Turkey´s Critical Election

By Pinar Tank, PRIO

With only days to go before legislative elections in Turkey on Sunday, 7 June, the political uncertainty of its possible outcomes are filling newspaper columns. This is a change from the past two elections where a victory for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was almost a foregone conclusion. As Turkey goes to the polls, two issues dominate. The first is the question of changes to Turkey´s constitutional order, replacing the present parliamentary system with a presidential one. Official polls closed ten days prior to the election (as is custom) and predictions indicated that while the ruling Justice and Development Party, in its third consecutive term since 2002, is likely to win again, it will fall short of the desired seats required to change the constitution. Unaccustomed to political compromise, this will come as a blow to the AKP and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It is an outcome that he is not likely to take gracefully. The second cliffhanger is whether the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), an offshoot of the Kurdish movement, will cross the 10% national threshold allowing it to enter Parliament. How these two issues will play out and the dynamics between them is the cause of much speculation.

Having won the first directly elected Presidential contest in August 2014 with a comfortable majority, President Erdoğan, could rest on his laurels. After 11 years as Prime Minister for the governing AKP, he is now in the formally ceremonial and non-partisan role of President. Nevertheless, he has been campaigning relentlessly on behalf of the AKP. Although official campaign posters picture the AKP´s leader (and former foreign minister) Ahmet Davutoğlu, the latter does not exude Erdoğan´s populist charisma, so it is Erdoğan who, Koran in hand, is leading the party´s efforts while insisting he is simply “on the side of the people.”

In fact, he has a vested interest in the outcome: The election will determine the limits of his power as President. Should the AKP win 330 seats (3/5 majority) in the parliament, the party will have gained the minimum number of seats required to take the proposed constitutional changes to a referendum. In the unlikely event that they receive 367 of the 550 seats in Parliament, the party will have enough seats to change the constitution single-handedly and move from today´s prime ministerial system to a French style executive presidency. Even today it is difficult to perceive how Erdoğan´s power has been reduced in the (formally apolitical) role as President. And as long as the prime ministerial and the presidential office are both held by the AKP, there is little to suggest that his role will be diminished. However, should the party fall out of favour, Erdoğan´s personal power in a Presidential system will remain intact for the coming four – and if re-elected for a second term, nine – years. In the latter scenario, power will have been concentrated in his hands for a record 21 years!

As this awareness strikes home, even AKP supporters are having second thoughts on the wisdom of encouraging Erdoğan´s authoritarian tendencies. In a nationwide survey conducted by Kadir Has University in December 2014, only 12.6% preferred a presidential system (and 4.7% a semi-presidential) while 79.3% of the respondents gave their support to a parliamentary democracy. By contrast, two years earlier, 21.2% favored a presidential system and 65.8 % a parliamentary democracy. A well-connected pro-AKP political commentator Abdulkadir Selvi made waves across the political spectrum when he published an opinion editorial on the 25th of May entitled “I want to warn you before it is too late,” signaling that many previous AKP voters were indecisive. He cautioned: “We used to be people known for modesty. Now we are being remembered with our arrogance and sultanate. They are not good signs.”

Putting to one side Erdoğan´s ambitions, there are, in fact, many important arguments for rewriting the constitution: the current constitution was written after the 12 September 1980 military coup so a new constitution has been a long time coming. Indeed, the process started already in 2007 when the AKP commissioned a draft constitutional proposal from a group of prominent jurists and academics but its efforts were waylaid by domestic political turmoil. Turkey´s Kurds are also adamant on the need for a new constitution that is more inclusive of all ethnicities. Today´s constitution refers explicitly to citizens of the “Turkish” nation.

In an interview given to the private TV channel Haberturk on Sunday 31 May, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu emphasized the writing of a civilian constitution as the number one national priority regardless of the outcome of the elections. He added that a new constitution would be based on the principles of separation of powers and a sense of liberalism based on human dignity. In the same speech, Davutolgu also laid out his support for a new presidential system of governance led by Erdoğan who, while he may be many things, “liberal” is not one of them. Nor is the government´s handling of the Gezi riots in 2013 illustrative of a strong appreciation of human dignity. Erdoğan, in fairness, has used more realpolitik arguments including the need for a presidential system to effectively concentrate power and raise Turkey´s status on the world stage.

Number Crunching

The latest polls suggest that the AKP will struggle to win the minimum 330 seats, much less the 367 needed to change the constitution alone. Historically, in years where the AKP´s popularity has been more stable, the party has secured the following numbers 2002 (363 seats), 2007 (341 seats) and 2011 (326 seats). However, even in earlier elections, they have never managed to win the requisite 367. Poll at the end of May indicate that the AKP is likely to win 40-42% of the vote, with 28% going to the Republican People´s Party (CHP), 14% to the MHP and the pro-Kurdish Peoples´ Democratic Party (HDP) barely crossing the electoral threshold with 12% of the vote and 5 % undecided. This will mean a coalition government for the AKP, the first since its rise to power in 2002 with the most likely partner being the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, even though its leader, Devlet Bahceli, in a show of electoral posturing, states that they intend to secure power as a single party.

The Kurdish Factor

Some of the AKP votes have slipped away into the hands of the People´s Democratic Party (HDP) whose dynamic leader, Selahattin Demirtaş ushered much needed vigour to the Presidential election last August. In the past few years, the HDP has transformed itself slowly into a mainstream liberal option on the Turkish political scene as evidenced by its show of force at the Presidential elections. However, there are many Turks who remain suspicious of the HDP based on its historic ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Worker´s Party (PKK). In the present campaign, the HDP has focused on promoting democracy, free speech and the rights of women and minorities – music to the ears of the secular liberals who are weary both of Erdoğan´s authoritarianism and a politically bankrupt opposition. A party with new ideas may provide some much needed opposition for Turkey´s flailing democracy. Although crossing the 10% threshold will only give the party 50 of the 550 seats, it will still be enough to prevent the AKP from attaining the three-fifths majority needed to change the constitution. In the words of Demirtaş : “By becoming the smallest party in parliament, we can curb the power of the biggest party.”

Kurds who voted for the AKP in past elections have been disappointed by the lack of progress on a peace treaty between the PKK and the government. As an example, Al-Monitor reported that on 25 May, in the Kurdish town of Varto in Turkey´s eastern province of Mus an entire AKP-dominated city council resigned. Mehmet Alma, a former AKP member from Diyarbakir, stated: “None of the AKP’s promises were delivered. We waited for thirteen years and did everything in the name of peace. So we now work with the HDP that is holding on to the peace process.” Should the HDP enter into Parliament, it will impact the stagnant Turkish-Kurdish peace process by shifting the balance of power between the government and the Kurds. For the Kurds an equally important issue is the consequences of the AKP´s foreign policy. The Kurds are aware that they are paying the price for the government´s proxy war in Syria; it is the Kurds that have crossed the Turkish border to assist in the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. It is young Kurdish men and women who are coming home in coffins. However, if, contrary to expectations, the party falls short of 10%, it is likely that accusations of election fraud will sour relations between the government and the Kurds with negative reverberations for the peace process.


Finally, the HDP´s entry into Parliament would be a positive sign for greater pluralism and despite historic fears to the contrary, strengthen Turkey´s unity. With the Kurdish position strengthened regionally, and Kurdish autonomy in both Iraq and Syria, it is more important now than ever to open up a space for Kurds in mainstream Turkish politics. Again, in the words of Demirtaş : “What pushed the youth into joining the militants were the conditions, and those conditions haven’t yet changed that much. We want to turn the youth to politics.”

Turkish pollsters have not been daunted by the failures of Israeli and British polls to predict outcomes. If their predictions are correct, the uncertainty of this election is not in the composition of the Parliament but on the political negotiations to follow. For the first time since 2002, Turkey is faced with the prospect of greater instability but also an opportunity to redress the weaknesses of its democracy.