Few surprises are likely when Turkey holds its June 12 parliamentary elections. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is expected to retain power by winning a majority of seats in parliament. Still, these elections will represent a critical turning point in the evolution of modern Turkey for three distinct reasons.
Second, these elections represent the beginning of a leadership transition in Ankara. Erdogan—who has promised not to run for parliament again—is seeking to transform Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system, with the goal of becoming president himself.
Finally, these elections will determine whether the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), can sufficiently reinvent itself to regain the role of a serious contender and challenger to the ruling AKP.
Crisis before the Elections
At the root of Turkey’s political system is its 1982 constitution. Both the constitution and the system were devised by the 1980-83 military junta, which assigned the YSK an integral role. Since the country’s return to civilian rule, Turkish politicians have been remarkably unwilling, incapable, and unable to dent—much less change—this system.
The 1982 military constitution is an ideological document that privileges the state over the individual and nationalism over citizenship. Its aim has always been to defend the state and the regime from the individual and, by suppressing both ethnic minorities and the pious, ensure the continuity of a bureaucratic-military tutelage system.
The military junta—which had taken over Ankara after a tumultuous period of polarization, street violence, and emergent Kurdish mobilization—sought to create a stable two-party system. The generals imposed a 10 percent national threshold for any party to win representation in parliament. Ostensibly instituted to reduce the possibility of a coalition government, the rule privileges larger parties, which end up winning many more parliamentary seats than their national share of votes. More importantly, smaller parties, such as Kurdish ones, have been effectively sidelined or forced to seek coalition partners—not an easy task for a nationalist Kurd in Turkey.
Kurdish parties and politicians have routinely been banned, forcing the Kurds time and time again to create new parties. Their disenfranchisement—and that of other minorities—has not led to social peace. In fact, on the critical Kurdish issue, the absence of effective Kurdish representation in parliament has helped its militarization, as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed insurgent group, filled the void.
If the YSK decision had stood, it risked inflaming ethnic passions. As soon as the initial ban was announced, demonstrations erupted throughout the country, exposing the national rather than the strictly regional—southeastern—character of the Kurdish problem. BDP threatened to pull out of the elections, which would have seriously undermined their legitimacy. Paradoxically, the YSK—by drawing attention to the issue of electoral fairness—ensured that electoral reform will be front and center in the post-election period, and receive at least as much attention as the constitution.
Party Lists and Strategies
The Main Contenders: AKP and CHP
The candidate lists submitted by the AKP and CHP share one similarity: they both have undergone radical change. The party leaders, AKP’s Erdogan and CHP’s Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, have used their powers to excise a large number of incumbents from their respective lists. Erdogan has purged as many as 167 of the 333 AKP members of parliament while, somewhat more dramatically, Kiliçdaroglu has eliminated 78 of the 101 CHP parliamentarians.
This is where the similarities end, however. The AKP, despite the purge, is anxious to present an image of continuity and steadfastness. Erdogan is running primarily on his economic record and international achievements. Not only is Turkey far more prosperous than when he became prime minister eight years ago, it has also become an important global actor. Erdogan can claim that under his watch, Turkey has become the world’s sixteenth largest economy and a G20 member. The AKP strategy can be summarized as “steady as she goes,” with the promise of much better times ahead. It seeks not to make waves either domestically—which is why the YSK crisis was so unwelcome—or internationally, only gingerly engaging the contentious issues of the Arab Spring.
The AKP list made news only as a spectator sport for all those who sought to divine the ins and the outs of the Erdogan court and who was in favor. Underlying the selection of candidates is Erdogan’s effort to ensure that mostly those sympathetic to his constitutional reforms are elected in June. Erdogan has made it clear that he prefers to replace the current parliamentary system with a presidential one, most likely a French-style system. Hence his announcement that the June 12 elections will be his last as a parliamentary candidate.
While it is difficult to ascertain exactly how many AKP members oppose Erdogan’s plan to dramatically transform the Turkish political system, there are certainly opponents within his own party. The reasons vary, from fear of tinkering with a system that the electorate has come to accept, to the further centralization of power in one individual, to the politicization of the presidency—an institution that is largely able to navigate the political system’s deep divisions.
In reality, the AKP’s electoral platform is none other than Erdogan himself: he is the party and the party is Erdogan. He is the most dominant politician Turkey has seen in generations. He commands and controls not just his party but the national discourse as well.
The CHP list, by contrast, made for more interesting copy. Kiliçdaroglu, as a brand-new leader preparing to contest his first elections, was anxious to both send a message of change—that the CHP is no longer the party that defended the state and the Kemalist ideology—and to protect himself from the party’s old guard. Hence, he rid himself of all those who were associated with his predecessor, Deniz Baykal. Although Baykal remains a candidate, the party has a new crop of fresh faces, including distinguished reformist academics such as Sencer Ayata and diplomats like Osman Korutürk.
But Kiliçdaroglu also took a gamble, one that has cast a shadow over his reformist image. His list includes candidates charged in the Ergenekon conspiracy trial—at least three of whom are in pre-trial detention. The trial centers on allegations that multiple groups, including active-duty and retired military officers, planned to overthrow the AKP government—charges the officers deny. The contentious debate over the trial’s merits notwithstanding, the trial represents a struggle between the statist and militarist old guard and a new elite and its attempts—albeit quite imperfect—to change the system.
To side openly with the military and statist elite may alienate many people in society who otherwise would have considered voting for CHP, if only because eight years of AKP stewardship is enough. Similarly, candidates associated with Ergenekon have publicly espoused positions that are anathema to the party rank-and-file and its intellectual supporters. By including them on its list and assuring them of seats in the next parliament, the CHP has at best created a distraction and at worse sowed the seeds of future disaffection and resentment.
In summary, the CHP’s main message is change: change from its own past and change from AKP. The problem is that it has muddied the waters. It will have a chance to turn a new page when it releases its electoral program. Will it be able to challenge the AKP on issues that the electorate cares about, particularly the economy, the bureaucracy, and education?
The one significant shortcoming is the absence of a Kurdish policy. Though presumed to be of Kurdish descent, Kiliçdaroglu has refrained from articulating or even directly addressing this issue. He has consistently avoided using the K word—Kurd—preferring instead to use euphemisms, such as the “southeastern problem.” And even when he recruited a distinguished Kurdish jurist—who had run afoul of his brethren and has little popular support—the candidate chose to run far from his native southeast.
The problem with CHP is that it keeps lurching, as its electoral lists reveal, wanting to be everything to everyone. While the party is likely to improve over its past performance and there are very visible signs of greater effervescence and excitement among CHP rank-and-file members, this campaign remains AKP’s show.
The BDP and MHP occupy the two poles of the nationalist discourse. The BDP represents the embodiment of rising Kurdish nationalism, while the MHP seeks to define and defend Turkish nationalism from a narrow and ethnic perspective. Polar opposites, they will have an important, if not defining, roles in the constitutional gamesmanship that is likely to dominate the post-election period.
Even before the YSK tried to ban many of its candidates, the BDP was expected to improve on its 2007 performance. Then, members of the Kurdish party, which could not top the 10 percent threshold needed to secure seats in parliament, won seats by supporting a slate of selected independent candidates. Because an independent candidate runs from one electoral district without party affiliation, the 10 percent threshold requirement is not applicable. Once elected, the independents can join together under the banner of a party of their choosing.
This time, the BDP may elect as many as 30 members of parliament. It fielded candidates—including Leyla Zana, who spent ten years in jail for speaking her native Kurdish language in parliament—and has gone out of its way to include other Kurdish viewpoints. The YSK’s failed effort was aimed at preventing the BDP from electing a critical mass; if a party has at least 20 seats, it can have a say in the day-to-day running of parliament.
The YSK-induced crisis has helped the BDP. During the three days the YSK banned the party from the elections, the BDP gained as much attention as it would have received in eight weeks of campaigning. It ended up securing additional supporters, including Kurds who doubted the BDP’s politics.
For the BDP, the focus is on the post-election constitutional reform scenario. Its main goal is to come up with as strong a parliamentary bloc as possible to force the other parties to engage it seriously in changing the constitution. Second, it wants to demonstrate that it can represent the majority of Turkish Kurds. Here its only competitor is the AKP. With this in mind, the BDP has already initiated a process of organization and mobilization, and has launched a civil disobedience campaign against the government to galvanize rank-and-file members.
Finally, most Turkish Kurds have come to accept that the days of the armed struggle are over and that politics represents the best method of achieving the goals of first-class citizenship, cultural freedoms, and decentralization. Hence the BDP, by doing well electorally, wants to prove that it is the best vehicle to achieve these reforms and to institutionalize and legitimize Kurdish-based politics in Turkey.
The BDP has its own demons. If it fails to meet expectations or its more radical elements engage in unprovoked violence, then the stage could be set for a period of heightened tensions or even a return to PKK-led armed violence. Such a return would not only be damaging to Turkey, but would be exceedingly costly to the Kurds overall. An example of this occurred in early May when the PKK assumed responsibility for an attack on the police escorting Erdogan’s election convoy in Kastamonu.
The issue that drives the MHP, as a far-right nationalist and conservative party, is the defense of Turkishness. In other words, it will resist any attempt to change the defining aspects of the state—the constitution, the electoral system, or the judiciary—in order to accommodate the Kurds. It has no economic platform to speak of. With its nativist and petit bourgeois appeal, it offers itself in the conservative small towns of Anatolia as an alternative to the AKP, especially to those who may not have done as well in these buoyant, yet challenging, economic times.
Hence, unlike the other parties, the MHP leader, Devlet Bahçeli, was cautious and quite content with making only minor changes to his candidate list. He did bring back into the fold some of his rivals within the party and, like the CHP, nominated an Ergenekon suspect, a retired military officer. He vehemently supported the YSK bans on Kurds; he, too, is trying to mobilize the MHP electorate by arguing that Kurdish terrorist sympathizers are once again about to enter parliament.
MHP’s challenge is to cross the 10 percent threshold and make it into parliament. Opinion polls consistently show party support hovering right around this threshold. Should MHP fail to pass the barrier, the AKP—given Turkey’s electoral rules—would almost certainly receive a disproportionate share of seats that otherwise would have gone to MHP. This outcome is what Erdogan would love to see and has strived to ensure. After all, every seat his party wins brings him closer to the 367 seats needed to alter the constitution with relative ease.
But there is a real danger lurking behind a MHP failure to make it into parliament. Bahçeli, who otherwise has been an unimaginative leader, can be credited with one important accomplishment: taming MHP’s historically violent cadres. The likelihood that these cadres will resort to violence to prevent reforms, especially those favoring Kurds, is quite high. There have been instances, as in the Hatay province in 2010, when suspected local MHP members ambushed police officers to make it look like a Kurdish- instigated event. Then the situation quickly deteriorated into inter-ethnic fighting. Considering heightened Kurdish expectations, it is not difficult to imagine how disillusioned MHP cadres can instigate nationwide events.
The MHP will undoubtedly resist reforms. The CHP’s position will be determined by how well it performs; if Kiliçdaroglu is perceived as being victorious—if only because he beats expectations—he could be emboldened to move the party in a more liberal and tolerant direction, much like European social-democratic parties. If he fails, the long knives will be out for him, and the CHP, having lost its nerve, will likely retreat back into its statist and nationalist shell.
Paradoxically, the better the BDP performs at the AKP’s expense, the likelier it is that the BDP may emerge as an AKP ally down the road on constitutional change. A very strong BDP performance in the southeast is likely to ring alarm bells in Ankara and provide the necessary incentives to move forward on reforms.
The post-election period is gearing up to be quite riveting. The results of the elections are predictable, but the true outcome for Turkey is far from certain.