Turkish Elections Primer

Turkish Elections Primer

Ross Wilson, director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and a former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, provides this backgrounder on this weekend’s elections in a pivotal state.

What is Turkey Voting On? 

Elections for the unicameral Turkish Grand National Assembly take place on Sunday, June 12. All 550 seats in parliament are at stake. They will be allocated proportionally in multiple-member constituencies among parties receiving the most votes in those districts. However, parties must get ten percent nationally to qualify for representation anywhere.  

Some fifteen parties are fielding candidates, but opinion polls suggest that only three are likely to meet the ten percent threshold requirement. These are the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Republican People’s Party (CHP), and the National Action Party (MHP). Independents can win election if they are top vote getters in their districts. About forty individuals who have been associated with the Kurdish-dominated Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which does not expect it can cross the ten percent threshold, are standing for office on this basis. 

The July 2007 election saw the AKP win 341 seats based on 46.7 percent of the vote. The CHP, which was then allied with the Democratic Socialist Party, took 112 seats with 20.9 percent. The MHP won 71 seats based on 14.3 percent of the vote. Twenty-six independents won election. Some twenty of these formed a Kurdish block under the banner of the BDP’s predecessor, the now-banned Democratic Society Party. 

Who Will Win? 

Recent opinion polls suggest the governing AKP will take about 45-50 percent of the vote or perhaps somewhat more. The same polls have put the CHP at around 25-30 percent and MHP at 10-12 percent. Recent elections have shown significant deviations from what many opinion polls have predicted, so these percentages should be viewed with some skepticism. If the MHP and the other parties fail to get ten percent, AKP and CHP will gain even more seats than their overall share of the vote might suggest. Most observers expect that the AKP will win many more than the simple majority (276) that is required to form a government. It therefore seems poised to become the first party in Turkish history to win parliamentary majorities in three consecutive general elections. Assuming it does so, the current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will remain head of government. 

Why is the AKP Poised To Do So Well? 

The AKP is the most successful party in modern Turkey. It has presided over unprecedented economic growth and development, opened accession talks with the European Union in 2005, and navigated through a range of foreign and domestic crises. These included apparent plotting by some in the military to overthrow it and a prosecutor’s effort in 2008 to shut it down and ban the party’s leaders from politics.  

Far more than any other party in Turkey, the AKP has succeeded in tapping into underlying trends in society, including urbanization and a newly emergent middle class. Coalition politics are another key to the party’s success. It has attracted nationalists from the MHP, pious voters from avowedly Islamist parties (including its own, now-banned predecessors), liberals from traditional secular parties, and significant numbers of ethnic Kurds. Erdogan is the country’s most charismatic leader, and his party’s campaigns are well-run, modern, and effective.  

The AKP’s vulnerabilities include unemployment that has remained above ten percent for the life of the Erdogan government, rising inflation, charges of cronyism that go with ten years in office, continued discontent among many ethnic Kurds, and concerns about the prospects of an unchecked AKP, including with respect to secularism. The June 12 results will indicate how many voters are concerned about these and other problems and how many still see the AKP and Erdogan as representative of the changes they would like to see in the future. 

Weaknesses in the main opposition parties help the AKP.  

The CHP performed dismally for years. In 2007, the party won just under 21 percent of the vote and that was made possible in part by a temporary alliance with the Democratic Socialist Party. The CHP’s political message, in many Turks’ eyes, looked backward and seemed too oriented toward the state and the military. Its longtime leader, Deniz Baykal, was deeply unpopular, even within the party, and many CHP heavyweights resigned from the party rather than chafe under his domination of it. Baykal was forced to resign in 2010 after a video of uncertain origins was publicized showing him having sex with a female colleague. New party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has tried to reinvigorate the party. He dropped from candidate lists two-thirds of those elected to CHP seats in 2007, tried to make the party internally more democratic, and promoted more positive and more popular political themes. Polls suggest that the CHP may draw as much as thirty percent, nearly half again as much as it won in 2007, but virtually no one outside the party expects it to win sufficient parliamentary seats to deny the AKP a majority.  

MHP leader Devlet Bahceli was humiliated when large numbers of MHP backers defied the party leadership to vote for AKP-proposed constitutional changes in September 2010. A range of senior party figures, including candidates for the 2011 election, have in recent weeks been forced to step down in another scandal of murky origins involving video tapes and sex. 

What Are the Issues? 

The June 12 vote will boil down to whether voters are happy with AKP rule or not. Economic issues sit front and center for most voters, and the country’s new-found economic success obviously plays very well for the governing party. 

Two issues operate below this surface. There is widespread discussion of the need to write a new constitution to replace, rather than just continue to amend, the 1982 text that was drafted at the military’s behest after its overthrow of civilian government in 1980. Many believe that Erdogan wants to revise the system of governance to strengthen what is now a limited presidency, perhaps along French lines, and then to become president himself. Many also believe that procedurally he intends to ram a new constitution through the party and then through parliament, so the extent of AKP victory is important. With 367 seats, the party could approve a new text without reference to other parties.  

Another key issue is whether and how ethnic Kurdish aspirations ought to be accommodated. The issue motivates backers of those associated with the BDP who will run as independents, and it motivates Turkish nationalists who reject the idea of special rights for Kurds and fear ethnic-based divisions that are, for them, tantamount to separatism and even a breakup of the country. To some extent, Erdogan and the AKP have tried to appeal to both to Kurds and to nationalists. How successful they have been will become clear after the ballots are counted. 

Foreign policy plays relatively little role in the election campaign. Turks generally are proud of the country’s increased activism regionally, want to see Turkey both in Europe and involved in the Middle East, and like the government’s mix of pragmatism and truculence when it comes to Israel/Palestinian issues, the European Union, and the United States. 

What Will the Election Mean? 

If the AKP gets more than 50 percent of the vote, it and especially Erdogan will become even more dominant of Turkey and the country’s politics. The effect will be accentuated if threshold politics keep the MHP out of parliament, as the AKP would then likely have a supermajority sufficient to change the constitution and rule virtually as it wishes. If the CHP can get more than 30 percent, the reformist wing backing Kilicdaroglu will be strengthened. If the BDP-backed independents can seat significantly more than the 20 they numbered after the 2007 election and if the AKP lacks a supermajority, the BDP’s bargaining power on constitutional reform may become significant. However, nothing suggests ethnic tensions will abate soon. If the AKP falls below its 2007 vote total of 46 percent, many Turks will speculate that its time has started to end and that Erdogan’s popularity has peaked. 

The most likely scenario – an AKP in the high forties and winning circa 340-360 seats in parliament – will be continuity in terms of domestic, economic and foreign policy. Constitutional reform will go forward, be dominated by the AKP, and be largely determined by what Erdogan wants. While an AKP-led government will likely remain problematic for the United States on some issues, such as Israel/Palestine and perhaps Iran, pragmatic cooperation with Washington will remain a feature of the government’s policies in most areas.

Ross Wilson is Director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and former Ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan. Photo credit: Reuters Pictures.

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