Repeat Elections, Repeat Result?
August 27, 2015
On August 24, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey initiated the process for what he has been calling “repeat elections” after the inconclusive result of the June 7 parliamentary elections. After meeting with the Speaker of the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA), Ismet Yilmaz, in accordance with the Turkish Constitution, he invoked the directly relevant Article 116, along with the broader Article 104, one day after the expiration of the constitutionally specified 45-day clock for the formation of a new government. The following day, he invoked Article 114 in asking Ahmet Davutoglu, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader and caretaker prime minister since June 8, to head an interim government until the new elections. Erdogan had announced on August 21 that parliamentary elections would be held on November 1 in line with the statement of the Higher Electoral Council (YSK) the previous day that they could be held as early as on that date. This was duly confirmed by the YSK a few hours after Davutoglu was given the task of forming the interim government.
Erdogan’s decision followed the return by Davutoglu of the mandate he had been given by Erdogan on July 9 to form a coalition government. Erdogan had then ignored the demand of Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu that he should also be given the opportunity to try to form a coalition in the remaining few days before the expiration of the limit for the formation of a government. Erdogan said that he saw “no need to do so,” notwithstanding the fact that he had stated that he might be willing to follow custom and give him the mandate back on June 13.
Davutoglu has five days to form his cabinet, which would be the first of its kind in Turkish political history. Under Article 114, the interim cabinet, which he will head, is supposed to be made up of members from all of the parties in proportion to their representation in the TGNA, with the exception of Interior, Transportation and Justice as in all pre-election periods. Consequently, the breakdown would have been eleven for the AKP, five for the CHP, and three each for the National Action Party (MHP) and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). However, with the CHP and the MHP both refusing to participate, the interim government will now include only ministers from the AKP and the HDP and individuals without formal party affiliation.
New elections had become inevitable after efforts to form a coalition broke down on August 17 following prolonged negotiations with the CHP, which collapsed after a final meeting between Davutoglu and Kilicdaroglu and a subsequent meeting between Davutoglu and MHP leader Devlet Bahceli. In retrospect, it is clear that the inability of the AKP and the CHP to agree, the effective exclusion of the predominantly Kurdish HDP from the AKP’s coalition calculations, and the MHP’s implacable opposition to a CHP-MHP-HDP arrangement because of its aversion to any kind of cooperation with the HDP, coupled with Erdogan’s unwillingness to accept without challenge the consequences of the June 7 result, had made “repeat elections” the likeliest outcome.
Running Out the Clock
After an unprecedentedly long gap of over a month, Erdogan finally gave Davutoglu, who resigned immediately after the elections but stayed on as caretaker prime minister, the mandate to form a government and thus started the 45-day clock on July 9. The delay was clearly part of Erdogan’s tactical response to the unexpected reversal in the elections and his attempt to regain the initiative. The election of Yilmaz from the AKP as TGNA Speaker with the implicit support of the MHP provided him with evidence that the division in the ranks of the opposition, which had a mathematical majority in the TGNA, gave him the opportunity to continue to control the political agenda while governing the country from his controversial palace.
Davutoglu began coalition talks on July 13 by first visiting Kilicdaroglu and stated after the meeting that the two parties had agreed to continue discussions. However, the mood was much less positive after his meeting with Bahceli the following day as the MHP leader reiterated the decision he had announced on the night of the elections that he would stay out of a coalition. Bahceli urged the AKP to form a government with the CHP and, if necessary, to include the HDP. Davutoglu’s final meeting during his initial round was a pro forma visit to HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas on July 15 during which the latter also recommended an AKP-CHP coalition.
The AKP and the CHP then proceeded to what appeared to those observing the talks from the outside as serious negotiations on the formation of a coalition. After an initial meeting between Omer Celik of the AKP and Haluk Koc of the CHP on July 24, the two men led party delegations that met four times between July 28 and August 3. The optimistic atmosphere during this period was strengthened by Kilicdaroglu’s statements of his willingness to cooperate with the AKP despite the bitterness of the election campaign. On July 26 for example, he said, “Even if we know the high price of a coalition government, we can take on this responsibility for the good of the country. We note that every delay increases the price that Turkey must pay.” However, he also maintained his sense of realism. Three days earlier he had commented that “There are some well-intentioned steps to form a coalition government, but I think the chances of early elections are higher.”
Although Davutoglu and Kilicdaroglu had two additional meetings on August 8 and August 13, a CHP-AKP coalition proved unattainable. Having disagreed in particular on education and foreign policy, Davutoglu said after their second meeting that there was no chance of a deal with the CHP and that “early elections had become the only possibility.” For his part, Kilicdaroglu claimed that Davutoglu had “not negotiated seriously” about a durable coalition government and added that “Davutoglu only brought two proposals. He asked would you give us support if we form a short-term election government or a minority government.” There were clear signs even before the collapse of the talks that they were not going well. An unnamed CHP official, for example, had commented on August 12 that the “AKP does not want to form a government with us. We say ‘let’s run the country together’, they say ‘No, don’t interfere’.”
In addition to its understandable reluctance to share power, there was strong resistance within the AKP to a partnership with a party that represented the strict secular norms and regulations it had always opposed. In contrast, there was less pushback in AKP ranks against the idea of cooperation with the MHP—which also proved to be impossible due to Bahceli’s opposition—both because the voting bases were closer to each other and Bahceli was believed to have better control of his party group and would therefore be an easier coalition partner. For its part, the CHP also had deep misgivings about cooperation with the AKP. On August 11, between his final two meetings with Davutoglu, Kilicdaroglu restated the 14 principles, first announced on June 15, which had guided his party during the coalition talks. These included upholding the constitutional limits on Erdogan’s power and restricting his ability to use covert funds along with opposing corruption and changing policy toward the Middle East. Nonetheless, Kilicdaroglu said after the collapse of the negotiations that he had been willing to put them aside as much as possible in order to permit the formation of a coalition.
However, it is clear that a coalition between the two parties was simply not in the cards because of the Erdogan factor. One day before the last Davutoglu-Kilicdaroglu meeting, Erdogan publicly cautioned Davutoglu by saying “If the prime minister can find a partner compatible with his views and that of the party within the 45 days specified by the constitution, then he can take a step towards a partnership…If not, he will not commit suicide.” While there was widespread speculation throughout the talks with the CHP that Davutoglu wanted a coalition deal but could not overcome Erdogan’s resistance, Davutoglu has been denying the claim.
Davutoglu’s final meeting on August 17 with Bahceli to discuss a possible coalition, despite the latter’s virtually constant repetition since their previous encounter of his harsh conditions for a partnership, was the final nail in the coffin of the search for a coalition. To the great annoyance of Erdogan, these included a demand that the president respect constitutional limits and the resumption of the December 17–25 corruption investigations that had been blocked. After the meeting, Davutoglu confirmed that Bahceli had once again said no to his proposals for cooperation on a minority AKP government while recommending a coalition between the AKP and the CHP in spite of the failure of the talks between them. After the meeting, Bahceli also announced that the MHP would not provide any ministers to a pre-election interim government, a position that the CHP adopted two days later.
The Erdogan Factor
Turkish voters will be heading to the polls for the second time in less than five months primarily because Erdogan was unhappy with the results of the last elections, which left the AKP without a majority in the TGNA for the first time since November 2002. After being uncharacteristically quiet for a number of days after what must have been a hugely disappointing election result, Erdogan expressed his preference as early as on June 13 for “repeat elections” and added “if a coalition government could not be formed, going back to the ballot box in accordance with the constitution is unavoidable as it is unthinkable for the country to be left without a government.”
Erdogan was fully cognizant of the dangers any kind of coalition would pose to his ability to govern from the presidency as before through a fully compliant AKP government with control over an obedient majority in the TGNA, ensuring the loyalty of the bureaucracy and preventing a resumption of corruption investigations targeting his close circle. Accordingly, he effectively blocked the formation of a coalition government utilizing his iron grip over the AKP even as he allowed Davutoglu to go through the motions of negotiating while running out the clock.
It is completely understandable that Erdogan and the AKP have found it difficult to make the psychological adjustment necessary to having to share power after their long domination of Turkish politics, preferring instead the option of going back to the voters to try to regain a parliamentary majority. Their decision to go for new elections appears to have been boosted by the argument that “a roll of the dice,” as it has to be described, was not too risky because the AKP was almost certain to emerge from the upcoming elections as the leading party. Consequently, even if it failed again to win an overall majority, it would retain its leading role in postelection negotiations on a new government.
Erdogan’s perspective was once again on full display on August 14 when he claimed that because he had been directly elected as president last year, “Turkey’s system of government had changed whether it is accepted or not.” He continued by saying “What needs to be done now is to clarify the legal framework through a new constitution and to formalize the de facto situation. To complain about the president’s interference while preventing this from happening is like complaining about getting wet while walking in the rain.” Having consistently argued that the country’s parliamentary system had come to the end of its life and campaigned accordingly in the last election campaign for an AKP victory big enough to implement a change to a presidential system, Erdogan is hoping that the last election result was a bump in the road to inevitable constitutional change.
Having continued to run the country before June 7, Erdogan has been taking full advantage of the postelection political uncertainty to consolidate his primary role in policymaking. Under his mostly discreet but occasionally overt direction, decisions with massive implications and major bureaucratic appointments continued to be made, while pressure was maintained on the Gulen Movement, the critical parts of the media, and the business community as if there had not been an election stumble. Erdogan’s most significant move during this period was to confirm the end of the Kurdish peace process he had himself initiated and to resume military action against the PKK in the southeast as well as in northern Iraq.
Significantly, sustained air raids on PKK bases beyond the Turkish-Iraqi border began on July 24, two days after Erdogan had personally concluded an agreement in a phone call with President Barack Obama to finally allow the United States to use Incirlik Air Base for attacks on ISIS targets in Syria and the coordinated announcement that Turkey was embarking on a policy of confronting the twin threats of terrorism by ISIS and the PKK. This controversial move did not only underline his status as a strong leader with total control over foreign and national security policies but also set the stage for an election campaign that would undermine the HDP by association with the PKK while appealing to nationalist voters who had defected back to the MHP and reclaiming the loyalty of waverers within the AKP.
As former British prime minister Harold Wilson once noted, a week is a long time in politics, and there are many weeks to go before the new Turkish elections. However, while it is difficult to predict with accuracy what will happen on November 1, it is nevertheless safe to say that the path to the desired reversal of the results of the last elections is unlikely to be smooth for the AKP. In fact, with most polls suggesting that there is unlikely to be a significant change in voting preferences, there is the very real danger of a second successive electoral disappointment for the AKP and Erdogan, who had injected himself into the June election campaign with vigor and will surely do so again whether it helps the AKP or not, with all its implications for their future political prospects.
The AKP’s main strategic goal in the previous campaign was to try to keep the HDP below the 10 percent national electoral threshold by attacking it over its links to the PKK and to ensure a clear majority in the TGNA by winning all the seats in the Kurdish southeast. The upcoming campaign will see the AKP once again direct its rhetorical firepower at the HDP, parallel to the intensifying conflict with the PKK in Turkey, as well as beyond the Turkish-Iraqi border. However, as the chart below shows, the HDP cut devastatingly into the support previously given to the AKP in the predominantly Kurdish provinces in the June elections and picked up most of the seats in the southeast. It seems unlikely that the AKP will be able to pry away many votes from the HDP, which seems set to exceed the 10 percent national electoral barrier comfortably again, because of the consolidation of the ethnic polarization during the current campaign against the PKK. Consequently, the AKP hope is not so much to get back the conservative Kurdish votes that swung over to the HDP but to recover the support of the 3 to 4 percent of nationalist conservative voters who switched back from the AKP to the MHP on June 7.
The fact that Davutoglu felt obliged to call repeatedly for the MHP and the CHP to join the interim government and then to offer cabinet portfolios to prominent individuals from the two parties despite firm rebuffs from both parties testifies to the degree of nervousness in the AKP relating to the likely damage that being in the same interim government with the HDP would have on the main theme in its election campaign. To be sure, Tugrul Turkes, a prominent member of the MHP and the son of its founder, has responded positively to Davutoglu’s invitation. However, his imminent expulsion from his party will help to ensure that the interim government will be portrayed by the MHP in the campaign even more vigorously as an AKP-HDP coalition supplemented with individuals under the influence of the AKP. Although it surely believes otherwise, the AKP may find it difficult to reclaim voters back from the MHP. Many of them, who have not forgiven Erdogan for pursuing a Kurdish peace process in the first place, have concerns that he might revive it in the future. These voters will also surely have noted that it is the AKP that has moved toward the MHP’s position on this issue rather than the other way around as the MHP will emphasize throughout the campaign.
The economy is also likely to be a risky factor for the AKP on November 1. Having come to power in November 2002 in the aftermath of a major economic crisis, which had thoroughly discredited its political rivals, the AKP then consolidated its political domination of Turkish politics through careful cultivation of its image as the overseer of economic development and prosperity. While it is impossible to calculate the percentage of those who drifted away from the AKP in the last elections because of economic concerns, it seems reasonable to assume that it was not a negligible factor in the failure of the AKP to maintain its majority in the TGNA. The worsening data, exemplified by the precipitous fall in the Turkish lira with its dangerous implications for an economy that has become very dependent on the constant influx of foreign funds, easy credit, and domestic consumption, coupled with the growing perception that things could get worse, may undermine the AKP vote even more in the next elections. If it had been willing to form a coalition with the CHP, the AKP would have been able to share the blame for the economic problems ahead. Instead, the CHP seems poised to take advantage of the economic downturn along with the widespread perception of it as a party that was more eager to form a coalition to deal with the problems of the country than the AKP.
Finally, there is the likely impact of the current war against terrorism. Erdogan is undoubtedly hoping to capitalize on his image as a strong leader at a time of great political uncertainty and armed conflict. However, the daily bombings, firefights, and funerals since the elections are reminding the voters of the chaos before the AKP came to power, while steadily undercutting its previously successful message of stability and prosperity. An additional complication in this context is Erdogan’s new alliance with the military against the PKK, as well as the Gulen Movement, which is in sharp contrast to his previous policy that aimed at reducing the prominent and visible role of the military in the country’s affairs in the decades before the AKP came to power.
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.
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