Parliamentary politics as the hot potato of post-election Turkey: progress or paralysis?

The elections have been widely interpreted as a revitalization of parliamentary politics in Turkey. Yet a paralyzed parliament's inability to tackle key issues may prove the undoing of opposition promises of change.

Julian de Medeiros
1 July 2015
Grand national assembly of Turkey main chamber.

Grand national assembly of Turkey main chamber. Wikicommons/VOA. some rights reserved.In politics, a Hot Potato is a topic so contentious that it causes damage to a candidate whether he shows himself to be for it or not. For a campaign to be successful, so argue strategists, such issues are best to be avoided altogether, or, better yet deflected onto the opposing candidate.

The term evolved from a nineteenth century game, in which participants would sit in a circle and pass a lighted match, piece of paper, or candle around until the flame burnt someone’s fingers. The group would then choose an embarrassing or painful challenge for the loser to perform. In later times the flame was substituted with a hot potato, but the lesson remained the same. Try not to burn your fingers. Perhaps the most poetic part was the accompanying rhyme: “Jack’s alive and likely to live. If he dies in your hand you’ve a forfeit to give”.

As Parliament convened on June 23, the only forfeit to give was power. And while the elections have been correctly identified as a victory for identity politics, the ensuing political instability is likely to continue, as any coalition government will have to assume the costs of the AKP’s looming financial debt crisis.

The crossroads at which Turkey now stands has given rise to the paradoxical situation in which everyone wants to rule, yet no party wants to assume the potentially devastating cost of taking responsibility for the fallout from AKP policies. Even the appointment of a commonly agreed parliamentary speaker is fraught with risk. Either the parties find common ground quickly, or let the clock run out and allow the AKP to keep the prestigious seat.

As the parties pass around the Hot Potato of forming a coalition, the parliamentary system risks becoming the scapegoat for a lack of political momentum. Already rumors and conspiracy theories abound, with some speculating that the AKP deputies will vote to keep the HDP speaker candidate in the race, so as to fragment the opposition and present itself as a center alternative. A risky strategy no doubt, and if nothing else, one that serves as a clear indicator of the unpredictability of current events.

In the hours following the election results, AKP Deputy Burhan Kuzu, head of the parliamentary constitution committee, described the outcome as an indicator of ‘the weakness of the parliamentary system’. Although better known for his colorful outbursts, which include claims that Angela Merkel’s skiing injury was retribution for the Gezi protests, his argument that parliament is weak contains a hidden truth.

Despite rumours about infighting within the AKP political elite, a divided parliament may be Erdoğan’s best bet at returning to his former prominence. Paralysis in parliament will inevitably make the Presidency appear stronger, and may well shift the public’s sympathies back towards the AKP. Add to this the memory of the chaotic 70s, during which Turkey saw more than ten different coalitions try their hand at ruling the country, and it becomes clear that the process of coalition forming will undoubtedly be imbued with negative connotations. 

The formation of a coalition Government will be made harder as the adrenaline of a shock election subsides. That the public has rejected the idea of an expanded presidency, does not automatically entail an endorsement of the parliamentary system, especially in a country that has become accustomed to strongman tactics and lightning fast policy changes. With the gradual stagnation of Turkey’s economy, the loss of investor trust following the graft scandal, and the social costs of increasing unemployment and rising inflation, the challenge for any coalition will be to provide fast results, and to pin the crises on the AKP, rather than being crushed under the weight of the aforementioned issues.

Add to that the uncertainties of foreign policy, the security challenges in the Middle East, and the already vastly increased Presidential influence in international politics, and it becomes clear that the formation of a coalition Government is to no party’s immediate benefit. That does not take away that the moment is ripe for political and economic reform, and that the window of opportunity for meaningful change has not closed. Certainly, the AKP has suffered a significant setback, but it means that the coalition building process must be faced with caution if the opposition wishes to maximize the electoral advantage that it currently enjoys.

The dilemma is as follows. On the one hand, the elections have re-energized the parliamentary system, saving it from a stifling decade-spanning majority rule. For the first time since the inception of the AKP, the party finds itself forced to consider forming a coalition in order to govern. On the other hand, the political maneuvering required to achieve a coalition agreement will no doubt paralyze the country’s obligations to engage with pressing economic and foreign policy issues, and may yet quell Turkey’s newfound enthusiasm for parliamentary politics.

Some have put their hopes on a new coalition without the AKP. Yet this poses the problem that a new Government will inherit the woes of the current administration, and would likely shoot Erdoğan straight back into power during the next election cycle. To enter into a non-AKP coalition would hence seem political suicide. And yet any party that joins an AKP coalition will find it difficult to live up to the promise of change.

The HDP knows it cannot risk to dampen the momentum of the current wave of enthusiasm, especially considering that its real success was in capturing a large part of the Kurdish vote from the AKP, and not in the heralded consolidation of the supposed post-Gezi liberal vote. Here too, a paralyzed parliament will not be able to bring about any change in the Kurdish issue, and will make it difficult for the HDP to retain its strategic advantage in the long term.

On the other hand, if the AKP chooses to strengthen its conservative base by forming a coalition with the nationalist MHP, it risks losing the Kurdish vote for good. In sum, as the parties pass the Hot Potato to avoid looking weak in the coalition negotiations, they risk losing the momentum required to bring about lasting change.

If the opposition parties want to retain the momentum that translated into electoral gains, they need to have the courage to accept these challenges, and to prove that they can provide an alternative to the strongman tactics that have come to define the AKP political style. To transform the current optimism into a working government will require caution, strategy, and most of all the ability to formulate a new vision for Turkey that both recognizes the breadth of the challenges at hand, without succumbing to the politics of polarization.

This then, is both the pitfall as well as the potential of parliamentary politics; that the parties have a chance to embrace cooperation, reject polarization, and prove that the prospect of forming new coalitions is no Hot Potato, but rather an opportunity to steer Turkey back towards social cohesion and economic progress.

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