Turkey’s election: voting to revisit the past?

Expect more Turkish turbulence and drama to come, and for Turkish politics to once again resemble the years preceding 2002.                

Bill Park
8 June 2015
The big winner Serlahattin Demirtaş. Demotix/ Avni Kantan. All rights reserved.

The big winner Serlahattin Demirtaş. Demotix/ Avni Kantan. All rights reserved.

Although the outcome of Turkey’s general election is undoubtedly dramatic, we should be careful not to exaggerate the death either of the ruling AKP or of the country’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Against a backdrop of falling growth and investment and rising unemployment and inflation, and with a foreign policy in disarray, the AKP nevertheless achieved around 41% of the vote. Its nearest rival, the CHP, which fought what was generally regarded as a good campaign, managed just 25% of the vote, an even lower share than in the 2011 election. Unlike the Conservative Party in the UK’s recent election, which won over half the seats with just 37% of the vote, the AKP’s seat total is roughly proportionate to its vote count.  The scale and longevity of the AKP’s electoral popularity remains unmatched in the Republic’s history.

In 2011 it received almost 50% of the total votes cast. Only last year Erdoğan became Turkey’s first directly elected President with 52% of the popular vote. Most European political parties could only dream of such levels of support. As Turkish Prime Minster Ahmet Davutoğlu has declared, the AKP continues to represent the ‘backbone’ of Turkish society.

On the other hand, this election has produced the AKP’s lowest level of electoral support since the party exploded onto Turkey’s political scene in 2002 with 34% of the vote. This time around, the four main Turkish political parties - the other two are the MHP and the HDP - all passed the country’s much-maligned 10% threshold for parliamentary representation. This has produced parliamentary seats in rough proportion to popular votes.

The big winner is the HDP. Its youthful and charismatic leader, Serlahattin Demirtaş, took a major risk in choosing to fight the election as a unified party rather than for its mainly Kurdish candidates to stand as independents, as was the case in 2011. With around 13% of the vote, the gamble has paid off handsomely, and the HDP should be rewarded with around 80 parliamentary seats. UKIP received a similar share of the UK election vote, and managed just one seat. One big difference of course lies in the geographical concentration of the HDP’s vote, which garnered well in excess of 80% of the vote in Kurdish provinces such as Hakkari and Sirnak.  

Clearly an inquest will be conducted into the AKP’s electoral decline. In some of the Turkish and western media, the knives are already out for what many regarded as Erdoğan’s toxic involvement in the election campaign and for his confrontational and authoritarian leadership style in general. However, Erdoğan himself might prefer to hold Davutoğlu responsible, on whose watch the AKP vote has faltered. Erdoğan will be able to contrast this performance with its relentless onwards and upwards march under his tutelage. Furthermore, such is Erdoğan’s hold over the party, its parliamentarians, and the pro-AKP media bosses, that it would be surprising if his own party turns on him, even if some of its grandees dare utter a few words of dissent.

Commentators have also been quick to pronounce the death of Erdoğan’s ambition to forge a new presidential constitution. None of the three potential coalition partners appear ready to lend it their support. Less remarked is the possibility that Erdogan will behave ‘presidentially’ as far as he is able to even in the absence of a new constitution. After all, that is what he has been doing thus far. Erdogan does not appear ready to resign himself to a figurehead role. If so, then a constitutional crisis could be in the offing. Another possibility is that he will resign the presidency and once again take over the formal leadership of his party.

However, legislation requires parliamentary majorities, and the deep polarisation of Turkish politics, combined with Turkey’s long history of fractious and unstable coalitions, strongly suggest that any coalition that might emerge would soon collapse. The nationalist MHP, whose vote increased largely at the expense of the AKP, looks the most likely candidate to either enter into coalition with the AKP or to support a minority government. However, the MHP would resist any serious progress in the so-called ‘reconciliation process’ with Turkey’s Kurds. At one stage it appeared as if the HDP was the most likely coalition partner, but the AKP government’s behaviour during the siege of Kobane and the sometimes ugly stance adopted by the AKP leadership during the election campaign has surely put paid to that prospect. In any case it remains unlikely that the AKP would be willing to concede what the HDP would demand with respect to the Kurdish issue. Indeed, there is a real possibility that Turkey’s domestic Kurdish issue could now take a turn for the worse. The ideological distance between the CHP and the AKP would seem to rule out a ‘grand coalition’ between Turkey’s two biggest parties, which leaves a three –way CHP-MHP-HDP coalition as the only remaining option. That too would surely prove short-lived.

Turkey’s constitutional law dictates that, if a government cannot be formed within the next 45 days, a new election will have to be called. Even should a government materialise, it looks unlikely to last. Expect more Turkish turbulence and drama to come, and for Turkish politics to once again resemble the years preceding 2002.                

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