Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Erdogan’s Pyrrhic Victory: The Turkish Election and the Prospects for a Presidential System

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By Gareth H. Jenkins

November 10th, 2015, The Turkey Analyst

The November 1 general election was a victory for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rather than for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Although he is likely to try to use the AKP’s parliamentary majority to try to push ahead with his plans for an autocratic presidential system, the result showed that he has no popular mandate for one.

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BACKGROUND: On November 1 the AKP received 49.5 per cent of the vote, taking 317 seats in Turkey’s 550-member unicameral parliament. In the previous election on June 7, the AKP had won 40.7 per cent of the vote and 258 seats, a significant decline on the 49.8 per cent and 327 seats it had received in the general election of June 2011.

Anecdotal evidence and the analysis of changes in voting patterns in individual electoral districts suggest that in southeast Turkey many conservative Kurds who had previously voted for the AKP supported the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) on June 7. In the rest of the country, the shift in allegiance appears to have been from the AKP to the Turkish ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP).

In the run-up to the June 7 election, Erdoğan and his dreams of introducing an autocratic presidential system had been at the heart of the AKP’s campaign. Erdoğan featured prominently in the AKP’s campaign materials and was repeatedly referenced in public speeches by party officials. Despite the constitutional requirement that the president remain equidistant from all political parties, Erdoğan himself crisscrossed the country, holding mass rallies at which he made it clear that he regarded the AKP winning a large majority in parliament as a stepping stone towards the introduction of a presidential system. Erdoğan also continued with the acerbic rhetoric that has become his trademark since the Gezi Park Protests of summer 2013, since when Erdoğan has made his political survival dependent on sustained social tensions and seeking to deepen the commitment of his hardcore loyalists by portraying his opponents as a treacherous fifth column in league with an improbable array of foreign conspirators scheming to undermine Turkey’s otherwise inexorable rise to greatness under his leadership. As a result, for many voters, the June 7 election became tantamount to a referendum on the presidential system – and Erdoğan’s attempts to pit one section of society against another was seen as a harbinger of what they could expect if he succeeded. 

One of the keys to the AKP electoral success is the absence of a credible center-right political party. Historically, the Turkish masses have tended to vote for right of center parties – unlike the country’s intelligentsia, who lean more to the left. The AKP was founded in August 2001 at a time when the credibility of the two existing center-right parties – the Motherland Party (ANAP) and the True Path Party (DYP) – was already in precipitous and irreversible decline. When it first took office in November 2002, the AKP successfully – if disingenuously – portrayed itself as center-right party, the Muslim equivalent of the Christian Democrats in Europe. It was only after it was re-elected in 2007, and even more so after its third election victory in 2011, that the AKP leadership grew in confidence and allowed their Islamist, neo-Ottoman and authoritarian instincts to come to the fore. But no center-right party emerged as an alternative for conservative voters.

Consequently, not only was the shift away from the AKP on June 7 primarily a reaction against Erdoğan and his autocratic ambitions but there was a possibility that it would be relatively short-lived if the circumstances that had prompted it were regarded as having changed. Although the HDP has grown out of the Kurdish nationalist movement, its social and political agenda is further to the left than any other mainstream party in Turkey, including the ostensibly social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP). As a result, in the long-term, the HDP was always going to be an uncomfortable fit for conservative Kurds.

The MHP’s combination of Turkish nationalism and a strong sense of Sunni Muslim identity meant that, in terms of ideology, conservative Turks who moved from the AKP to the MHP on June 7 had less distance to travel than conservative Kurds who moved from the AKP to the HDP. However, any hopes that the MHP may have entertained of holding onto these votes evaporated in the wake of the extraordinary performance of the party chair Devlet Bahçeli.

Immediately after the June 7 election, Erdoğan began to maneuver behind the scenes to try to prevent the formation of a coalition government and force another election in the hope that the AKP would win a majority – in the hope that he could then continue to use his still considerable informal influence within the party to dominate the government. But his task was undoubtedly made considerably easier by the opposition parties, the MHP above all.

As soon as the results of the June 7 election were announced, Bahçeli vowed that the MHP would remain aloof from any attempts to form a coalition. This left the AKP with only the CHP or the HDP as a potential coalition partner. Yet both parties had adopted radically different positions to the AKP on a number of key policy areas, making any agreement extremely difficult.

IMPLICATIONS: The subsequent collapse of coalition negotiations and the announcement of a fresh election on November 1 took place against a backdrop of a steep rise in violence, including an escalation in clashes between the security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the devastating suicide bombings by suspected Islamic State sympathizers in Suruç and Ankara on July 20 and October 10, respectively.

In the run-up to November 1, Bahçeli first announced that the MHP would not consider participating in a coalition, then appeared to leave the door open and then seemed to close it again. He also failed to prevent Tuğrul Türkeş – the deputy chair of the MHP and the son of the party’s founder Alparsan Türkeş – from accepting a ministerial post in an interim administration led by the AKP and eventually defecting and running in the November 1 election as an AKP candidate. Bahçeli’s obdurate obstructiveness and apparent ineptness hardly convinced those AKP voters who had switched to the MHP on June 7 that they had made the right choice. Indeed, Bahçeli’s performance reinforced concerns about what would happen if, as the opinion polls suggested, the November 1 election resulted in another hung parliament. For many voters who had switched from the AKP on June 7, the choice on November 1 appeared to be between an AKP majority and no government at all – a prospect which was made even more daunting by fears about the deterioration in the security situation.

Critically, there was a sense amongst those who had defected from the AKP on June 7 that the party had received the message, namely that they did not want to be ruled by Erdoğan under an autocratic presidential system. A few days after the June 7 election, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu had even gone on national television and said that the result showed that the Turkish electorate did not want a presidential system. Publicly and privately, AKP officials talked of the need for the party to “return to its essence”. Many of those who had held leading positions in the party during its first years in power and who had been excluded from the list of party candidates on June 7 – such as Economics Minister Ali Babacan – were once again included in the AKP’s list on November 1. The AKP campaigned under the slogan “with love of the first day” and its election posters and banners were dominated by photographs of Davutoğlu alone. In the AKP’s election rallies, party officials made only passing references to Erdoğan and avoided mentioning his dreams of an autocratic presidential system. Most significantly, in a tacit admission that he had been a liability for the AKP in the campaign for the June 7 election, Erdoğan himself neither held any rallies himself nor campaigned openly for the AKP in the run-up to the November 1 election.

Although the provisional results of the November 1 election contain a number of statistical anomalies, no conclusive evidence has emerged to suggest widespread fraud. Nor did the election monitoring NGOs, such as Oy ve Ötesi or “Vote and Beyond”, report sufficient irregularities to change the overall result. However, the activities of such NGOs tend to be concentrated in the towns and cities, making it difficult to assess the situation in rural areas. Nevertheless, even if there was some electoral fraud, it is likely to have occurred in parallel to a process in which votes that had been “borrowed” by the HDP and MHP on June 7 returned to the AKP. For example, there was almost no change in the vote for the CHP, which rose slightly from 25.1 per cent on June 7 to 25.3 per cent on November 1. In comparison, the vote for the HDP fell from 13.0 per cent on June 7 to 10.8 per cent on November 1, with the biggest losses occurring in the predominantly Kurdish provinces of southeast Turkey. Similarly, the MHP vote declined from 16.5 per cent on June 7 to 11.9 per cent on November 1.

CONCLUSIONS: Even if there was no electoral fraud on November 1, it is impossible to say that the elections were free and fair. On the contrary, the months leading up to the election were characterized by an intensification in the attempts by Erdoğan and the AKP to stifle the public expression – whether in the press, on social media or even on the street – not only of opinions but also of any facts that they regarded as potentially damaging. In addition to the growing restrictions on freedom of expression, the increasing politicization of the judicial system has made it almost impossible to argue that – as the country’s constitution insists – Turkey is governed by the rule of law. Most pernicious is the climate of fear that now pervades large sections of society. Until a few months ago, it was commonplace to hear those who do not vote for the AKP express fears about losing their freedoms. Now many talk about the fear of losing their lives. Such concerns may be misplaced but they are widespread and sincerely held.

Nevertheless, the fear and repression are themselves further indications that Turkey is now in the final stage of the Erdoğan era – a tacit admission that he has no faith in his ability to retain power in a free and democratic society. Erdoğan has already made it clear that he regards the AKP’s victory on November 1 as an opportunity to revive his dreams of an autocratic presidential system. But it was clearly not a mandate for one.

Nor will a single-party government bring social or political stability. Although much has been written about Turkey’s growing democratic deficit, the issue of competence is likely to come increasingly to the fore over the months ahead – particularly now that the election victory on November 1 has given a further boost to Erdoğan’s and the AKP’s already dangerous over-confidence.

Gareth H. Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

Image attribution: www.voanews.com, accessed on Nov 10, 2015

Read 8431 times Last modified on Thursday, 12 November 2015

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.

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