The June 7 Elections: A New Mandate for the Erdogan Era?
June 5, 2015
Turkish politics has been dominated by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) since its initial victory in the November 2002 elections. It then won two more parliamentary elections in 2007 and 2011, raising its vote each time, and was also successful in three local elections. Following its assumption through Abdullah Gul of the presidency in 2007, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the man who led the AKP to its unbroken string of victories, became president in August 2014 after the first ever direct election. On June 7 Turkish voters will go to the polls in parliamentary elections and their verdict will either sustain the remarkable record of the AKP or raise serious questions about the future of the Erdogan era.
Although the AKP is now led by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan’s hand-picked successor as party leader, the election campaign has inevitably been dominated by Erdogan. While his name is not on the ballot, it is safe to say that the election will not only determine the continuation of the AKP mandate in what is constitutionally a parliamentary form of government but also whether Erdogan’s supremacy and effective control of government will be maintained and even expanded through a formal change to a presidential system. While Erdogan will continue to be president irrespective of the outcome, his ability to shape all aspects of policy through his decisive influence on the AKP will depend on the result.
With its unbeaten record, buttressed by tight control over every instrument of state, superb party organization, immense financial resources, virtual monopoly on media coverage and Erdogan’s political skills, it would normally be imprudent to predict an AKP stumble in the upcoming elections. However, while the AKP has been leading in every poll, it nevertheless seems likely that its share of the vote on June 7 will fall below that of the 2011 elections in which it received the support of almost half of the electorate. If that were to happen, it would be a reflection not so much of the success of the opposition parties but of AKP’s inability to match its previous performance.
On May 21, Erdogan himself noted in a TV interview that there was “apathy” on the part of the voters and, implicitly recognizing the tightness of the race, predicted that the elections would “hold surprises until the very last minute.” Accordingly, despite his pledge “to be independent” when he assumed the presidency and ignoring the fact that Davutoglu is heading the official AKP campaign, Erdogan has thrown himself into the political fray with characteristic vigor. He has been crisscrossing the country and making speeches in hastily arranged ceremonies where he has been touting the achievements during the AKP's long tenure in office while avoiding open calls for votes for the party in pro forma deference to constitutional proprieties.
Even before the outset of the campaign, Erdogan had made it clear that his primary goal in the election was an AKP victory big enough to open the way to a constitutional change to a presidential system. On March 29 he said “We made our first step for the new term of our history as a Republic through the presidential election last year. Turkey’s president was elected directly by the people. The parliamentary system is now in the waiting room. The first sign of the new Turkey was given on August 10 . Now we have elections on June 7. We should turn these elections into an opportunity for the new constitution and presidential system on the path to the new Turkey.”
Erdogan had thus signaled his strong desire to elevate the ultimate executive authority he has been wielding on a de facto basis to a de jure format. He initially identified a very ambitious goal of “400 seats” out of 550 in the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA). However, as opinion polls confirmed that the percentage of the vote the AKP was likely to get would be insufficient to obtain either the 367 seats which would permit a direct constitutional change by the TGNA itself or even the 330 seats that would allow the issue to be taken to a referendum, Erdogan gradually shifted his focus to trying to ensure that the AKP stay in power by getting a majority of 276 seats or above. Mindful of the implications of an AKP loss for his ability to continue to impose his will throughout the entire administrative system on all aspects of government policy, as well as for his influence over the judiciary, military, business community and media, he has been attacking the opposition parties, especially the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), while warning of the dangers of returning to the uncertainties of coalition government in the decade prior to the AKP victory in 2002.
As Erdogan himself surely recognizes, it is far from clear whether his frenetic unofficial campaign has been working as well as he must have hoped. On June 2, Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, who has been at the helm of the Turkish economy during most of the years of the AKP government and helped to ensure the electoral successes of the party, warned that “this election is the hardest of all to predict.” Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan, who is very close to Erdogan, also cautioned on the same day that there was “complacency” in the AKP ranks and that this could produce “a surprise.” At the same time, a number of pro-AKP newspaper columnists, who would normally have been expected to predict an easy victory as in previous elections, have been ringing alarm bells, in particular about unarticulated disaffection on the part of traditional AKP voters. Opinion polls have suggested that there is apparently an unusually high minority within the AKP voter bloc still uncommitted to supporting the party at the ballot box even at this late stage.
In order to better comprehend the problem the AKP is facing in these elections, it would be useful to imagine a different political scenario than the one Erdogan chose to follow when he decided to run for the presidency last year. If he had instead opted to change the three-term rule for himself –even if not for the other AKP politicians affected– Erdogan would now have been directly supervising his party’s efforts as it sought to win an unprecedented fourth term in office. In all of the successful election campaigns led by Erdogan, the AKP operated like a well-oiled machine with a single leader, a very clear message and a party organization that worked effectively right down to the grass-roots.
However, since Erdogan became a politically active president, the AKP has found it difficult to deal with the complications of bifurcation at the top. To begin with, the vast majority of AKP supporters still see Erdogan as their real leader even if it is Davutoglu who is technically heading the campaign to keep the AKP government in power and this perception, combined with Erdogan’s unmatchable charisma, oratorical skills and very high profile, has inevitably reduced the latter’s stature and undercut his effectiveness while blurring the overall message to voters. Moreover, while Erdogan has been talking constantly about the need to switch to a presidential system, Davutoglu has been perceptibly reluctant to address this issue on the campaign trail. As a result, the AKP supporters, who have indicated a degree of ambivalence in opinion polls about switching to a presidential system even as they reaffirmed their loyalty to Erdogan, are understandably confused about what exactly they are being asked to vote for.
Erdogan’s ongoing plan to construct ‘a new AKP to govern the new Turkey’ has also undermined the cohesion and effectiveness of the party. In addition to denying Gul the opportunity to succeed him as AKP leader and prime minister, he pushed out Babacan and 69 other senior AKP members through the imposition of the three-term limit and excluded from renomination 105 others out of the 312 current AKP parliamentarians. With Erdogan’s emphasis firmly on loyalty rather than experience, the AKP thus deprived itself of the undeniable advantages of having politicians with considerable local support throughout the country on the electoral list.
At the same time, while he has long been the most important electoral asset of the AKP, it is not clear whether Erdogan’s prominent role and aggressive tone in the campaign have been as effective as in the past. His insistence on bracketing the entire spectrum of the political opposition together with the internal and external forces he has been attacking as enemies of the new Turkey –especially the Gulen Movement– combined with his effort to consolidate the core AKP vote through the overtly religious and stridently nationalist rhetoric he has always relied on, has made it easier for the opposition parties to simplify their message to one of just 'saying no to Erdogan' and opposing his acquisition of even greater power while essentially overlooking Davutoglu and his campaign.
On the eve of Election Day, it is clear that the most important variable remains the HDP vote total as it was at the beginning of the campaign. This was underlined by Akdogan’s June 2 observation that “just as one to two points is critical for the HDP to exceed the 10 percent threshold, it is just as critical for the AKP’s continuation in government.” His comments, taken together with his earlier remark that it would be “super” if the HDP failed to break 10 percent, highlighted the extent to which the AKP’s immediate political fortunes are tied to the performance of the predominantly Kurdish HDP rather than that of the likely second and third place finishers, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP).
While the AKP’s estimated seat total does not appear to change significantly with fluctuations in the CHP vote in the 24 to 28 percent range or the MHP vote in the 13 to 17 percent range, the HDP’s ability to exceed the 10 percent national barrier for parliamentary representation will determine the fate of around 60 seats. If the HDP does not break through the threshold, almost all of these seats would go to the AKP and thus insure a comfortable majority for it in the TGNA. However, in the event that the HDP succeeds and the AKP vote ends up being closer to 40 percent than the 49 percent it obtained in 2011, it is even possible that the AKP might fail to get enough seats to form a government on its own.
Recognizing the danger, Erdogan, Davutoglu and the entire AKP campaign team have been directing most of their rhetorical firepower at the HDP. Nevertheless, it seems more likely than not that the HDP’s high-risk gamble of trying to vault over the 10 percent hurdle to double their representation in the TGNA instead of running individual candidates will succeed. The AKP previously obtained around half of the Kurdish votes in the southeast as well as in the major cities in the western and southern provinces through its religious appeal as well as its promotion of a peace plan to solve the Kurdish problem. It has undoubtedly lost a portion of that support recently as it backed off from its effort while attacking the HDP for its links to the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in order to retain the support of the nationalist voters it attracted from the MHP. Taking advantage of this reversal on the part of the AKP and growing ethnic self-awareness on the part of Kurds, along with its appeal to Alevis and other disaffected segments of society, the likelihood of tactical voting for it by some CHP voters and highly effective campaigning by its leader Selahattin Demirtas, who obtained 9.8 percent of the vote in the 2014 presidential elections, the HDP may be on the verge of a historic breakthrough with incalculable national as well as regional implications.
Paradoxically, the AKP volte face on the Kurdish issue may not be sufficient to satisfy the part of the MHP voting bloc which had switched its allegiance to the AKP in previous elections but has not forgiven Erdogan for negotiating with the PKK through its imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan in the first place. Consequently, notwithstanding its typically lackluster campaign, the MHP is likely to increase its share by a return of these voters, a trend that was already apparent in the 2014 local elections. It is also likely that there will be a limited seepage of votes from the AKP to the alliance formed by the rump Islamist Felicity Party (SP) and the nationalist Great Union Party (BBP).
Although there is little prospect of the CHP benefiting from a similar switch of votes away from the AKP, it seems set to modestly improve its performance because of its focus on economic issues. The slowdown in the economy, high unemployment and a growing unease on the part of the Turkish public that the situation will get even worse has put the AKP –which previously took electoral advantage of the perception of an improving economy– on the defensive and provided the CHP with an opportunity to focus on bread and butter issues important to voters instead of social and cultural issues, such as religious headscarves, where the AKP always had the upper hand. The CHP has been endeavoring to draw support with its proposed measures to improve economic conditions and to help those in greatest need. Although all of the opposition parties have focused on the corruption allegations and the conspicuous extravagance –underlined by the massive new presidential palace– associated with the AKP during recent years, it has been the CHP which most focused on it. The CHP has also been vociferous in its denunciation of growing authoritarianism and threats to individual rights and freedoms. While it seems highly unlikely that the CHP vote total will get close to that of the AKP or reach the target of 35 percent of the vote its leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu identified at the outset of the campaign, it nonetheless has legitimate hopes of emerging from the election in a stronger position than in 2011.
The AKP has been defying the laws of political gravity since 2002 by not only staying in power but also by maintaining its cohesion and steadily increasing its electoral advantage vis a vis its political opponents. Consequently, it is still possible that, despite the weaknesses revealed by the campaign, it will find a way to survive this electoral challenge. However, ruling parties in all functioning democracies eventually begin to lose their hold on power and it remains to be seen whether this is the year in which the AKP finally begins to succumb to that time-honored trend. Needless to say, it is difficult for an ambitious leader like Erdogan, who is planning to be in power at least until the centenary of the Turkish Republic in 2023, to contemplate such a reversal, especially when the political costs are so high.