Breaking Down Turkey’s Upcoming Elections – Again
By Yoni Pinto
Photograph of Turkish Ballot courtesy of Bipartisan Policy Center
When I wrote “Breaking down Turkey’s upcoming elections” in May, I didn’t expect to write something that would be remotely similar to it for at least the next two years. But here we are, only five months later, just a few days away from a repeat of June’s election.
How We Got Here: The Loss That Wasn’t
When Turkey’s final election results were released on the night of June 7 this year, people all over the country were astounded.
As a bit of background, the Turkish parliament is composed of 550 members elected from all around the country. For any political party to be able to form a government unilaterally, it has to obtain more than half of those 550 seats. To pass regular laws, an absolute majority is enough, but to pass constitutional amendments, a two-thirds majority is necessary.
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in the 2002 general elections under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s leadership. In the three general elections since then, AKP had easily won more than 60 percent of the seats in the parliament, winning more than 327 seats each time.
Even though Erdoğan was supposed to relinquish political ties with the AKP after becoming President of Turkey in the summer of 2014 following his stint as Prime Minister and chairman of the AKP, as per Reuters, “party officials say [he] still exerts enormous influence over the AKP.”
Before the June 2015 election, AKP was aiming to obtain the two-thirds majority required to pass constitutional changes in the parliament – an unprecedented 367 seats – to be able to implement an executive presidency system that would give Erdoğan unparalleled authority over the country.
Instead, although it remained the largest party in parliament, AKP only got 258 seats, 18 fewer than the 276 required to unilaterally form a government, and 109 fewer than its intended goal. In what appeared to be punishment by the people for Erdoğan’s overreaching ambitions, AKP needed a coalition to make up the government for the first time.
Although many analysts had expected AKP to fail to reach the two-thirds majority, few projected the party to fall below the seats necessary to form the government unilaterally. The question now was a matter of how the leadership would handle the results.
A few days after the election, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, chairman of the AKP, announced that the party would approach coalition talks with other parties sincerely. He said, “We will try to do the best in a coalition for our nation, we won’t close our door to anyone. … We won’t let chaos take hold, even for a moment.”
The following day, President Erdoğan, the former leader of the AKP, made a statement in a similar vein, saying, “I believe the parties represented in parliament will exercise their choices for a solution, and not a crisis.”
Once the President gives a party leader the mandate to begin coalition talks, the new coalition government has to be established in 45 days. If there is no agreement at the end of that period, the President has the discretion to extend the period or call for a repeat election.
Despite his apparent initial sentiment in favor of a coalition government, almost a month after the election, Erdoğan was being accused of stalling out the process, as he still had not given the formal mandate for any party leader to begin the process to form the coalition.
As time went by, a coalition government seemed less and less likely.
By mid-August, surrounded by many accusations by opposition party leaders that he was dictating AKP policy, Erdoğan’s initial desire for a coalition government seemed to have fully disappeared. The 45-day period was rapidly approaching its end with no apparent sign of improvement in the search for a coalition.
Declarations by President Erdoğan during those weeks made apparent his continuing desire to pursue the constitutional changes to implement his ideal executive presidency. He said, “There is a president with de facto power in the country, Now, what should be done is to update this de facto situation in the legal framework of the constitution.”
On August 21, after coalition talks failed, Erdoğan made the announcement that Turkey would hold a repeat of the June elections on November 1st. AKP’s failure at the election booths was invalidated, just like that.
An Election Hinging on Kurdish Relations
The Kurdish affiliated Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is central to this election, just as it was five months ago.
Kurdish affiliated political parties have tried to get into the Turkish parliament in the past, but none of them have been able to surpass the 10 percent election threshold before HDP did so in June.
HDP’s success in June is the reason the Turkish people are going back to the ballots. If HDP had not made it past the 10 percent threshold, a significant portion of the seats it had lost would have gone to AKP, giving way for a unilateral AKP government.
HDP was successful because the party played the game of politics so perfectly: at a time where there were no viable parties that would garner enough votes to challenge AKP’s authority, they established themselves as a legitimate contender, a fourth party that would divide parliament even further to take away the AKP dominance.
HDP sought to expand beyond its Kurdish base and win over disaffected Turkish voters. To do so, HDP ran on a platform that would attract many who were unhappy with the AKP government in the past decade: an anti-capitalist, pro-LGBT and women’s rights, environmentally conscious message appealed to many.
Many others who didn’t necessarily fall within HDP’s message, but were frustrated with the AKP governments’ oppressive, undemocratic actions in the past years, voted for HDP. These voters simply sought to make an AKP majority in parliament less likely.
This time around, HDP’s success depends on different challenges.
All Kurdish parties in Turkish politics are associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist group that has fought for Kurdish sovereignty for more than 3 decades around the southeast of Turkey. Affiliation with the PKK has generally tainted moderate Kurdish parties among non-Kurdish voters.
On July 20, a suicide bombing orchestrated by ISIS killed 32 Kurdish activists in Suruc, a town near the Syrian border. Following the attack, two militants of the military wing of the PKK killed two Turkish police officers as a “revenge killing for collaborating with [ISIS].”
Turkey responded by bombing PKK camps across the region in the following days and this in turn prompted PKK to retaliate heavily, initiating a series of skirmishes around the southeast of Turkey.
HDP leaders have repeatedly singled out President Erdoğan as the figure responsible for the increased violence. Accusing Erdoğan and the government of siding with ISIS, they have argued that the escalation in violence would not have been possible if Turkey did not allow ISIS to operate so freely, giving way to events such as the Suruc bombing.
In theory, the increase in PKK violence hurts HDP’s standing before the election due to its Kurdish affiliation – anti-Kurdish sentiment goes up with more frequent, more deadly attacks. This significantly helps AKP’s hopes of achieving an absolute majority in parliament, as it makes HDP crossing the 10 percent threshold less likely.
But even with the increased violence, HDP’s polling numbers don’t seem to have suffered much, which suggests that the HDP voters in the previous election deem the escalation of violence in the southeast less disconcerting than the possibility of Erdoğan’s aspirations coming true. It also suggests that they consider Erdoğan and the AKP responsible for the escalation, rather than the HDP or the PKK.
Divisions getting wider among Turks
A Pew study that was conducted before the June election in Turkey highlighted the political divisions among the Turkish people: while 80 percent of AKP supporters appeared to be satisfied with the country’s then-current situation, only 20 percent of the supporters of the main opposition party were.
Today, those divisions only appear to be getting wider.
On October 10, a double suicide bombing in a peace rally sponsored by HDP, calling for peace between Turkish and Kurdish forces in the southeast, killed more than 100.
In the Turkish national soccer team’s European qualifier game in Konya a few days later, what was supposed to be a moment of silence in respect of the victims was tainted with boos and nationalist slogans around the stadium.
No high ranking government or AKP official attended commemoration ceremonies or funerals. In stark contrast, HDP chairman Selahattin Demirtas was in the middle of the crowds, hugging mourning relatives of the victims of the attack.
As ISIS links to the attack deepen, Demirtas has blamed the government of knowingly turning a blind-eye to ISIS activities against Kurds within Turkey and held it responsible for the attack. “It seems there was no preventative work, no security measures in place,” he said. “And that increases the responsibility of the government in an attack such as this one.”
Prime Minister Davutoglu states suspects of further terror attacks “cannot be arrested until they commit a crime,” while journalists critical of the government, as well as teenagers who have criticized the government on Twitter have been persecuted.
Along similar lines, major Turkish newspaper Hurriyet’s headquarters were attacked twice within three days in September by a group of more than 150 people chanting pro-government slogans. An AKP member of parliament was filmed during the attacks, saying, “We will make [Erdoğan] president, whatever the result of the November 1st elections.” The MP was also caught on the same video threatening Hurriyet columnist Ahmet Hakan, who had recently been critical of the government.
Ahmet Hakan was attacked and beaten up in front of his home in the following weeks by a group of four unnamed attackers, suffering a broken nose and ribs. The AKP MP was placed in a higher ranking post within the party.
An uncertain, but certainly unstable Turkey
Yes, these elections have the potential to re-shape Turkey’s politics: if Erdoğan’s AKP manages to obtain enough seats, they may be able to completely change the country’s constitutional framework to give him enormous power over the country.
Alternatively, a result similar to the June elections may lead Turkey into further gridlock. Based on the opinion polls, this scenario seems more likely. In that case, the question becomes, can AKP stomach a loss this time? An AKP member of parliament went on record yesterday saying that similar results in this week’s voting would likely lead to another repeat of the election, so it seems as if Erdoğan has no intention of giving up, at least for now.
In either case, what’s certain is that Turkey and the Turkish people have a rough few months, maybe even a rough year, ahead of them. A conclusive result from this election would be the best way to stabilize things to come. But stability seems unlikely for Turkey anytime in the near future.