Breaking Down Turkey’s Upcoming Elections

Turkish voter in 2014 elections

Turkish voter in 2014 elections

By Yoni Pinto

Photograph of Turkish voter courtesy of RT

On June 7, the Turkish people will head to the polls to vote for Turkey’s new government. Of the elections that have happened in the past decade, this is arguably one of the most important, with a pair of narratives to consider.

Turkey’s 10% election threshold

Turkey has the highest electoral threshold out of any democratic nation in the world. To be represented in the parliament, any single party needs to receive at least 10% of the popular vote.

In the 2002 general elections, more than 45% of the votes went to parties that ultimately did not earn any seats in the Turkish Grand National Assembly. Only two parties, the Justice and Development Party (AKP, or Ak Parti in Turkish) as well as the Republican People’s Party (CHP, or Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi in Turkish) managed to earn more than 10% of the votes.

AKP earned about 34% of the popular vote while CHP earned close to 20%. The two parties were the only parties in the parliament – AKP received almost two-thirds of all seats, while CHP and a few independent representatives occupied the rest.

The 2002 case was very extreme with 45% of the voting population not being represented in government matters and nothing of the same scale has happened since. Following all elections since then, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP, or Milliyetci Hareket Partisi in Turkish) has joined AKP and CHP in passing the threshold, establishing a series of three three-party governments.

The rise of HDP

In the upcoming elections, however, there is another party that may very well pass the 10% threshold.

The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP, or Halklarin Demokratik Partisi in Turkish) became an official political party in August 2012. HDPs first taste of Turkish elections as a complete political entity was the municipal elections of 2014, where they ran alongside the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP, or Baris ve Demokrasi Partisi in Turkish) and won 99 mayorships, almost exclusively in the southeastern regions of Turkey.

Throughout its lifetime, BDP was widely regarded as a voice for Kurds in Turkey as well as for the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist group fighting for Kurdish independence on Turkish territory since 1984, in the Turkish political scene. Following the 2014 elections, the BDP was dissolved and many of its members were absorbed by the HDP.

One of the greatest challenges ahead of HDP is this affiliation with BDP and the PKK. HDP is largely regarded as a continuation of previous Kurdish political parties. With the history of PKK violence in the past 3 decades, it has been very difficult for Kurdish political parties to avoid the stigma of being associated with terrorism.

To avoid this image, unlike previous pro-Kurdish political parties, HDP is trying to push a larger vision of a better Turkey under HDP policies. Its anti-capitalist, pro-environmentalist, pro-LGBT and pro-women’s rights stances are attempts to draw more votes from the Turkish left, alongside the guaranteed support from the Kurdish population.

HDP is also drawing away votes from Kurdish voters who used to vote for the AKP. These voters who used to vote for the AKP in hopes that an AKP government could reach a solution to the “Kurdish Problem” are now instead turning to HDP for more direct representation in the parliament.

To this day, no Kurdish party has been able to establish a considerable following outside of the southeastern regions of Turkey, where the Kurdish population is a significant majority. No Kurdish party has managed to beat the 10% threshold – all have had to resort to running their candidates as independents instead, as independents are not required to beat any threshold to hold seats in the parliament.

If HDP manages to beat the threshold, it will be the first ever Kurdish-affiliated party to hold seats in the Turkish parliament.

Erdoğan’s plans for a new constitution

Along the question of the future of Kurdish representation of Turkey lies an issue that is arguably even more important.

On October 1st, 2014, recently elected President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan explained in a speech to the parliament his intentions of writing and passing a new constitution to replace the 1982 constitution that was implemented during the military junta rule following a 1980 coup d’état.

Although he does not publicly state it very often, Erdoğan’s motive for changing the constitution lies mostly in changing the presidency from a largely ceremonial role to an executive presidency. The most recent elections, during which the president was elected by the popular vote rather than members of the parliament for the first time in Turkish history, were the first step on the path to such a reform.

Critics of Erdoğan are worried, however, that such an executive presidency could bring up a notch the already highly oppressive, aggressive policies employed during Erdoğan’s tenure as Prime Minister.

So far, Erdoğan has acted out his “ceremonial” presidential position differently than his predecessors. Up to this point, even without any reforms to the structure of the presidency, many suspect that he holds influence over the current AKP government, led by ex-foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu as Prime Minister. Erdoğan has been very public, appearing often in the media. His statements seem to be in favor of AKP throughout the process, even if by current laws and practices, the Turkish President is supposed to remain impartial to all political parties.

To make changes to the constitution, there needs to be a two-thirds majority voting in favor. The Turkish parliament is composed of 550 representatives, which means that a two-thirds majority requires 367 members. AKP needs this two-thirds majority to pass a constitutional reform without any support from other parties.

Projections and expectations, however, make that very unlikely, as both CHP and MHP will most likely obtain enough votes to easily break the 10% threshold, as well as HDP possibly becoming a fourth actor in the parliament. In such a case, AKP would have to obtain a near 60% majority to hold 367 seats, which is highly unlikely.

Another possibility, however, is earning 330 seats for a three-fifths majority in parliament, which would be enough to take a constitutional reform to a referendum.

This is certainly more achievable. Constitutional referendums have favored AKP before, in 2007 and 2010, when AKP proposed changes passed with significant support. Taking a brand new constitution to a referendum would be more extreme than AKP’s previous referenda, but would still have a large chance of passing.

Polls, however, project the AKP vote to be around 40 and 50%, which would be the largest plurality, but not enough for either of these two cases for AKP, especially if HDP, CHP and MHP all break the threshold.

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Over the last decade, Turkish people have learned to vote strategically: with an incredibly high electoral threshold, it becomes more important to block detrimental policies rather than try to establish ones that you believe in.

This election will be one of the most extreme cases, where many non-leftists, non-Kurds will vote for HDP in hopes that it will break past 10% and take away seats from AKP. Many will prefer preventing the chance of establishing an executive presidency especially under Erdogan’s regime to voting for parties they actually believe in.

But ultimately, this is a symptom of something larger. Turkey’s opposition parties have been incompetent for years, with a lot of anti-government rhetoric and not many constructive changes. People do not vote for them with an expectation that they will win – they vote for them to make the opposition as large as possible.

These opposition parties – CHP, MHP, and to an extent even HDP – would not know what to do if somehow they found themselves in the driving seat. While the opposition is as weak it is, even if AKP won’t be gaining the number of seats it needs to reform the constitution completely, it is definitely not going to be losing its single party government.

Turkey cannot be changed by strategically voting for incompetent opposition parties to block an authoritative government. It can only change when there’s a strong contender against the AKP.

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