What started as a protest to preserve a park behind Taksim Square morphed into large-scale leaderless action against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s rule. But against heavy handed police tactics, the movement’s ability to have a lasting effect on policy is likely to be dependent on its ability to move their struggle to the polls, starting with March 2014 local elections. It will face a tough challenge as political alternatives are much weaker on the electoral playing field than in Taksim Square. The Gezi Park experiment was a testament to the diversity of Turkey’s associational life: a smorgasbord of environmental, anti-capitalist, Alevi, Kurdish, feminist and youth slogans and symbols were displayed. The joyous and confident mood in the park, when it was not under police attack, contrasted with the relative apathy that has surrounded many recent political campaigns.

A poll of over four thousand in Gezi Park on 6-7 June revealed that 58 percent were present because their “rights to freedom were being violated.” Fully 79 percent had no affiliation with any political party or civil society organization. Only 12 percent said that they wanted the government to resign or for there to be a revolution. Asked who they would support if there were elections today, 52 percent claimed to be undecided or planned not to vote at all.

These responses demonstrate willingness to work within democratic means, but lack of any political movement or party to capitalize on the current dissatisfaction. Yet local elections are expected in March 2014, with presidential elections in August and parliamentary ones in 2015. All three may be held in the summer of 2014 to increase the governing party’s advantage.

In the June 2011 nationwide elections, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) took just under 50 percent of the vote, Republican’s People Party (CHP) 26 percent, and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) 13 percent. Since then, the CHP and MHP have been unsuccessful in capturing the public’s imagination. Many see them as old-fashioned, male-dominated, without a vision to sustain the country’s economic growth, and unable to project a confident role in an increasingly volatile region. The two parties kept a low profile during the protests. Some 41 percent of the Gezi Park participants in the Konda survey said they voted for the CHP in 2011; only 31 percent indicated they would do so now.

Change and rejuvenation are rare within Turkey main parties, where internal rules and structures favor a small coterie of elders. Candidate lists and other important decisions rarely engage party branches. Youth wings exist but many are frustrated by their lack of access to party leadership. This may partly explain why so many young people were out in Taksim, but so few seem to be party affiliated. 

Some hope that to enliven the political scene, there will be a split in the AKP. Even before the protests, President Abdullah Gül and Erdogan appeared to be playing a good-bad cop game, with the president offering conciliatory words after the prime minister’s frequent tough statements. If Gül left the AKP, he could run for a second presidential term, even against Erdogan. Many leading AKP politicians who are banned by an internal party rule to run for a fourth mandate might join him and may gain the support of the powerful Gullen faith based network. Now would be the best time to try to capitalize on widespread dissatisfaction with the prime ministers’ tough language and for an AKP spinoff to portray itself as a “kinder and gentler” alternative.

Regardless if there is an AKP split, or a new social democratic party emerges, there is little time to organize effectively for the next parliamentary elections—especially if they are brought forward to 2014. Political parties that are not yet in parliament must meet extensive requirements to participate, including proving that they have registered offices and a full list of candidates in at least half of the provinces. Parties cannot make coalitions to overcome these requirements.

Turkey also has a ten percent national electoral threshold to get into parliament. This highest threshold in Europe has been deemed “excessive” by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Many smaller parties have chosen to support independent candidates instead of party lists, as the Kurdish-identified Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) did in 2011. While this is an option for today’s activists, it is much harder to win seats through this route and requires extensive organization. Only parties that pass the 10 percent threshold in parliamentary elections qualify for state funds. Even elected independent candidates get nothing.

The system of seat allocation also means that candidates need to win many more votes in western Turkey’s urban areas than in more rural regions. In an ironic twist, the voting power of many of those out on Taksim is weaker than that of citizens in other parts of the country.

Elections will also be made more difficult because trust in the media has plummeted due the main television networks’ lack of coverage of the Taksim events. In another poll conducted in June, 53 percent said that the press is not free. Over the past years, journalists talked increasingly openly about self-censorship, losing their jobs over critical pieces as some fifty of their colleagues languish in jail on various charges. Few believe the media can help maintain an equal playing field as long as their owners protect first their business and economic interests, and only secondarily focus on impartiality and accuracy in reporting.

The best chance for a new political initiative, as a party or as a platform of independents, will be at the local elections. In 2009 the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (later closed by the government) succeeded in winning municipal contests in ten provinces, compared to CHP’s seven. The AKP currently controls Istanbul, but in a poll conducted before the Taksim events only 46 percent of Turks who live in Istanbul said they have a positive view of Erdogan, while 54 percent claimed to see him negatively. The Gezi Park protests could still galvanize support for an alternative.

Local government powers are limited in Turkey’s highly centralized system. Mayors have much less influence than governors, who are prime ministerial appointments. The prime minister gets directly involved in urban infrastructure and renewal projects which would fall under the purview of the mayor elsewhere. Consultation with local community groups is minimal. As the European Union concluded in its 2012 progress report on Turkey new legislation recentralized government powers, mainly in the fields of land use planning and urban renewal, and few city councils function effectively.

Over the past weeks much of the public frustration has focused on Erdogan, but the problems in Turkey go beyond one man. Institutions need to be reformed to deal with current grievances and help ensure people feel that they can express themselves fully at the polls.

A new constitution has been promised since at least 2007 but discussions have stalled over the AKP’s proposal to set up a presidential system of governance. If Erdogan really is the prime minister of the 100 percent of the country’s citizens he claims to be, he and his party will be expected to reengage with the parliamentary opposition to at least enact the minimum reforms necessary to launch a dynamic election campaign.

The challenge now is to find the consensus needed to lower the threshold to enter parliament, relax requirements to participate in national polls, improve freedom of the media, and especially, provide more powers to mayors and local councils. Luckily these are also steps called for by Kurdish political elites cooperating with the government’s ongoing peace effort to resolve the decades’ long Kurdish conflict. The opportunity should not be lost to strengthen democracy now and re-ignite a wide range of groups’ engagement in formal politics.

Sabine Freizer is a nonresident senior fellow with the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and the Program on Transatlantic Relations.

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