The November 1 Elections: Erdogan’s Roll of the Dice
October 30, 2015
Turkish voters are heading to the polls for parliamentary elections on November 1 for the second time in five months. The reason behind the ‘repeat elections’ – as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been calling them – is his strong desire to reverse the result of the June 7 elections which had denied his Justice and Development Party (AKP) a majority to govern alone for the first time in over 12 years. However, with almost all opinion polls suggesting that the outcome is unlikely to be substantially different, barring major ballot box irregularities or a very late unperceived shift in voters’ inclinations, it seems unlikely that Erdogan’s preference to roll the electoral dice instead of allowing the AKP to enter into a power-sharing coalition will be rewarded. Consequently, the political uncertainty, growing social divisions and insecurity which has characterized the period between the two elections seems set to continue.
The absence of mass rallies, the subdued nature of the campaign and the outward passivity of the general public, coupled with widespread concern over security heightened by the suicide attack in Ankara on October 10 which killed over 100 people and the steady stream of funerals resulting from the resumption of the conflict in the Kurdish southeast, testify to the unusual circumstances in which the elections are being held. The violence which has underlined the very real terror threats from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as well as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) prompted an abortive effort to shift the ballot boxes in the Kurdish southeast to ‘safer locations’ because of the fighting and even discussion of postponing elections for a year under Article 78 of the Constitution.
Although the prosecutor investigating the Ankara bombing stated on October 28 that ISIS was responsible, six days earlier Erdogan had referred to a “collective terror plot” by “ISIS, the PKK, the [Syrian] Muhaberat and the [Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party] PYD.” With almost daily references to ‘a grand conspiracy’ against him and the AKP involving numerous domestic and foreign enemies, Erdogan has ceaselessly argued that the current instability is the product of the inconclusive results of the June elections and that the only remedy is a clear-cut AKP victory on November 1. However, while Erdogan is hoping for ‘a rally around the flag’ boost in the polls, the sudden escalation of violence after the June elections may have further undermined the stability argument which had served him and the AKP so well for over a decade throughout their seemingly invincible domination of Turkish politics. Significantly, Erdogan’s political opponents, in particular the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) –whose electoral success was directly responsible for the AKP’s failure to retain its majority in June– have been blaming him for the political impasse as well as the current chaos with criticism extending from intelligence and security lapses to complicity.
A REFERENDUM ON THE DE FACTO PRESIDENCY
As the country heads into new elections, it seems increasingly clear that the stunning June electoral reversal, in which the AKP lost almost nine percentage points compared to its June 2011 vote and fell short of the 276 seats required for a majority in the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA), despite its utilization of all the advantages of incumbency, near total domination of media coverage and overwhelming financial resources, and the subsequent political convulsions, were the delayed aftershocks of Erdogan’s fateful decision to vacate his post as the strongest prime minister in Turkish history to move to the presidency in August 2014. Prior to his switch, which was justified with reference to the AKP’s self-imposed but recently abandoned term limit, Erdogan had won three successive elections in 2002, 2007 and 2011 while increasing the party’s vote each time. If Erdogan had instead chosen to lead the AKP in the last elections, it is more likely than not that he would have won an unprecedented fourth term even if the party’s share of the vote fell short of the nearly 50 percent it garnered in 2011.
However, having made his move, Erdogan continued to try to govern through a subservient hand-picked successor as party leader and prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, a compliant AKP-dominated TGNA and a bureaucracy which looked to him for direction as if Turkey had already shifted to the presidential system he has been advocating. Paradoxically, the AKP’s loss of its majority in June and the subsequent political uncertainty with the Davutoglu-led caretaker and interim governments permitted Erdogan to further expand his de facto authority, albeit at the cost of putting additional strains on what is still a parliamentary system of government.
The transcript of the meeting of leading AKP politicians at party headquarters on August 31 and September 1 published by Nokta magazine this month – its veracity has been strongly disputed by the AKP– suggests that there is widespread recognition within the higher echelons of the party of the problems caused by Erdogan’s very high profile and the unavoidable bifurcation at the top which confused even AKP voters while undermining Davutoglu’s role as party standard bearer. However, as Davutoglu’s major retreat on important party appointments in the face of Erdogan’s sustained pressure at the AKP congress on September 12 and subsequent lack of resistance to the inclusion of the goal of a presidential system in the AKP’s election manifesto –in spite of the fact that Davutoglu had commented a few days after the June elections that the voters had rejected it– confirm, Erdogan retains ultimate decisive authority in the AKP. Consequently, it is safe to say that the upcoming elections will once again be a referendum on Erdogan and his increasingly centralized form of government in a de facto presidency even though he is not on the ballot.
While the Nokta transcript reveals serious internal concerns over the erosion of support among Kurdish, female and first-time voters and its dangerous implications for the electoral fortunes of the party, not surprisingly these have not been reflected in the public statements of Davutoglu and other AKP politicians running in the elections. In deference to Erdogan and his daily exhortations at various public events, they are also invariably projecting confidence that the AKP will overcome the conspiracy against it and somehow recover its majority. However, as the ultimately unsuccessful June effort demonstrated, the mobilization of core supporters, which is at the heart of such a campaign, risks alienating voters beyond the party base. There is little doubt that the AKP’s vilification of the HDP through association with the PKK had the effect of reinforcing the ethnic polarization which helped the HDP to vault beyond the electoral threshold in June and to stay there all the way to the November elections.
Having previously tried to keep the HDP total down while simultaneously appealing to nationalist voters, it is clear that Erdogan’s hopes are now focused only on National Action Party (MHP) supporters. While there is disaffection within the MHP with Devlet Bahceli’s style of leadership and, in particular, his stance after the June elections, it is noteworthy that the switch by Tugrul Turkes to the AKP has not been followed by other members of the party. Nevertheless, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus claimed on October 26 that “MHP voters will propel the AKP back into power.” While it seems likely that there will be defections from the MHP to the AKP, their number will be a function of the extent to which the MHP voters have forgotten or forgiven the AKP for negotiating with the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan prior to the resumption of the conflict with the PKK in July. It is conceivable that these votes, combined with those of AKP voters who refrained from going to the polls last time and the rump Islamist Felicity Party (SP) –with whom the AKP unsuccessfully tried to negotiate an electoral alliance in the summer– could push the AKP vote above its June total. However, in the absence of a new AKP narrative promising the electorate more than just the end of the current chaos, it seems more likely that the AKP vote will once again remain near 40 percent thus denying it a restoration of its majority in the TGNA.
While the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has little expectation of matching or even getting close to the AKP vote, it nonetheless has realistic hopes of improving its tally and perhaps even of moving closer to the symbolically important 30 percent. In addition to the expected return to the party of voters who made a tactical switch in June to ensure that the HDP would exceed the 10 percent barrier, the CHP may also be able to count this time on the votes of likely supporters who stayed at home because they did not think that the CHP had any hope of being in office. According to an October 21 estimate by the pollster Murat Gezici, around half of the nearly 16 percent who did not go to the polls in June were CHP voters. While the inconclusive coalition talks with the AKP were an exercise in futility because of Erdogan’s opposition to any agreement, they served to enhance the stature of the CHP as a potential partner in government in the eyes of its previously apathetic supporters as well as others.
It could plausibly be argued that the main threat the AKP is facing on November 1 is not the political opposition but its own performance in office. A Metropoll study revealed on October 7 that only half of those surveyed who voted for the AKP in June thought that Turkey was doing well and 33 percent believed that the country had actually taken a turn for the worse. While this does not indicate that there will be defections from the AKP, it identifies pessimism even in the ranks of its own voters as well as beyond over the country’s future prospects and that surely does not bode well for a party which has now been in power for over a decade.
The same poll also highlighted growing unease regarding the economy, with 64 percent feeling that it was getting worse. The precipitous depreciation of the Turkish currency, with all of its negative implications, definitely undercut the AKP’s ability to boast about its achievements and impacted its June vote. Moreover, while the failure of the coalition talks allowed Erdogan and the AKP to continue to govern on their own, it also burdened the AKP with the sole responsibility for the continued economic problems during the political uncertainty. The AKP is undoubtedly hoping that the last minute ‘window dressing’ inclusion in its list of candidates of Ali Babacan, who could not run in June because of the three-term limit, along with Mehmet Simsek, despite the publicized fact that they do not enjoy the confidence of Erdogan, will help assuage fears over the economy on the part of voters as well as foreign investors. However, continued instability carries serious dangers for an economy highly dependent on the external financial environment and the constant influx of foreign funds to cover the current accounts deficit while fueling domestic consumption and growth.
Along with its stewardship of the economy, an ambitious and active foreign policy had long been an important part of the AKP’s narrative as it sought to convince supporters that it was leading the country to ‘a great future.’ However, the virtual collapse of its Syria policy in particular, with its serious negative domestic as well as external repercussions, has underlined the recent lack of success in this area as well. Having committed themselves since 2011 to the goal of ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad and given full support to his opponents, Erdogan and the AKP now face the extremely unwelcome prospect of his continued survival because of upgraded Russian support and American unwillingness to give his removal priority over the goal of defeating ISIS with the help of the PYD, which Erdogan publicly condemns for its links to the PKK. The diplomatic predicament Turkey finds itself on this issue was starkly underlined by the recent unprecedented summoning of both the Russian and American Ambassadors in Ankara to the Foreign Ministry for official reprimands over their countries’ Syria policies. In addition to the terrorist blowback in the form of Turkish suicide bombers who are members of ISIS, there are huge financial and social costs due to the long-running Syrian conflict. These were underlined on September 18 by Kurtulmus who said that Turkey had spent “7.6 billion dollars to take care of 2.2 million Syrian refugees.” Significantly, the Metropoll survey found that only 29 percent of those polled thought that Turkey’s Syrian policy was successful while 56 percent did not.
Despite their outward confidence, the anxiety within the AKP ranks as they are headed into elections may have been revealed by the series of verbal and in some cases physical attacks, along with moves by a judiciary under their influence, against various parts of the Gulen-affiliated media outlets and the Dogan Group which have been critical of the AKP. During the week leading up to the elections, the Koza Ipek Group was taken into trusteeship by court order along with its two TV stations and three newspapers because of its links to the Gulen Movement. With Erdogan leading the charge by constantly linking both groups to a conspiracy, there has been a sustained effort to put pressure on the parts of the Turkish media which are not supporting Erdogan and the AKP. Aydin Unal, an AKP parliamentarian and former speechwriter to Erdogan, went so far as to threaten on October 26 that the remaining critical media outlets would be “held to account” after the elections.
THE DAY AFTER
Having downgraded his expectations drastically from the June goal of “400 seats” in order to formally move to a presidential system to just regaining a majority, Erdogan is no doubt hoping to avoid being confronted yet again with the possibility of a coalition. While some observers have suggested that Erdogan will find opposing a power-sharing arrangement more difficult this time, the factors which guided his actions last time –preventing any limitation of his de facto governing authority or the re-opening of corruption investigations– are still operative. Consequently, Erdogan will surely test the limits of his constitutional authority while using his formidable political skills in dealing with an unwelcome post-election outcome.
The statement by AKP Vice Chair Mehmet Ali Sahin on October 26 that “a new election would be discussed if the ballot box produces a result similar to that of June 7” suggests that Erdogan would not shy away from yet another “repeat” election. It is worth noting in this context that the AKP had gone into the June 7 poll as the governing party and Davutoglu had continued in a caretaker capacity following the elections during the prolonged and inconclusive coalition negotiations. However, the current government is an interim pre-election government which has to resign once the new TGNA has been sworn in. Consequently, there is likely to be even greater uncertainty than the last time if these elections also fail to produce a single party government.
According to a Gezici survey conducted in mid-October, 68 percent of respondents admitted that they had various degrees of “concern” over Erdogan’s harsh actions and rhetoric. This is probably not unwelcome to a leader who has consistently taken pride in projecting strength and decisiveness in dealing not only with his enemies but also companions who stand in the way of his ambitions as former president Abdullah Gul has discovered. To be sure, he is loved as well as feared but the numerical trend has been heading in the wrong direction from his perspective. Erdogan’s predictable response has been to dig in his heels while utilizing the government means at his disposal to the fullest extent possible. His moves have inevitably further polarized the country along its ethnic, sectarian and social fault lines to such an extent that even if the AKP manages to regain its parliamentary majority on November 1, it will find governing more difficult. This is in stark contrast to June 2011 when it faced little public angst by the half of the population which had not voted for it in the elections.
Turkish political history shows that authoritarianism has been most pronounced during military rule or periods when the Turkish General Staff (TGS) exercised decisive influence over civilian governments. Consequently, if Turkey continues to go down the same path it has been on after the elections, there will inevitably be increased scrutiny of the future role of the TGS. It is worth noting that the military establishment has recovered from its decline into virtual irrelevance in the first decade of AKP rule, thanks to a great extent to the understandable desire of Erdogan since December 2013 to rely on it as he struggled first against the Gulen Movement and then against the PKK. Significantly, the TGS has also benefited during the interregnum between the elections from the surge of patriotism because of the fighting in the southeast as well as the resumption, after a 12 year interruption following the break in March 2003 at the beginning of the Second Gulf War, of close military cooperation with the United States in the fight against ISIS.
Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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