BACKGROUND: Recent polls indicate that Turkey’s ruling Justice and development party (AKP) is headed toward its third, consecutive electoral victory. The next general election is scheduled for June 12, 2011. According to the latest opinion survey, the AKP would receive 46 percent of the votes, with the main opposition party, the Republican People’s party (CHP) trailing it with 25 percent. The far right Nationalist Movement party (MHP) is supported by 12 percent, and the Kurdish Peace and Democracy party (BDP) has a support that ranges between 6 and 7 percent. These numbers suggest that the AKP has a comfortable hold over Turkish politics. The BDP would not get any parliamentary representation, since it falls well below the 10 percent threshold, even though the support for the party is overwhelming in the Kurdish Southeast of the country.
Although the AKP trails the BDP in the region, it nonetheless benefits hugely from being the second party; the electoral system guarantees, not that the “winner takes all”, but that the second best party takes nearly all of the parliamentary seats. Without the 10 percent threshold – which is indeed the most saliently un-democratic feature of the Turkish constitution – the AKP would have had between thirty and forty seats less than it currently holds in parliament. There is nothing that suggests that the ruling party is considering a democratic reform that would have the effect of depriving it of the comfortable majority that it enjoys and which in all probability is set to be perpetuated for another four years.
However, there is a way of circumventing the 10 percent threshold that would make the AKP’s electoral prospects look much less brighter. The leader of the Kurdish BDP, Selahattin Demirtaş, recently suggested that CHP, BDP and a string of other, insignificant leftist parties form an electoral alliance. Demirtaş made his proposition as he was attending the meeting of the Socialist International in Paris, a gathering at which Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the CHP, was also present.
Although Kılıçdaroğlu reacted to the proposition by stating that the CHP aims to come to power relying solely on its own strength, the newly appointed party secretary of the CHP abstained from dismissing the idea of an electoral alliance with the BDP. That led many commentators in the Turkish media to jump to the conclusion that an alliance is in the making. The fact that the idea of an alliance between the Turkish nationalist CHP and the Kurdish nationalist BDP is being taken seriously at all is due to the fact that the new leader of the CHP is nudging – albeit extremely cautiously – the party away from its hard line Kemalist ideology, with symbolic openings to the religious conservatives and to the Kurds.
On his recent visit to the French capital, Kılıçdaroğlu, who is a Kurd himself (although he consistently refuses to make any references whatsoever to his ethnicity), took the occasion to pay homage to the memory of two prominent Turkish Kurds, filmmaker Yılmaz Güney and poet and singer Ahmet Kaya, who are buried in Paris where they died in exile. Subsequently, Kılıçdaroğlu also visited the Kurdish dominated Southeast, an area of Turkey from which the CHP has been effectively banished during the last two decades. The new CHP is reconnecting with the civil society of the region: Sezgin Tanrıkulu, a prominent NGO leader and the former chairman of the Diyarbakir bar association, has been invited to join the party. The chorus of CHP critics in the Turkish media has been quick to belittle Kılıçdaroğlu’s initiatives, but these moves are nonetheless significant, heralding as they do a departure from the party’s dogmatic Turkish nationalism. The representatives of the CHP and the BDP signed another first last week when they exchanged courtesy visits on the occasion of the Muslim “Sacrifice feast”, further fueling heated speculations in the media about an impending electoral alliance.
IMPLICATIONS: There can be no doubt that the opposition to the AKP would gain considerable electoral and parliamentary strength if the CHP and the BDP were to join forces; it is not only that the votes that the Kurdish party usually receives – around 6 percent – in the Southeast that would be added to the votes of the CHP. A CHP-BDP alliance would also stand to make significant inroads among the Kurdish population in the western parts of the country, attracting many less conservative Kurds away from the AKP which so far has been the main destination of the Kurdish vote. By some accounts, the votes of a CHP in alliance with the BDP could increase by as much as 10 percent, an outcome which would rearrange the Turkish political landscape to the detriment of the currently all-powerful AKP. That enticing prospect will ensure that the idea of an electoral alliance is kept alive, even though politics is not a simple matter of addition.
In fact there is a historic, although less than encouraging, precedent: In 1991, the Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP), which subsequently merged with CHP, formed an electoral alliance with the Kurdish People’s Labor Party (HEP). As a result, the representatives of the Kurdish movement gained parliamentary representation, and the SHP maintained its position as a leading party with 21 percent of the votes. However, as the conflict in the Kurdish Southeast intensified, the SHP’s initiative came to cost the party heavily in the subsequent election. Today, a resolution of the Kurdish question is within reach; the result of the recent referendum on constitutional amendments made clear that the electorate is not swayed by a Turkish nationalist discourse that condemns the state’s Kurdish opening. That should arguably make it less difficult to win acceptance for a CHP-BDP alliance. Yet the Turkish nationalist base of the CHP is finding it exceedingly difficult to come to terms with the abandonment of nationalist dogmas. Tellingly, Kılıçdaroğlu’s timid Kurdish opening drew heavy criticism from his predecessor Deniz Baykal who called him to order by reminding that strict adherence to Kemalism (Turkish nationalism and secularism) matters more than whether or not the CHP comes to power.
In fact, former party leader Deniz Baykal will have a crucial role in determining the prospects of the CHP in the upcoming elections. As Kılıçdaroğlu seeks to reach out to new groups – Kurds and religious conservatives – Baykal will be the one that continues to appeal to the traditional, Turkish nationalist base of the party. Baykal can either choose to enflame nationalist rage by depicting his successor as a defector from Kemalism, or soothe the difficult transition to a new, non-dogmatic CHP. Baykal’s record as CHP leader offers little hope that he will help bring about a renewal of Kemalism. However, Baykal could also choose to reconnect with the start of his long career: Baykal first entered government, as finance minister, in 1974, when the CHP under its reformist leader Bülent Ecevit took the unprecedented, imaginative step of forming a coalition government with the Islamist National Salvation party (MSP) of Necmettin Erbakan. At that time, Baykal was a leading academic on whom Ecevit relied in his endeavor to broaden CHP’s appeal.
It is no coincidence that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has reacted to the speculations about a CHP-BDP alliance by ridiculing the former party, stating that “poor CHP has become dependent on the BDP”. In fact, Erdoğan can be assumed to be conscious that such an alliance would present a not insignificant threat to the dominance that the AKP will otherwise continue to enjoy. Even if Turkish nationalists defect from the CHP in protest, the AKP’s dominance would still be in jeopardy, since the address of dissatisfied CHP voters would be the far right MHP, which is likewise in opposition to the AKP.
CONCLUSIONS: The CHP is condemned to trying to broaden its appeal to the Kurdish voters. The BDP on the other hand, and the Kurdish movement which it represents, craves legitimacy. Joining forces with the CHP makes sense for the BDP since it would enable the Kurdish party to reach out beyond its geographical confines in the Southeast, and help connect it with a broader electorate. The pronounced secularism of the BDP and its leftism offers a common ideological ground with the CHP, while the AKP is a rival, its promotion of religion as a common denominator of Turks and Kurds an attempt to undercut the position of the BDP. Meanwhile CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has consistently called for the abolition of the 10 percent threshold to parliament.
An electoral alliance of the CHP and the BDP would circumvent the threshold and enable the opposition to seriously challenge the ruling AKP. But as the idea of an alliance also challenges ingrained habits of thought within the CHP, it would appear to be an unlikely eventuality. However, the dominance of the AKP and the prospect of a perpetuation of the party’s rule for another term are creating a momentum for alternatives that hold the promise of rearranging the Turkish political landscape.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".