I recently got a panicked telephone call from an old friend in Istanbul who was worried about her savings in U.S. dollars and euros in her Turkish bank account.
“You would know better than me,” she said. “Maybe Western media is writing about it. Here we are hearing there may be a freeze on foreign currency savings after the elections that could cause us to lose some 30 percent of our savings overnight.”
Turkish voters will go to the polls June 24 to elect a president and members of parliament. My friend asked frantically if she should withdraw all her hard currency savings ahead of the vote and keep the cash at home to protect it, since a surprise election result may cause a currency tailspin.
I told her I have not heard anything like that. But President Recep Erdogan has called on people to take their hard currency savings to banks and change them into Turkish lira to support the national currency. Is this an alarming news?
The Turkish currency has lost 20 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar since the beginning of the year. The Turkish Central Bank has surprisingly raised the interest rate to counter the devaluation trend, but comments and analyses are floating around in the media suggesting that the lira's value may drop even more sharply after the election this coming Sunday.
Western capital flight has hit Turkey too, though not as bad as in some other emerging economies. But local businessmen, even those Erdogan loyalists who have amassed their wealth in the 16 years of his rule, have started to feel the pain of paying back the foreign debt.
Opposition media are reporting about a growing panic in the ranks of the Erdogan government and major export businesses. Maybe they are overplaying it. But everything seems to point to a changed atmosphere, compared to the dozens of elections that all granted Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, AKP, the absolute majority.
Even the Turkish authorities do not deny now the growing trend among the upper classes to buy property in Western countries and to transfer part of their wealth to foreign banks.
In the political calculus, too, Erdogan can no longer be that sure about winning a majority as easily as in past elections. He has attracted the Nationalist Movement Party, MHP, as a coalition partner. The price for that coalition, though, was that MHP was split, with the rebellious group under Meral Aksener of the new Iyi (Good) Parti, having some considerable chance to weaken both MHP and the ruling AKP's chances to win easily. The Seadet (Felicity) Party, on the other hand, the mother of all current pro-Islamic parties, including AKP, also has a clear anti-Erdogan policy with its leadership claiming that they can get 15 percent of Erdogan's votes. And this is only the challengers within the conservative bloc.
The pro-Kurdish HDP, or the People's Democratic Party, should keep its conventional Kurdish constituency, although (and maybe even because) its leader Selahattin Demirrtash is currently serving a prison term for "sympathizing with terrorists." In the last presidential election in 2014, this left-wing party won close to four million, or 10 percent of votes.
Finally, the main opposition party of CHP, or the Republican People's Party, appears to have gained some momentum with Muharrem Ince, a presidential candidate who tries to appear as energetic and even as aggressive as Erdogan was a decade ago. The president himself seems to have exhausted his power and appeal of previous elections.
A new Ballgame
In short, maybe this time it is not so much a question of "who will win," but rather how much is AKP and Erdogan himself going to suffer, both in the presidential and parliamentary elections. In the past, Erdogan has mostly enjoyed an almost consistent win of an absolute majority in both, with not much need for outside support.
This time, that scenario seems unlikely. Under the conditions created in the past sixteen years of a de facto one man-rule, people tend to pay more attention to the presidential rather than the parliamentary election. Not surprising for a political system that rewards mainly those loyal to the ruling class, opinion polls are too cautious, and refrain from predicting the outcome. Even domestic columnists, analysts, and journalists are too careful to predict any big shift of the power away from Erdogan and his AKP.
Overall, though, the mood from media and my own experience from the ten days I recently spent in Ankara suggest that people, regardless of their political sympathies, are worried and are bracing themselves for a major change.
Erdogan may not be able to win in the first round of presidential election. There is no question if a second round, probably between Erdogan and Ince will end with the former's victory. But what would a parliament with a weakened AKP, without an absolute majority, do with Erdogan, who now has the final say in everything, from foreign policy and banking to agriculture and the justice system?
No doubt, Erdogan has thought about this possibility too, although neither he himself nor his party executives want to admit it. An AKP parliamentarian recently suggested the government could continue holding elections until their party wins a majority.
A columnist wrote in the secular newspaper "Cumhuriyyet": This has become like a sitcom that we have been watching for the last 16 years. Actors come and go, episodes and show seasons start and end, but there is one who is always there, in and out: Erdogan."
A high school teacher formulated it to me this way: "I don't really care who wins at the end. My concern is that we will face more economic hardship regardless of who wins."