BACKGROUND: On April 7, the political parties in Turkey handed in their candidate lists for the election on June 7 to parliament to the Supreme Electoral Board. The law that regulates the internal functioning of the political parties – which is a legacy bequeathed by the military dictatorship in the 1980’s – ensures that the party leader wields uncontested, decisive power over the composition of the political parties’ candidate lists. Thus, normally, in the case of the nomination process in the Justice and Development Party (AKP), party leader and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu would have wielded ultimate power over it; however, this was not the case.
For the first time since the founding of the party, the AKP is going to contest an election without Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at its helm. However, President Erdoğan has made it clear that he views the upcoming election as the first step toward the introduction of a full presidential system; and even though the president is supposed to be politically neutral and not involved in active politics according to the constitution, Erdoğan has been fully involved in the nomination process of the party’s candidates for the election, playing a decisive role.
Of the current 326 AKP deputies, 185 were left out of the candidate lists. Of these, seventy were barred from re-election, as they have served three consecutive terms in parliament; the internal statutes of AKP rule against re-election for more than three consecutive terms. Furthermore, when taking into account also those who were assigned places on the lists that virtually ensure that they are not going to be re-elected, the total of AKP parliamentarians “purged” amounts to two-thirds of the present party group in parliament.
It was expected that President Erdoğan was going to play the decisive role in the nomination process; however, contrary to the opposite expectation, Prime Minister Davutoğlu also succeeded in placing many of his preferred candidates on eligible places on the lists. Thus, one may conclude that the AKP candidate lists reflect the combined preferences of Erdoğan and Davutoğlu.
Even if political rumor has it that Erdoğan is very angry because certain names that he had wished to see on the lists were left out, it is nonetheless clear that in general both Erdoğan and Davutoğlu succeeded in including their favorite choices. Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak, his adviser Mücahit Arslan, his lawyer Ali Özkaya, his speech writer Aydin Ünal, to name a few, are some of the presidential favorites that were made candidates.
Meanwhile, Davutoğlu put his close adviser and former student Ali Sarıkaya on the list, while he purged names that are close to Binali Yıldırım, an Erdoğan confidante, from the lists. It can be also noted that names close to Bülent Arınç failed to make it to the candidate lists. And Numan Kurtulmuş, whose name is sometimes mentioned as a potential new leader of AKP or as new prime minister in the case Davutoğlu stumbles, was denied a prominent place as candidate. Kurtulmuş had asked for the first spot on the list in Istanbul, but was instead made candidate from the small, remote Black sea province Ordu. And names close to Kurtulmuş, such as Şeref Malkoç, did not make it to the candidate list at all.
The three-term limit in the AKP means that prominent, senior and experienced representatives of the party – such as Cemil Çiçek, Bülent Arınç, Köksal Toptan, Mehmet Ali Şahin, Ali Babacan, Beşir Atalay, Bekir Bozdağ and Fehmi Kinay – had to be left aside. In their absence, the candidate lists of the AKP mostly consist of politically inexperienced, younger names. It is not difficult to foresee that this is going to further entrench the hegemony that the party leadership already exerts.
IMPLICATIONS: Another, crucial question is to what extent the exit of the experienced, old guard AKP deputies also amounts to a political repositioning of the party. Does the “purge,” or generational shift that the three-term rule has imposed, also have any ideological connotations? It would appear so at a first glance. What is clear is that politicians from the Islamic Milli Görüş (National Outlook) tradition in the AKP ranks is going to be decimated in the next parliament. But to read this as a deliberate purge is to misrepresent the ambition behind the composition of the candidate lists; rather, the decimation of Milli Görüş is a function of the three-term limit that bars the old guard of the party from standing for another election. The change that is underway in the AKP does not so much mirror a deliberate, ideological effort to check the Milli Görüş tradition as it reflects the evolution of this tradition within the AKP.
Many among the younger generation that is about to replace the old guard can also be labeled Milli Görüş; but crucially, this ideological description has to all intents and purposes ceased to matter for them in any deeper sense. What primarily distinguishes the new generation of AKP candidates is – beside their unflinching loyalty to above all Erdoğan – careerism devoid of any particular ideological commitments.
Yet while the candidate lists of AKP could said to be pointing in a non-ideological direction, the very opposite trend is on display in the other parties. While the ideological component is, at least in a certain sense, getting toned down in the ruling party – which arguably is an inevitable consequence of the party’s long tenure in power – the opposition parties’ ideological profiles have on the contrary become more pronounced. The candidate lists of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) display worrying fault lines. These particularities of these opposition candidates mean that the next parliament is going to have a generally more radical outlook.
For starters, candidates who are identified as Alevis (adherents of a heterodox interpretation of Islam) have made important strides in the CHP lists. This is partly a function of the fact that CHP – as the only party – adopted a grass-roots democratic approach in its designation process of the candidates. While the candidate lists in all the other parties were drawn up exclusively by the party leadership (in the case of HDP, the lists as usual reflect the considerations of both “İmralı,” i.e Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK leader who is held prisoner there and “Kandil,” the headquarters of PKK in northern Iraq), the CHP party organization was given a say in choosing candidates. This benefited Alevi candidates, as the Alevis are heavily represented among the member base of CHP, though by no means as much as pro-AKP voices would have the public believe. Given that party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu himself is an Alevi, this significantly stronger representation of Alevis among CHP deputies in the next parliament will make the party vulnerable to charges of being a sectarian party.
In the MHP, party leader Devlet Bahçeli maintained a strict control over the nomination process, a result of which senior names loyal to him were placed at the top positions. The nomination process of MHP was the one to which the public paid least attention. Only the nomination of Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, who was the joint candidate of CHP and MHP in the presidential election in 2014, as an MHP candidate from Istanbul caught some interest. However, a closer look at the candidates of MHP shows that the trend in the party is toward a more strident Turkish nationalism; it is possible to interpret this as a reaction to the growing assertiveness of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey.
The composition of the candidates lists of HDP were disappointing for those who had expected the party’s stated ambition to become a party for the whole of Turkey to be reflected in its choices. While a couple of ethnic Armenians and Assyrians were included in the lists in the Kurdish-dominated areas, in other places the candidates are overwhelmingly Kurdish. In one respect however, HDP made a signature innovation, and that is in its selection of female candidates. In total, 510 women are present on the lists of the four parties, with 250 of these being HDP candidates.
CONCLUSIONS: The AKP’s new group in the next parliament is going to consist of a younger, more inexperienced generation of politicians compared to what is the case today. With the exit of the experienced old guard of the party, this is going to assure the executive branch an even stronger hold over the party group than what is already the case.
Meanwhile, the composition of the candidate lists of the other parties suggest that ethnic and sectarian divides are going to become even more pronounced in the next parliament of Turkey than what has been the case so far, with a clear risk that ethnic and sectarian divisions in society are going to be further exacerbated.
(Image attribution: Flickr user J Brew)