The Turkish elections: the struggle within

Turkish politics has long been a site of antagonistic struggles between different republican ideologies. Today, a new ideological competition has resurfaced which has its roots in the past. 

Banu Turnaoğlu
8 July 2015
People waiting for the HDP leader to arrive,May, 2015.

People waiting for the HDP leader to arrive,May, 2015. Wikicommons/Julia Buzaud. Some rights reserved..Turkey's general elections on 7 June marked the downfall of Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule. Encroaching on the limitations of his role as stipulated in the Turkish Constitution, which denies the president power to act on behalf of a political party, Erdoğan turned the elections into a confidence vote on his desire to change the Turkish parliamentarian system into a presidential one. This would have meant the extreme concentration of the executive power in the hands of the president. To achieve it, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) had to win an absolute majority of the vote, since the major competing parties – the CHP (Republican People’s Party), MHP (Nationalist Movement Party), and HDP (People’s Democratic Party) – strongly opposed the suggested constitutional amendment.

The public response to Erdoğan’s political egoism was a rally to democracy, voting to allow the formation of a new representative 550-member provisional parliament, comprising 98 female MPs (a record), as well as 80 Kurds, three Armenians, one Yazidi, and one Roma.

Most discussions have focused on the factors that have led to the AKP and Erdoğan’s unpopularity. This is largely seen as a direct response to Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian ambitions, corruption scandals, the economic downturn, the mishandling of the Gezi Park protests and Kobane incidents, and the withdrawal of support by significant numbers of the Gülen movement, which led to a shift by many AKP voters to the MHP or HDP.

These factors have undeniably contributed to the decline in support for the AKP, but an often overlooked aspect is the profound struggle over ideology. Turkish politics has long been a site of antagonistic struggles between different republican ideologies. Today, a new ideological competition has resurfaced which has its roots in the past. 

Ideological struggle - origins

After the Turkish Revolution in 1923, a young Republic became an ideological battleground divided between Islamic, authoritarian, and liberal conceptions of the republic. It was caught between conflicting demands – order versus change, innovation versus stability, religious orthodoxy versus laicity, national unity versus ethnic diversity.

Islamic republicanism was posited by a group of ulema (clerics) and political conservatives who believed that the most suitable type of regime for the new Turkey was an Islamic Republic. Its earliest inspiration came from the Islamic State in the period of the four Caliphates and from medieval Islamic thought, which was revived in late-nineteenth-century intellectual debates. Islamic republicans argued that because the indigenous Islamic State exhibited elements of direct democracy and republic, the Ottoman monarchy was a deviation from it. Absolute sovereignty belongs to God, and the people are to exercise it on his behalf on earth. An Islamic republic must be led by a caliph and ruled according to the Shari’a.

Liberal republicans placed individual and political liberties at the core of their political doctrine. In the 1920s, a group of intellectuals including Hüseyin Cahit, Velid Ebüzziya and Ahmed Emin advocated a Montesquieuan model of constitutionalism, outlining a separation of powers to restrict the scope of governmental and presidential power, and secure liberties. The liberals valued a representative democratic government, reflecting the will of the people regardless of ethnic or religious backgrounds. Active citizenship, political openness, and transparency would promote democracy, a peaceful society, and progress. This republican model took its inspiration from French republican traditions and developed throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the efforts of the Young Ottomans and Young Turks.

Authoritarian republicanism, on the other hand, was defended by Mustafa Kemal and the ideological founders of the Republic Ziya Gökalp, Ahmed Ağaoğlu, Celal Nuri, and Yunus Nadi amongst them. Unlike the Islamic republicans, but like the liberals, they believed that sovereignty belonged to the people and viewed social and ethical order purely in secular terms. Born in the context of the Balkan Wars and the First World War and shaped directly in opposition to liberal republicanism, authoritarian republicanism took up a blend of German militarism, Turkish nationalism, Durkheimian social theory, and Le Bon’s elitism. In contrast to the liberals, Kemal’s proponents reaffirmed a Jacobin commitment to a unitary conception of governmental powers to maintain social unity and political stability.

At the end of the ideological struggle, during the formative years of the Republic, authoritarian republicanism defeated Islamic republicanism with the abolition of the caliphate in 1924 and implementation of a set of secular laws, while silencing liberal republicanism by force and repression.

But these other traditions did not completely disappear from the history of Turkish political thought although neglected and forgotten. The victorious authoritarian vision of republicanism was preserved by a particular formation of military, political, and intellectual elites, and named “Kemalism,” characterised by its principles - Turkish nationalism, secularism, populism, statism, revolutionism and westernisation. With the incorporation of these principles into the CHP’s programme as “six arrows,” Kemalism became the dominant state ideology, as well as a partisan engagement, but failed to permeate the wider society.

Throughout its history, Kemalist republicanism was held as antithetical to Islamism and has remained an exclusive and inelastic ideology. This inflexibility prevented the recognition of different minority groups and the development of a genuinely representative democracy. Political opposition has been suppressed through the dissolution of political parties, military interventions in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, and police violence, particularly against leftists and right-wing Turkish nationalists of the MHP in the 1970s.

Political Islam, which emerged in Turkish politics in the 1980s, challenged Kemalism’s inability to reform its ideology to accommodate the demands of more religious and conservative groups. The AKP’s third electoral victory in 2011 marked a clear defeat of Kemalism and the CHP. Having eliminated major opposition powers, the government and its leader began to exert their arbitrary power and strongly manifested their own view of democracy and republicanism.

They saw democracy merely as an electoral and procedural process, a competition between parties granting its victors absolute authority to govern by all means. The AKP actively used religion to serve political goals and the principle of the separation of powers was ignored. The sovereignty of the nation was supplanted by a governmental system run by self-serving elites. To consolidate power, the AKP protected the interests of its voters and of the media and businesses, which backed them.

It used its leverage over the media to limit public debate about government actions, arrested journalists and media owners who disputed government claims, whilst curtailing individual liberties and exerting tight control over economic policy and the police. These authoritarian measures generated a deeply polarised society and political sphere, producing sharply opposed political parties: Kurdish nationalists (arguably now the liberals), Turkish nationalists, and Kemalists.

This divided political sphere has inevitably triggered a renewed battle of ideologies, competing with one another for dominance. Most significantly, it saw the revival of a liberal democratic republican language challenging increasing injustice and authoritarianism. The CHP’s original Kemalist authoritarian language has become more tolerant of religious and ethnical factions, and democratic.

The HDP, too, has deployed a more inclusive and non-elitist democratic language, calling for peace, unity and transparency. In contrast with the MHP, which continued to deploy a static and extreme Turkish nationalist and exclusive vision, it has shifted the focus from merely the Kurdish people to appeal to wider segments of society, environmentalists, intellectuals, LGBT rights activists, feminists, and secularists. This played a decisive role in the HDP’s electoral success, granting it a right of representation in Parliament for the first time.

The AKP, on the other hand, failed to form a single-party government, despite obtaining the largest share (41%) of the total vote.  It seems to have accepted its defeat and is trying to find solutions to restore its prestige and place in government. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is attempting to start a new chapter, announcing plans to fight nepotism and promote transparency. This could imply a softening of the AKP’s authoritarian policies: but this remains to be seen.

In a closed meeting on 26 June with prominent Turkish academics, politicians, and journalists, Davutoğlu discussed the lessons learned from the electoral defeat and its future. These elections show that justice, development, and progress can be better secured by groups or parties which demand transparency, representative democracy, liberty and equality, and a new coalition government must respond to these needs of the public. 

What is next? 

Reportedly, negotiations are due to begin with the representatives of the MHP, HDP, and CHP this week to form a coalition government. However, sharp ideological differences will inevitably complicate coalition negotiations. Despite the uncertainty of its outcome, there are some likely and less likely scenarios:

  • A minority government under the AKP

This option is not viable because of the lack of support from the three other parties. 

  • A CHP–MHP–HDP coalition

This would be the most ideal but is unrealistic because proponents of the MHP would refuse an alliance with the Kurdish nationalists. The representatives of the MHP have repeatedly stressed their refusal to recognise the HDP as a legitimate party, seeing them as the representatives of a “terrorist” organisation, the PKK. Their conservatism clashes with the CHP’s and HDP’s liberal and secular ideas. In the unlikely case of an alliance, the ideological divide would create an unstable government.

  • An AKP–HDP coalition

This option also seems unlikely given the ideological differences between the two. Davutoğlu stressed that the AKP will begin negotiations with the HDP but that “a coalition with HDP is inconceivable.” Similarly, the AKP’s Deputy Chairman Hüseyin Çelik has branded the HDP “liars and conspirators,” an indication that an alliance is far-fetched. In the event of a coalition, the HDP, as a stakeholder in power, would be moving towards the resolution of the Kurdish issue.

  • An AKP–CHP coalition 

Amongst public debates, this coalition is seen as the most viable, since the MHP’s chairman Devlet Bahçeli has asserted that his party will “remain in opposition.” An AKP-CHP coalition would be beneficial as the CHP could act as a check on the AKP’s more authoritarian policies, preventing the constitutional changes. Additionally, Turkish relations with the EU would most likely improve, more peaceful efforts to contain the Syrian crisis would be undertaken and Kurdish and other minority rights be strengthened. However, for the CHP a coalition with their ideological enemy would entail ceding laicity, a pillar of Kemalism. Also, it is likely that an AKP-CHP government could yield extensive disagreements especially on matters of education and foreign policy. Again, the ideological divide between traditional enemies could create struggle and instability and their alliance would be not durable.

  • An AKP–MHP coalition 

The MHP’s full support for the AKP’s candidate during elections for the Speaker of the Grand National Assembly signals the possibility of a coalition. The AKP has since commissioned a minister to start coalition negotiations with the MHP. Both parties are right-wing, Turkish nationalists and conservatives and a distribution of ministries between them would be less complicated. (In 1991 the RP (the Welfare Party), a predecessor of the AKP, had allied with the MHP.) In the case of a new alliance, Bahçeli has listed his party’s preconditions, the so-called red lines, such as the abandonment of Erdoğan’s controversial palace, the reopening of the corruption files concerning former ministers and Erdoğan’s son and a halt to the peace process with the Kurds. Although this coalition might be tenable in the short-run and would restore the AKP’s waning power, it would lead to further marginalisation of the Kurds, the ultimate defeat of Kemalism, and a provocation of the PKK. The victory of Islamism and nationalism would put an end to the EU membership negotiation process and weaken Turkey’s regional power, all of which would be bad for Turkey.   

Future crisis 

If a coalition government is not formed within 45 days, an interim government will be created until early elections can be held. Yet surveys by the Metropoll Strategic and Social Research Center (which produced the most accurate forecasts during the 7 June elections) and others suggest that the likely outcome in November would not differ dramatically from that of recent elections. Turkey is entering a period of uncertainty in which economic and political crises are likely to follow. External pressures are contributing to an atmosphere of political instability, intellectual tension and ideological confusion with two million Syrian refugees living in camps in the country, the possibility of a Turkish invasion of Syria, ISIS fighters on its southern border and crises in the Black Sea region. If the ideological struggle remains unsolved, Turkey may become inward-looking and isolated, ending its dream of being a regional leader in the Middle East.

All alliance scenarios seem to result in crisis and instability but we should remember Professor John Dunn’s words that, “It is in the nature of politics that new political challenges should arise all the time.” It may be difficult to predict the consequences of the upcoming coalition discussions but it is evident Turkish politics will be reshaped, leading the country into a new and exciting yet uncertain socio-political and economic phase. It is the time for the party leaders to put their political egoism aside and begin to compromise for the common good of society. Only then will the possibility of political progress be opened for Turkey.

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