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A special forces police officer takes security measures as he stands on top of a building where the portraits of Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and a Turkish flag are displayed in Istanbul on June 3, 2015.
Murad Sezer—Reuters

Turks head to the polls on June 7, as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) hope to achieve enough seats to implement a new constitution that would increase the powers of the Turkish president. Here’s what you need to know about the election in the important member state of NATO, which straddles the straits that separate Europe and Asia.

Who are the contenders?

The Islamist-rooted conservative AKP has governed for nearly thirteen years, winning successive elections in 2002, 2007 and 2011. The party is formally headed by Ahmet Davutoglu, who became prime minister last year, though it is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is widely believed to be running the show. Most polls give it just over 40% of the vote.

The Republican People’s Party (CHP), a left leaning, secularist party, has finished a distant second in every election since 2002. It is headed by Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Most polls predict a performance in the mid to high 20s.

The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is a party of the nationalist right. Its leader for almost two decades is Devlet Bahceli. Most polls give it about 15-17%.

The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is a democratic socialist party which also represents Turkish minorities, particularly the Kurds who make up between 10 and 25% of the population. Most polls give it between 9-12%.

What’s at stake?

As part of its electoral manifesto, the AKP has promised Turks a new constitution that would transform the presidency into the seat of the executive. AKP members argue that the new system would make Turkey’s democracy run more smoothly. Critics fear it would give the president almost dictatorial powers.

The AKP would need to win 330 out of 550 parliamentary seats to push its constitutional project through parliament and take it to a popular referendum. The main opposition parties agree that Turkey needs a new constitution to replace the one handed down to it by an army junta three decades ago, but promise to block any attempt to strengthen the president’s hand.

What stands in the AKP’s way?

Among other things, this man.

Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic co-leader of the HDP, has presided over his party’s transformation from the vanguard of the Kurdish rights movement into a magnet for progressives, feminists, ethnic minorities, and LGBT groups. Demirtas, who also appears poised to attract a fair share of young voters disillusioned with the style and substance of Turkish politics, has pledged to frustrate the AKP. He may soon be in a position to do so. If the HDP enters parliament, it will receive at least 50 seats, most likely stripping the AKP of the three-fifths majority it needs to push through constitutional changes. Depending on the other parties’ performance, it may even force the AKP to look for a coalition partner.

And what stands in the HDP’s way?

The party has been seen as close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group that has waged war with Turkish security forces for the better part of the past 30 years at a cost of some 40,000 lives. Peace talks between the government and the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, delivered a ceasefire in 2013 but the group remains reviled by most Turks. Despite the PKK’s armed campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the U.S., the European Union and Turkey continue to list it as a terrorist group.

Any party has to get 10% of the vote before it gains any seats. This requirement was part an electoral law imposed by the military government that came to power in a 1980 coup. The threshold was designed, among other things, to prevent Kurdish and Islamist parties from entering parliament. In previous elections, Kurdish political groups sidestepped the 10% requirement by having their candidates run as independents who are not subject to the threshold. In this election, the HDP has decided to gamble and enter the fray as a single bloc. If it doesn’t get at least 10% of the vote it won’t get a single seat, which will further strengthen bigger parties such as the AKP.

The campaign
Erdogan is not running in these election because he is the sitting president but this has not stopped him playing a very active role. Technically, the constitution forbids the president from taking part in political campaigns but Erdogan has flouted the rule, using every opportunity afforded to him – the opening of a new hospital, a new municipality building, or a new airport – to drum up support for the AKP and its plans for a super-presidency. Demirtas, the HDP co-leader, recently mocked Erdogan by attending the grand opening of a bottle of soda.

The run-up to the election has been anything but amusing and occasionally violent. Desperate to shore up the conservative vote and to prevent the HDP from entering parliament, Erdogan and Davutoglu have turned up the religious and nationalist rhetoric. During a recent rally, the president accused foreign news outlets, homosexuals, and the Armenian lobby of backing the HDP and plotting against Turkey.

Election scenarios

The most likely scenario appears to be a narrow majority (at least 276 parliamentary seats) for the AKP, enough to form a government but not enough to proceed unilaterally with constitutional changes. A 330-seat majority, which would allow the AKP to push a new constitution through parliament and take it to a popular referendum, is considered less likely.

Another possibility, assuming the AKP fails to secure a simple majority in parliament, is a coalition government, the first one since 2002.

Correction: This article was amended June 5 to show that the HDP was perceived as front a for the PKK rather than being one and the electoral threshold was part of an electoral law not the constitution.

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