Analysis: Will Turkey’s king reign?

As elections near, Kurdish parties are gaining widespread support against Erdogan’s AK party – posing a serious threat to his autonomous hand.

Demonstrators, with a banner reading ‘We are everywhere!’ in the foreground, block Istiklal Street during a protest in central Istanbul last week to mark the second anniversary of anti-government protests at Taksim Gezi Park. (photo credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER)
Demonstrators, with a banner reading ‘We are everywhere!’ in the foreground, block Istiklal Street during a protest in central Istanbul last week to mark the second anniversary of anti-government protests at Taksim Gezi Park.
(photo credit: REUTERS/MURAD SEZER)
Turkey’s parliamentary elections are expected to take place on June 7 and the national political balance is at stake, after 14 years of unchallenged dominance by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – founded in 2002 by the now-President of the Republic, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
However, the emergence of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has provided a formidable foe to Erdogan’s rule – if not directly to the presidency, than indirectly as an influence on parliament.
In the Turkish electoral system, each province votes for a party; the number of representatives that party can send to the parliament from that province is based on proportional representation to the population.
While the HDP is the fourth-largest political party in the country, it nonetheless faces the challenge of overcoming the 10-percent threshold to enter the parliament, one of the highest thresholds in the world. Yet if AKP and its prime ministerial candidate, current Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, take the 367-seat majority (out of 550) as is predicted, it will have the parliamentary numbers necessary to singlehandedly implement the presidential reform Erdogan has been promoting for a long time – despite strong opposition from all other groups, which have been raising the alarm over the country’s authoritarian drift.
Should the Kurds remain without any political representation in parliament, it will have serious consequences on Turkey’s stability. Should the HDP pass the threshold instead, it will put an end to the longstanding AKP supremacy and likely lead to a coalition government and highly unpredictable scenarios – with the only certainty being Erdogan’s farewell to his presidential reform dream.
In the background, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), respectively the second- and third-largest political forces, are waiting to see the outcome of the ballots before deciding whether to join a coalition or the opposition in the future parliament.
TURKEY HOLDS 80 million people within its borders, roughly the third most populous country in the Middle East. While the majority are Turks (72%), around 30 ethnic and religious minorities live there, with Kurds being the largest, comprising 15 million people.
Since the start of the Syrian Civil War, nearly two million refugees have come through the country’s borders, causing a demographic shift whose consequences are still unclear. Internal issues include a rise in political Islam in contrast with the state’s forcibly imposed secular character, threats to press freedom, and minority rights issues that have led to nationalist guerrilla movements and homegrown terrorism, particularly during the 1980s and ’90s.
In the international arena, Turkey is a prominent NATO member and EU member candidate, and has ambitions of regional leadership not only in the Middle East but in the Balkans and Central Asia as well. In the Syrian Civil War, Ankara has sided with the Syrian National Council in opposition to President Bashar Assad.
In 2014, the left-leaning HDP rose from the ashes of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, and is the party to watch in this round of voting. Led by co-leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag, it aims to fill the political vacuum left after 2013’s Gezi Park protests, which saw masses come out to protest on environmental concerns in Istanbul. Police reacted with riot dispersal, leading to nationwide demonstrations that ended with 11 dead and thousands wounded. The HDP came out with a manifesto supporting secularist, environmentalist, anti-nationalist and anti-capitalist policies, with a strong message on the struggles against ethnic, religious and sexual discrimination.
According to the most recent polls, the HDP has been able to attract multitudes of voters from both the nationalist electorate of the CHP and, above all, from the religious-conservative AKP area. This is especially true among the Kurds; analysts have noted how the HDP is resorting to old-time vote-pulling methods, dealing directly with the tribal chiefs (referring to large families with influence in the smaller provinces) and prestigious personalities able to move hundreds, even thousands, of votes. As a result, many tribes that once represented the AKP’s traditional core base have now pledged their support to HDP.
The HDP has taken a moderate approach to secularism in trying to win voters; it acknowledges Turkey has been scarred by the radical secularist policies of the early years, forced upon the Muslim population. The resurgence of Islamic pride and the demand for religious recognition is one of the pillars of the AKP’s success from 2002 until today. By staying moderate, the HDP has been able to attract voters of the conservative religious camp.
In 2011, Erdogan’s party was able to gain 51% of the votes. In the past few months, the most reliable polls have shown AKP is losing consensus and projections now assign only around 40% of votes; enough to confirm it as the largest party in Turkey, but not enough to gain an absolute majority. Most of the loss is the result of a shift of preferences to the HDP, whose share is estimated at around 11%.
This has led to panic in the AKP, which is trying to make up for the lost ground. Prominent personalities have resorted to rhetorical attacks aimed at discrediting the HDP, and especially its charismatic leader Demirtas, a 42-yearold lawyer who has proven himself a capable adversary, able to present his party as a valid alternative to the AKP.
Moreover, HDP has been called a “danger to democracy” and has been accused of being controlled by the PKK, the outlawed Kurdish guerrilla organization and the protagonist of a war against the Turkish state that has caused more than 40,000 deaths in some decades – in an effort to damage HDP’s image, halt the ongoing peace process and ignite a nationalistic resurgence with consequences on the electoral outcome.
Turkish army launched an anti-PKK operation in the Agri area, despite the peace process officially begun in 2013 between the Turkish government and imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Many saw this operation, conducted a few months before the election, as an attempt to create a case that could be used in the campaign. PKK chief Murat Karayılan released a public statement declaring it will not rise to the bait, condemning the move as a provocative and dangerous electoral scheme.
The Turkish-Kurdish peace process has been a source of pride and a political tool for Erdogan, who now fears that others (namely the HDP) might benefit from the initiative he started.
This explains his sudden turn on the issue, in a speech in the city of Balıkesir last March, when he declared there is no such Kurdish problem in Turkey – a denial the Kurdish electorate certainly didn’t appreciate, and one that contributed to the AKP’s loss of credibility among them.
At the same time, HDP’s headquarters have been the target of around 70 attacks perpetrated by unknown assailants.
Bombs have exploded in the cities of Adana and Mersin; official investigations have not found those responsible.
Heated rumors have spread all over the country, with reciprocal accusations blaming AKP or nationalist militants, Islamic State-related groups or the very same HDP members, in a ploy to increase sympathy toward the movement.
AS THE days tick down, polls seem to indicate that the HDP will pass the electoral threshold; debates now center around what future scenarios and coalition games will play out. At press time, the leaders of all opposition parties dismissed the possibility of forging an alliance with the AKP, an attitude that should not surprise anyone in the campaign period, when leaderships are more interested in raising their own political profile.
An alliance between the AKP and nationalist MHP seems to be the most predictable outcome. The MHP is likely to obtain around 17% of votes, and the two parties share a lot in terms of ideology.
The nationalist MHP leader, Devlet Bahçeli, has refused several alliances with minor groups in order to keep his hands free for post-election dealings; at the same time, in a May 19 speech, he ruled out the possibility of forming a coalition with the ruling AKP.
The same statement was made by CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroglu. The Republican Party is expected to gain a 26% share; its electorate underwent a transformation process over the last decades, abandoning its hard nationalist stance in favor of a more moderate position – a shift that didn’t stop the flow of voters toward the HDP, worrying Kılıçdaroglu to the point he felt the need to remind his voters of the importance of political loyalty.
A big coalition – HDP-CHP-MHP – that would oust the AKP from the government is possible; if it succeeds, it would be the first time since 2002, though this is very unlikely. HDP and MHP take diametrically opposed positions on several issues, including the Turkish-Kurdish one.
Given the harshness of the fight between the two groups, an HDP-AKP alliance is unlikely as well. Demirtas spoke out against Erdogan’s presidential plan several times, and the only issue the two have in common are their views on the Kurdish-Turkish peace process.
Undoubtedly, the two parties will have to rebuild the ties the campaign broke into pieces.
Even if the AKP is elected Turkey’s largest party once again, an unsatisfying outcome is likely to extend the internal rift – which the opposition parties have tried to exploit several times, though without success. Erdogan is still the unquestioned spiritual leader of the group, which made its fortunes after a long period of political instability in the 1990s that people still fear.
He is relentlessly pushing forward his presidential system reform, as he considers it the best possible way to respond to the country’s future challenges, burdened by the 20th-century-born parliamentary state system. However, many inside the party have started to consider the president a cumbersome figure who is damaging the party and exploiting it for his own interests.
The same people look to former president Abdullah Gül as an alternative and valid leader for the future. Gül refused the call from Erdogan to run as the AKP candidate – a rejection that has been seen as a tactical move aimed at retaking the party’s leadership after the possibly disastrous results.
Officially, elections take place every four years, yet this round has been categorized by heavy uncertainty. The possibility of any government elected this year fulfilling the four-year term is slim, causing some top-level deputies to conclude that a coalition government is unfeasible, and that the prospect of early elections within one year is a desirable solution.