such as a strong current account deficit, high unemployment and economic growth based on domestic demand especially in the construction sector, raised concerns. However, Erdogan still managed to navigate the Turkish economy with two key strategies. First, his party has continued to implement tight public finance management. Second, despite all the political crises, he gave confidence to the international market about the stability of the economy and Turkish politics.
Today, this confidence is under attack. In his last visit to the UK in May 2018, Erdogan signalled that he maintains a tight grip on the economy. Following his statement, the Turkish Lira hit at a record low against the dollar for the year. Later, Erdogan sent his market-friendly Minister, Mehmet Simsek, to London, aiming to reassure investors about the direction of monetary policy. Also, the Turkish Central Bank increased the interest rate to stabilise the Turkish Lira, against his will. Erdogan previously described high interest rates as “the mother and father of all evils,” saying they slow investment.
In addition to the economy, Erdogan is also facing a political challenge, increasing the popularity of main opposition presidential candidate Muharrem İnce. When İnce announced his candidacy, Erdogan was expected to win the Turkish Presidential elections in the first round. Thanks to his lively campaign and charismatic style, many election polls and international observers think that Turkish Presidential elections will go into the second round and İnce will be the strongest candidate against Erdogan. İnce promises to lift the restrictions on fundamental freedoms and restore the rule of law in Turkey.
Having said that, Erdogan is likely to be elected as the President of the new system. His core support group was not affected by the weakening of Turkish Lira. According to a report, 78% AKP voters were not expecting a financial crisis in Turkey. 65% of AKP voters believe that the Turkish Lira is losing its value because of an ‘international operation’ against Turkey. However, Erdogan might lose his party’s majority in Parliament. According to the new Turkish Presidential system, Parliament still holds an important place. For example, the Parliament has the power to overturn a Presidential decree or alter the budget with a simple majority. If the pro-Kurdish HDP manages to pass the 10 percent national threshold to enter the Parliament, the 60 seats would jeopardise Mr Erdogan’s chances of a majority in the new 600-seat Parliament. Subsequently, Erdogan’s power can be challenged.
In this scenario, Turkey could stage a fresh election. Erdogan’s ally, the chairman of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli and some other AKP members have already started to talk about the possibility of another early election. This scenario would also bring political instability and eventually a financial crisis. At a time when Erdogan lost the Parliamentary majority to form a one-party government in 2015, he drifted into the nationalist line, taking a harder position with Turkey’s Kurdish problem. In the event that he loses the Parliamentary majority, Erdogan would use the financial crisis to call another election, asking to restore stability in the Turkish economy.
Regardless of the political and economic challenges, Erdogan seems to dominate Turkey’s politics in the post-elections. But this does not mean the end of politics in Turkey. When the Presidential referendum passed in 2017 with Erdogan’s victory last year, for many this was the ended any hope for change in Turkey. However, this election has been notably lively and brought hope back to Turkish politics. Turkey’s election has many candidates, similar to the 1990s. Despite the shortcomings of Turkish politics, people still believe in change via elections. Maybe this time, the change might come via elections, not the financial crisis.
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