Erdogan's nationalist ally ignites Turkey snap poll talk

by Stuart Williams

Istanbul (AFP) - The main nationalist ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday ramped up expectations that elections could be brought forward by over a year by urging snap polls in August.

Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) chief Devlet Bahceli said Turkey "could not wait" for the scheduled date of November 3, 2019, to hold simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections, urging that the polls take place on August 26.

The government reacted sanguinely to the suggestion, saying it would evaluate Bahceli's call. Erdogan is due to hold a meeting with him on Wednesday afternoon.

"On August 26, 2018, the Turkish nation should go to the ballot box in the spirit of marking a new victory," Bahceli said in a televised meeting of MHP lawmakers in Ankara.

Turkish politics has for the past months fizzed with speculation the elections could be brought forward, with analysts saying this would neutralise the risk of the economy deteriorating in the next months.

It is after these upcoming elections that the new executive presidency -- agreed in a 2017 referendum and denounced by the opposition as giving the head of state authoritarian powers -- will come into force.

The polls will also give Erdogan a chance to extend his stay in power with a new-five year mandate, after already serving 15 years in power as premier and then president.

- 'Early polls more likely' -

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the Ankara Office Director of the German Marshall Fund of the US, said that Bahceli's call "has made early elections more likely".

"If President Erdogan does not intend to go to early elections he will now need to make a more clear binding promise that he will not," he told AFP.

Commentators recalled it was Bahceli, then part of a ruling coalition, who in 2002 precipitated the snap polls that brought Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in the first place. It has ruled Turkey ever since.

Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag, quoted by Turkish media, said that the government would "consider" Bahceli's call, which he said had created a "new situation". Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci said early polls would be "positive".

Erdogan declined to directly comment on the intervention, saying "right now I have nothing to say about it".

He said he did not want to add to an earlier speech to lawmakers, where he had repeatedly referred to the elections taking place in November 2019.

Erdogan, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and parliament speaker Ismail Kahraman did, however, hold an unscheduled meeting in parliament.

Erdogan has formed a tight alliance with the MHP in recent months with the aim of fighting the elections together and the two parties have rarely had any recent disagreements in public.

Bahceli, who has led the MHP since 1997, used to be an outspoken critic of Erdogan but has closely aligned with the president since the July 2016 failed coup aimed at ousting him from power.

- 'Regardless of the costs' -

The date of August 26 would coincide with the anniversary of the 1071 Battle of Malazgirt where pre-Ottoman tribes defeated the Byzantines in a victory celebrated with increasing fervour in modern Turkey in recent years.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the main opposition Republican People's Party, said he welcomed the prospect of early polls. "And we will send them (the AKP) out," he said.

Bahceli's comments took markets by surprise with the lira sharply losing value but then slightly making up the losses to trade at 4.1 to the dollar, a loss in value of 0.2 percent on the day.

While growth in Turkey was 7.4 percent in 2017, economists have raised concerns that double-digit inflation, a wide current account deficit, and an almost nine percent fall in the value of the lira this year showed severe risks ahead.

Credit rating agency Moody's said in a note this week the government appeared determined to keep the economy growing rapidly ahead of the polls "regardless of the costs".