Turkey’s Elections, Take Two

A man walks past an election poster of the AK Party with an image of the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on a street in Diyarbakir, Turkey October 30, 2015. Turkey holds its second general election of the year on November 1. (Reuters)

Turkey’s satirical equivalent of the Onion, Penguen, published a political cartoon on its most recent front cover showing a Turkish voter casting his ballot with a caption that reads: “Oo abi hiç değişmemişsin” (Oh brother, you haven’t changed at all). On Sunday, Turkish voters will head to the polls for the fourth countrywide election since March 2014. This two-year cycle of almost constant campaigning has deepened political polarization in Turkey and undercut the popularity of the dominant Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Following the June 7 election, the AKP failed to win enough seats to form a government, prompting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to tap AKP party leader Ahmet Davutoglu to begin coalition negotiations with Turkey’s opposition parties. After a series inconclusive talks with the main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) and the far right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) failed, the government scheduled early elections for November 1.

During this most recent campaign, the AKP has subtly shifted tactics to account for growing voter discontent about Erdogan. The previous June election was widely considered to be a referendum on the AKP’s proposal to change Turkey’s political system from a parliamentary to presidential system. To enact such a change, the AKP needed to win at least 330 seats, which would have then allowed for the party to independently draft a new constitution and pass it out of parliament to a public referendum. The party’s pathway to 330 ran through the Kurdish majority southeast, where the AKP—and its political predecessors—had previously had a strong base of support from pious Kurdish voters.

Prior to the June 2015 election, the AKP had expanded its popularity in Turkey’s Kurdish majority cities after it negotiated a ceasefire with the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ (PKK) Party, Abdullah Ocalan in 2013. The PKK has been battling the Turkish state for political autonomy and regional independence since 1984 and has been listed as a terror group by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union.

Despite the AKP’s outreach efforts in southeastern Turkey during the August 2014 presidential election, the Kurdish-majority Democratic Union Party’s (HDP) candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, won 9.76 percent of the vote—a 3 to 4 percent increase from the Kurdish national movement’s normal vote totals. Erdogan easily won the election, claiming 51.8 percent of the vote. However, in the days before the presidential election, the AKP had predicted that Erdogan would win upwards of 55 percent.

In retrospect, this slight dip in Erdogan’s poll numbers, compared with the HDP’s relative popularity foreshadowed the results of the June 7 national poll. Still, the HDP’s ability to surpass Turkey’s 10 percent threshold to enter parliament remained in doubt, right up until the eve of the June election. If the party failed to pass the threshold, the AKP would have won more than 330 seats.

During the campaign for the June national election, the HDP increase its popularity by hammering the AKP’s Syria policy, highlighting the success of the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD) in its war against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), and taking advantage of the public’s rejection of the presidential system. Demirtas emerged as the face of the campaign, with his personal charisma appealing to religiously minded Kurdish voters and a small number of liberal urban Turks.

To drive down support for the HDP, the AKP chose to go negative, casting Demirtas as a pawn of the PKK and implying that a vote for the HDP was a vote for terror. These attacks on Demirtas factored into the government’s decision in March 2015 to suspend negotiations with the PKK until after the June election. However, this strategy failed to galvanize Turkish nationalists to vote for the AKP. The AKP’s sagging poll numbers before the June 7 poll prompted Erdogan to take an active role in the campaign.

Erdogan’s large rallies backfired after the Turkish opposition accused him of usurping his constitutional powers, which mandate that the president remain neutral and not openly support any political party. Since the June election, Erodgan has been more restrained and less visible on the campaign trail. Prime Minister Davutoglu leads much of the AKP’s current election advertising and has scheduled more intimate events, rather than holding large outdoor rallies.

The AKP has also jettisoned talk of the presidential system, in favor of a simple argument: A vote for the AKP is a vote for stability. This strategy is similar to the party’s pre-June efforts to cast the HDP as a “party of terrorists.” However, this time around, the security situation in Turkey has deteriorated, with the government now fighting a two front war against the PKK and ISIS. This unrest has raised questions about the government’s handling of national security and will certainly play a role in the forthcoming coalition negotiations.

On July 11, the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), a Kurdish umbrella group that includes the PKK, ended the ceasefire with the Turkish government. PKK violence began again on July 22, after the Kurdish group killed two police officers in Urfa. The PKK claims that the AKP supports ISIS and was therefore complicit in the Suruc attack.

The PKK’s youth group, the YDG-H, also took control of a handful of Kurdish majority towns, and has intermittently raised the group’s flag over portions of towns under de facto PKK control. The Turkish military has refrained from intervening in large numbers to clear the YDG-H from city centers, choosing instead to launch a wave of airstrikes against the PKK in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey.

Since July 20, the PKK has killed 158 Turkish security personnel, while Turkish airstrikes have killed hundreds of PKK militants in Iraq and Turkey. The violence has prompted concerns that decreased voter turnout in Kurdish majority areas could negatively impact the HDP’s vote totals. To aid with the HDP’s campaign, the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire on October 10.

That same day, a Turkey-based group linked to ISIS carried out its fourth major terrorist attack since May 2015. This recent wave of ISIS-linked attacks began with the twin bombing of the HDP’s offices in Adana and Mersin. One month later, a bomber attacked an HDP campaign rally on the eve of the June election, killing four people. In July, a suicide bomber killed thirty-three leftist activists gathering in the southern town of Kobani, before two suicide bombers killed 102 people outside the main train station in Ankara on October 10. The HDP blamed the Turkish government for the attacks and the AKP, in turn, suggested that the PKK and ISIS may have worked together, perhaps with the cooperation of Syrian intelligence.

This deep political polarization will certainly impact the forthcoming efforts to reach consensus for a coalition government. The CHP has repeatedly made clear that it would govern with the AKP, but only if the government enacts major changes to Turkey’s current education and foreign policies—which the AKP had ruled out during previous negotiations. However, the two sides do share a common goal: hastening economic reforms to jump-start Turkey’s stalled economy. There is room for compromise, but it will require both parties to focus on a narrow political agenda.

The AKP could also opt to approach the MHP to form a coalition. However, these negotiations will be fraught, owing to the MHP’s demand to continue investigating corruption allegations leveled against former AKP ministers and members of President Erdogan’s family. The MHP has also blamed the AKP for siding with the PKK, openly declaring that Erdogan’s previous embrace of the peace process makes him an accomplice to the recent spate of PKK attacks. Still, the AKP and the MHP could find common ground, particularly if the military is called upon to clear the YDG-H from the city centers it now controls.

Following the election, the negotiations for a coalition government will be difficult and could easily fail, resulting in another early election. The AKP could also find common ground with a member of the opposition and implement a narrowly focused agenda. However, even in this best case scenario, underlying political tensions could derail such a coalition, again prompting new elections. Regardless of the outcome, Turkey’s current electoral and social dynamics suggest a period of weak governance in the near term.

Aaron Stein is a Nonresident Fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, a Doctoral Fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.