Turkey will go to the polls on Sunday in a general election widely labeled as the most important in the republic's history. And although his name is not on the ballot, the vote will be about one man, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and function as an endorsement or refusal of his plans to vastly increase his powers and further shape the country to his vision.
Numerous breathless column inches have been dedicated to the impact the results will have on Turkey's future, but the elections could have a historic impact on its political system and perhaps even its status as a functional democracy.
Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics for over a decade, first as a three-term prime minister heading the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and as head of state since last August. The presidency is traditionally a largely symbolic role in Turkish politics, but Erdogan has continued to play a prominent role, often bypassing Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, nominally the most senior political figure in the country.
Now, Erdogan wishes to alter the constitution to solidify his position as dominant head of state — in pursuit of his vision of a "new" Turkey.
Once seen as a reformer, Erdogan is currently regarded by many as pushing Turkey away from its secular founding principles and into a more religious-centric direction. Critics fear that still greater powers would exacerbate his increasingly authoritarian tendencies. In recent months these have included the detention or arrest of opponents as well as enraged responses to criticism. This week he described journalists, Armenians, and gay people as "representatives of sedition" and accused the BBC, The New York Times, and CNN of participating in an international anti-Islamic conspiracy designed to split Turkey apart.
If Erdogan achieves his goal, he will likely crack down hard on dissent, warns Steven Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies with the Council on Foreign Relations. "Those left in the minority are going to have to shut up and fall in line. And that's the point at which things will become more repressive and perhaps even violent," he told VICE News. "We'll see a more majoritarian democracy with very little checks and balances."
'Those left in the minority are going to have to shut up and fall in line.'
But the president isn't guaranteed to have his way. To call a referendum for constitutional change, the AKP needs at least 330 of the 550 parliamentary seats on offer on Sunday. Standing in the way of this is the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP). If it passes the 10 percent vote threshold required for a parliamentary presence, the group will likely prevent the AKP from achieving a constitution-changing majority, and its leadership have made it clear that they would block any such move.
If the HDP exceed this mark, it will be the first time that a Kurdish-focused party has gained a parliamentary presence in Turkey and would likely mark the HDP's move into mainstream politics and away from the banned Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) and its imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan.
HDP and its supporters have sought to portray the party as the progressive face of Turkish politics, pushing women's rights and LGBT issues alongside their traditional focus on the so-called "Kurdish problem." It has more parliamentary candidates from minority groups than any other party, including the openly gay Baris Sulu, a first for Turkey.
Watch the VICE News dispatches, Turkey's Border Wars:
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Murad Mihçi, an Armenian HDP candidate in Istanbul, says that, as a fellow member of a persecuted ethnic group, while he connected with the Kurds on an emotional level, his decision to run for the party was based on politics. "We feel like this is the place to be organized for the socialist and leftist base [in Turkey], and this is growing," he told VICE News this. "There's no future for a party based on race or a religious sect."
All parties have mobilized hard in the election run-up. Party leaders have staged rallies across the country and streets have been hung with the parties' flags for weeks.
Despite the presidency's supposedly being removed from party politics, Erdogan has engaged in what Kemal Kirisci, director of Brookings' Turkey Project, describes as a "pretty much blatant violation of the constitution" by campaigning relentlessly for the AKP, apparently with the expectation that it will receive the required majority and then reciprocate by making the constitutional change.
The notoriously inaccurate Turkish opinion polls have been split on whether this will happen.
Regardless of the result, there may be tensions. Even if HDP crosses the threshold, Erdogan will likely continue pursuing his presidential plans, Cook says. "My feeling is that by hook or by crook and regardless of the outcome, he will try to do it. He's been pushing for some time."
The pro-Kurdish party has also been targeted in a spate of bombings and attacks on their buildings in the election run-up, which have been largely ignored by Erdogan.
If HDP doesn't cross that threshold, some also fear a violent reaction from more extreme Kurdish elements. Mihci dismisses these fears, however, saying that the party's members would continue to protest and spread awareness at the grassroots level. "HDP is not a party of the system, we have continued our struggle without the parliament until now. We will continue our struggle in the streets [without it] ... come together to protest, to raise awareness and reach the people."
But the Kurds may not be Erdogan's only obstacle. The AKP itself could face a drop in support also. The party rose to popularity by delivering much needed economic growth following a catastrophic financial crisis in 2001, netting more and more of the vote in three consecutive general elections — peaking at nearly 50 percent in 2011 when growth was 8.5 percent and Turkey was widely touted as a model emerging market. But by the end of 2014, growth had fallen to just 2.5 percent, while the lira has plummeted against the dollar, foreign investment has dropped, and commodity prices have risen.
This is partly the result of Erdogan's own behavior, Kirisci says. The President has attacked central bank policies, the banking regulator bank, and what he's christened the "interest rate lobby" — all while continuing to spend in an increasingly extravagant manner, including a $615 million, 1,150-room presidential palace more than 30 times the size of the White House. His opponents, the main opposition — Republican People's Party (CHP) — have capitalized on both.
His foreign policy decisions, which have led to an influx of more than two million refugees from neighboring Syria and diplomatic spats with Egypt, Israel, and Libya, have not proven universally popular either.
Undaunted, Erdogan has continued to aggressively pursue a quest that he often likens to Ottoman-era victories. "To reverse this nation's ill fate for 12 years is a conquest," he told a crowd at a recent rally held to commemorate 1453's Islamic takeover of then-Constantinople. "June 7, God willing, will be a conquest."
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck