After eight years in power, Erdogan’s AKP is almost certain to win the 12 June general elections. Despite the result being a foregone conclusion, this is a critical moment for Turkey. Voters will determine not only who will run the country in the coming years, but also the degree of political tension it will experience.
By Francesco F Milan
Predicting the winner of Turkey’s 12 June elections is hardly a difficult enterprise. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition, is unlikely to improve on its performance in the 2007 elections, when more than 16 million voters, representing 46 percent of the electorate, opted for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), with the CHP receiving about seven million votes, or 21 percent. A third term for Erdogan, then, seems a certainty.
What is at stake, however, is whether the AKP government will be able to obtain a two-thirds majority in Parliament, and, with it, the opportunity to pass a major constitutional reform that could lead Turkey to adopt a presidential system. A second, critical element is whether the high electoral threshold, fixed at the national level at 10 percent of votes, will prove insurmountable for minor parties, and thus close Parliament’s doors to all but the two or three main parties and a couple dozen independent MPs.
The opposition: A new Republican People’s Party (CHP)
The CHP, the party created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and grounded in his ideology of Kemalism, has undergone substantial changes recently. In May 2010, the economist Kemal Kilicdaroglu became the new head of the party, after its previous leader, Deniz Baykal, had to step down after being implicated in a sex scandal. But the writing had been on the wall. In 1999 the electorate expressed its mixed feelings about Baykal’s old-school nationalist, secularist and anti-Western stance, relegating the CHP to a place outside Parliament, with only nine percent of the vote. Though the party did better in the 2000s, with 21 percent of votes in 2007, it failed to seriously threaten AKP’s hegemony. Since his election last year, Kilicdaroglu’s leadership has brought a breath of fresh air to the party, which now appears more liberal, modern and in touch with the electorate than it did under Baykal. Significantly, Kilicdaroglu has launched his own proposal for constitutional reform, in which he advocates a lower electoral threshold, and, among other democratic reforms, a deeper commitment to freedom of the press – the latter a not-so-subtle attack on Erdogan, who has recently attracted widespread criticism for a speech he gave at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in which he praised the recent arrest of two Turkish journalists (in a country that is already routinely criticized for its lack of press freedom). Despite Kilicdaroglu’s successful efforts at reform within the party, the CHP is still far from challenging the AKP. A credible, growing opposition it may be, and one now transformed by charismatic, modern leadership, but at present it is still no match for Erdogan.
The National Action Party (MHP): Time to sink or swim
The party that might be dealt the harshest blow by the electoral threshold is the National Action Party (MHP). At the moment, it has the fewest seats in Parliament: in 2007 it only managed 14 percent of the vote and 71 seats, and all major polls agree that its current position is fragile. Devlet Bahceli, the party leader, cannot seem to keep up with the electoral appeal of Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu, and, during the current electoral campaign, the party was rocked by a major scandal. In late April, two of the deputy leaders of the MHP resigned from their posts while running for re-election after videos of extramarital relations were leaked by anonymous sources. The scandal had a major impact within the ultraconservative and religiously-oriented MHP, and was exacerbated by subsequent leaks of two similar videos which implicated other high-ranking party members. Most of those caught up in the scandals resigned, and those who refused to resign were expelled from the party. Because of the prestigious positions held by those involved, however, and because the party’s reputation for strict internal discipline means that they were personally picked and trusted by Bahceli, the MHP’s fundamental moral character has been called into question in the eyes of many supporters. Under the current circumstances, the party could fail to reach the 10 percent threshold, and end up leaving its roughly five million voters with no elected representatives, yielding their 71 parliamentary seats to the AKP and CHP.
The battle for Diyarbakir and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP)
Diyarbakir, the biggest city in southeastern Turkey, is witnessing fierce electoral competition. It is here that party leaders need to make their presence felt if they want to attract votes from the Kurdish minority, which numbers in the millions. Along with other cities in the region, Diyarbakir used to be one of the strongholds of the now-defunct Democratic Society Party (DTP), the pro-Kurdish party from which the BDP originated. As the DTP did in 2007, however, the BDP will not be formally campaigning: because its voters are heavily concentrated ethnically and geographically, it is impossible for the party to reach the 10 percent threshold at the national level. The solution that the BDP members have adopted is to run as independents, since the threshold does not then apply. As such, referring to independent MPs in southeastern constituencies means, in most cases, referring to BDP members. In recent years, the AKP managed to attract a critical mass of votes in the region, mounting a serious challenge to the BDP. However, the recent failure of the so-called ‘democratic opening’, aimed at enhancing the rights of the Kurdish minority, is likely to have had the opposite effect, moving a large part of the local electorate away from the AKP, and re-opening the parties’ quest for the Kurdish minority’s vote. BDP’s independent candidates now have to face multiple adversaries in their natural constituencies: Kilicdaroglu’s rally in Diyarbakir brought his party back to the town for the first time in nine years. In his much-awaited Diyarbakir speech, Erdogan, while trying to underline the common religious ties of all Turks and to underplay ethnic divisions, accused the CHP of using the Kurdish issue as a hollow electoral strategy, and the BDP of exploiting and aggravating the situation. However, five AKP candidates, unimpressed by the party’s new stance on the Kurdish issue, recently resigned and joined the BDP. Even Bahceli, despite the MHP’s ultranationalist stance and the complete absence of a pro-MHP Kurdish constituency, held a historic rally in Diyarbakir, after a 16-year absence. This can be partially explained by the party’s desperation for votes to meet the threshold, but is also seen as a provocative gesture towards Erdogan, aimed at bolstering the party’s profile.
The Justice and Development Party (AKP): Winning may not be enough
By winning this election, Erdogan would be given his third and, according to AKP party rules, final mandate as a member of parliament. Some of the most recent polls claim that electoral support for the AKP should be around 40 percent, which, if confirmed, would mean a six percent decrease compared to previous elections. In 2007, the AKP was allocated 340 out of the 550 seats in Parliament, 27 short of the two-thirds majority. The main objective for the AKP in this election, therefore, is to obtain these 27 seats. This would pave the way for a constitutional reform that would bring the presidential system to Turkey, with Erdogan eligible to run for the post and, if elected, keep running the country. Should the AKP fail to achieve its goal, it would need to negotiate with other political forces to pass the reform. All other parties have already made clear that they are against the adoption of a presidential system, which leaves little room for negotiation; furthermore, inter-party relations are currently quite tense, as the electoral campaign saw party leaders fiercely fighting each other, meaning that the AKP in particular is now more isolated than ever. Another option would be holding a referendum encompassing a range of democratic reforms along with the proposal for the presidential system. Of course, the safest solution for the AKP is to obtain enough seats in parliament. Should Erdogan obtain his coveted two-thirds majority, he would have immense political responsibility in his hands, the opportunity to change Turkey for good, and no excuse in case of failure.
Eyes on smaller parties
If we exclude the CHP, for which elections can not be anything more than a test of Kilicdaroglu’s new leadership, all other parties have something to lose from these elections. The AKP needs its two-thirds majority, and the MHP must reach the electoral threshold. If the MHP fails to obtain its 10 percent of the vote, the Turkish Parliament would be composed of a handful of independent MPs, and only AKP and CHP members. This would mean that the two parties, which are poles apart ideologically, would obtain a disproportionate amount of seats to the share of the votes they actually received. Moreover, the AKP’s strong majority would give the party undisputed control of parliamentary activities. Such a scenario, supported by a system that sacrifices representativeness for governability, would create serious tensions emanating from the smaller parties, especially the MHP and BDP. The latter, in particular, has already given up any hopes of official representation in Parliament anyway, and its candidates have contributed to increasing electoral tensions. The BDP, that has traditionally been accused of being little more than a mouthpiece for the terrorist group PKK and its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, has campaigned in an extremely aggressive manner, hardly shying away from veiled threats at the government, and Ocalan himself has imposed a 15 June deadline, after which he claims Turkey will find itself either committed to a reform process on the Kurdish issue or at war. So far, this polarization has favored Erdogan’s AKP, but this time a landslide victory might lead to further tensions in Turkey.
Francesco F Milan is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and currently a visiting researcher at the Center for Security Studies at the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK). Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)