BACKGROUND: The question that dominated the election campaign was President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s bid to accumulate more power and in practice enshrine what would be the rule of an elected “sultan.” That issue has receded into the background in the aftermath of the election. However, what remains to be determined is whether the advances of the opposition – more precisely of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and to a lesser extent of the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) – will indeed translate into political clout and result in Erdoğan’s power ambitions being checked. Tellingly, the initial euphoria among liberals and other opposition voices has already been replaced with apprehension that AKP will rebound in an early election – according to political rumor in Ankara to be called in the fall – and fear that Erdoğan, as usual, is going to outsmart the opposition.
In the aftermath of the election, it ihas become clear that two questions are going to be decisive in determining the future evolution of Turkish politics, and in deciding what kind of government is going to emerge. The first question is whether or not a viable alternative to an AKP-led coalition is going to see the day, which would exclude the AKP from government. If that fails to materialize – and that is the most likely outcome – another question will be of crucial importance. That is how the political identity of the AKP will evolve, and whether there will be an ideological reorientation of the party in the wake of its electoral setback.
Although formally the process to form a government is yet to start, an intensive traffic is underway between the parties. In that sense at least, the results of the June 7 election has revived political life in Ankara, which until recently had been devoid of any suspense or even signs of life as a result of Erdoğan’s domineering persona. The main opposition party, the centrist Republican People’s Party (CHP), is busy courting the MHP. CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has stated that “forming the government is up to the block of 60 percent,” a figure arrived at by combining the votes of the CHP, MHP and HDP. However, no such “block” does in fact exist in any political or ideological sense whatsoever. The three opposition parties may be in opposition to the AKP, but one of them – the Turkish nationalist MHP – defines itself primarily in opposition to another of them, the pro-Kurdish HDP, not in opposition to the AKP.
The MHP is turning out to be the pivotal party in the coalition games now being played out in Ankara. Courting the party, the CHP has reportedly offered – or is planning to offer – the MHP a rotational prime ministry, with the parties taking turns to hold the prime ministry in their prospective coalition. However, a CHP-MHP coalition would be a minority government and thus dependent on the support of the Kurdish HDP from the outside. There is, of course, no chance that the Kurdish party could be included in a coalition that features the MHP. But for the MHP, for which the highest priority is to seal the end of the “solution process” with the Kurdish movement, any kind of dependency on the Kurdish party is out of the question. MHP representatives have cold-shouldered Kılıçdaroğlu, stating that their “red line” is the solution process, which they want terminated. Kılıçdaroğlu’s governmental “60 percent block” is a pipe dream, and presumably he is well aware of it.
IMPLICATIONS: It is thus very likely that Turkey’s next head of government is going to be the outgoing prime minister, AKP leader Ahmet Davutoğlu. The only question is what kind of government Davutoğlu is going to head; the alternatives range from an AKP minority government to a coalition with one or the other of the three opposition parties – the MHP, CHP or HDP, in order of declining likelihood. The least likely partner would be HDP; teaming up with the pro-Kurdish HDP would hardly make any sense for AKP after the party in practice has shelved the peace process with the Kurds.
Instead, it’s apparent that the first choice of the AKP apparatus – and reportedly of the “palace”, that is of President Erdoğan – is a coalition with the MHP. Such a coalition would offer Turkey’s ruling party the best available opportunity to weather present circumstances; the AKP will have to live with the MHP’s opposition to the introduction of a presidential system, but could prepare the ground for a grand comeback in an early election. Partnership with another conservative party will further entrench the conservatism of AKP, and will help prop up the crony capitalist system that the party has constructed.
The AKP and the MHP are both socially conservative parties and their respective bases overlap among religious and socially conservative Turks in the Anatolian heartland, even though the MHP also enjoys some support from urban, secular Turkish nationalists in the coastal areas that dislike the Islamism of the AKP. The MHP also has a history of partnering with the AKP on critical occasions; that was the case when the MHP supported the election of Abdullah Gül to the presidency in 2007, and when it joined the AKP in the parliamentary vote that lifted the headscarf ban in the universities in 2008. Statements by MHP representatives suggest that the party is indeed inclined toward joining a coalition with AKP; the MHP will have to weigh the risks – that the party is overshadowed by the mighty AKP in government – against the dividends, getting credit for putting an end to the Kurdish peace process and in material terms, a share for its supporters of the business cake doled out by the state. An AKP-MHP coalition is notably the preference of Turkey’s increasingly powerful, Anatolian, conservative business interests. The chairman of their organization, the Association of Independent Businessmen (MÜSİAD), declared that their first choice is an AKP-MHP coalition.
Meanwhile, the Association of Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen, TÜSİAD – the older and traditionally leading business organization that mainly represents capital based in Istanbul – can be assumed to favor a different outcome. TÜSİAD has not made its preference public, but it has on the other hand spoken out in defense of a political system where the rule of law is respected and made clear that it wants to see the integration with the EU pursued – standpoints which are difficult to reconcile with the AKP’s political course. Presumably, Istanbulite capital would like to see either a CHP-MHP coalition, or perhaps more likely, the AKP and CHP forming a government.
Voices on behalf of the latter coalition alternative are being raised in CHP; these voices notably point out that such a coalition would ensure economic stability and would be welcomed by “business interests,” a reference, traditionally in Turkish political parlance, to “secular” big business in Istanbul. An AKP-CHP coalition would indeed be in the interest of “secular” business because it would spell the end of confrontation and release the centrist potential that the AKP is assumed to still possess.
According to what the daily Cumhuriyet has reported, former president Abdullah Gül favors an AKP-CHP coalition precisely for this reason, on the ground that it is “internally the desire of the business world and of the international circles and because such a coalition would put an end to the internal tensions that have persisted for so long.” However, the “business world” is far from united; a centrist grand coalition is unlikely as long as the “civil war” between its two fractions continues.
CONCLUSIONS: While the most likely coalition alternative – an AKP-MHP coalition – is one that is going to keep the AKP on its confrontational track, a coalition with the CHP would signal that the party has decided to seek appeasement, above all of those economic interests that the AKP has increasingly come to challenge. The AKP’s economic policies have been geared toward creating and sustaining its own business class, whose interests have been privileged at the expense of the secular fraction of capital.
To all appearances, Abdullah Gül stands for something different: for reconciliation of capital, of MÜSİAD and TÜSİAD. However, there’s a reason why Gül has not prevailed, why his conciliatory line has on the contrary become marginalized within the AKP, and that’s not simply because he’s an ineffective politician or because Erdoğan has succeeded in intimidating the party.
The reason for the death of the AKP’s initial centrism is structural; its centrist potential will remain unreleased, and the party will not become an agent of conciliation – either on its own or in a coalition – as long as the “conservative” business interests behind the party remain determined to use state power to ensure that they get their hands on an increasingly greater share of capital, which, as Erdoğan has stated, is “changing hands.” That’s the principal dynamic behind Turkey’s drift toward authoritarian rule, which is far from having been halted.
Halil Karaveli is the Editor of the Turkey Analyst and a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, Joint Center.