Turkey’s Search for a New Government: The Erdogan Factor
June 25, 2015
The Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA) convened on June 23 for the swearing in of the new members elected in the June 7 elections in which the Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to retain its parliamentary majority. As the TGNA proceeds to the election of its new speaker by July 1, the search for a new government has begun in earnest. However, it is not clear if one of the various coalition permutations involving the four parties that won representation in the TGNA will ultimately materialize or if Turkey will be forced to go to early elections before the end of the year in the event of a failure to form a government after 45 days.
The endless speculation during the postelection period about a new government has served to underline the reality that the AKP’s monopoly of control over the executive has ended along with its domination of the legislature. As the AKP will be forced to share power for the first time in order to stay in office, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will no longer be able to effectively run Turkey. Nevertheless, he remains a major factor in Turkish politics and continues to cast his long shadow over the coalition negotiations. This was confirmed in a striking manner by the unwillingness of the members of the opposition parties to stand or applaud when Erdogan attended the opening of the TGNA.
The AKP did not anticipate losing the majority in the TGNA, which it had maintained since 2002. As a result, Erdogan—who had hopes at the outset of the electoral campaign of a major victory that would enable him to proceed to the implementation of his plans for a presidential system—and the AKP are finding it difficult to fashion a strategy to cope with an unfamiliar predicament and to somehow recover their previous domination. Although a great deal has changed because of the election result, it is curious to see that they have been acting as if things are essentially the same as before. Bureaucratic appointments have continued, journalists who have been critical of Erdogan have again been singled out for prosecution, and, most controversially, two ministers gave a public award to businessman Reza Zarrab who figured prominently in the December 2013 corruption investigations.
The AKP government headed by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who submitted his resignation to Erdogan on June 9 but was asked to stay on in a caretaker capacity, will be given the task of forming a new government after the election of the new TGNA Speaker by July 1. Despite widespread but unsubstantiated speculation about covert efforts to entice defections from the opposition parties to enable the AKP to get to 276 seats and thus continue essentially to govern on its own—deemed sufficiently credible by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which immediately introduced draft legislation to block it—the focus has shifted to whether there will be an AKP coalition with the CHP or the National Action Party (MHP). These are the most likely outcomes as MHP leader Devlet Bahceli has been rebuffing repeated approaches by CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who argued on June 7 that the three opposition parties should “form a government in line with the expectations of the 60 percent bloc” to replace the AKP in office. Bahceli has also rejected outright any kind of cooperation with the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) because of its association with the separatist terrorism of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). For its part, the HDP, which the AKP has also been disinclined to consider as a coalition partner, seems resigned to staying in opposition.
Although it received close to 41 percent of the vote, and its 258 share of the 550 seats leaves it as the biggest party in the TGNA, the election result was a failure by the AKP’s own very high standards. Having won three successive elections and raised its vote to almost 50 percent in its last victory in 2011, the AKP clearly counted on retaining power even if it suffered some loss of support. However, instead of receiving a new mandate to continue in government for another four years in its seemingly unstoppable march to its declared goal of remaining in office at least until the Centenary of the Republic in 2023, the AKP now has to settle for being only the majority partner in a coalition, an arrangement it denounced throughout the election campaign as inimical to effective government.
It is often noted that Turkey had lived through a decade of coalition government before the AKP victory in 2002 after Turgut Ozal’s Motherland Party (ANAP) lost the 1991 elections. Having unexpectedly won the 1983 elections despite the opposition of Kenan Evren, who had assumed the presidency after leading the 1980 coup, ANAP had proceeded to win another election in 1987. However, what is not usually remembered is that Turkey was forced into an era of coalitions only after Ozal decided to switch from prime minister to the presidency in 1989. ANAP then stumbled badly, first in local elections that year and then in the 1991 elections. While it participated in various coalitions after that defeat, ANAP never recovered its dominance and eventually descended into political irrelevance.
It remains to be seen whether the AKP, which failed in its first electoral test after Erdogan chose to seek the presidency in August 2014, will fare better than ANAP in dealing with this serious test of its appeal and resilience. The AKP is a much better organized and financed party and has certainly demonstrated greater cohesiveness and discipline under Erdogan’s guidance. Nevertheless, as the ANAP experience—along with that of the CHP after it lost its grip on power in the 1950 elections—demonstrates, it is very difficult for a dominant ruling party to regain its momentum and previous strength once it loses the overwhelming advantages of having sole control of every aspect of government. Needless to say, Erdogan will be relying in this difficult phase on his redoubtable political charisma and guile, while seeking to utilize to the fullest extent possible the residual powers of the presidency, to try to limit and, if possible, reverse the damage done by the June 7 elections. However, even with the additional political heft conferred by having been directly elected to the presidency by the voters, this task will surely test even Erdogan’s considerable capabilities.
As the election campaign was inevitably dominated by Erdogan rather than Davutoglu, his hand-picked successor as AKP leader and prime minister, and his relentless push for a presidential system, the outcome was a loss for Erdogan even more than for Davutoglu. For his part, Davutoglu chose to put a brave face on the results in his speech from the balcony of the AKP headquarters on election night, while ignoring his promise during the campaign that he would resign as party leader if he failed to win. Three days later, he indicated the discomfort he must have felt throughout the campaign with Erdogan’s focus on a transition to a presidential system by saying “we wanted to adopt the presidential system but it was not approved by the people. There is a new picture now and everybody must continue to govern within the existing system.” However, Davutoglu felt obliged to follow up his indirect message to Erdogan to refrain from trying to continue to govern from the palace by defending him on June 16 against continuing criticism from the opposition when he said “anything that targets the presidency or the president also targets us…we will not allow the legitimacy of our president to be questioned.” It is also noteworthy that Ertan Aydin, a former close aide to Erdogan, declared on June 24 shortly after being sworn in as a member of the TGNA that the AKP was fully committed to defending the president.
Consequently, the effort to form a government will be characterized by two sets of parallel negotiations. Once he is designated, Davutoglu will be meeting with the CHP and the MHP to try to arrange a partnership. However, because both parties are insisting on restricting Erdogan’s ability to interfere in government through his great influence on the AKP, Davutoglu will also have to maintain a continuous dialogue with Erdogan to try to carve out sufficient flexibility for himself on this issue in order to talk credibly about a coalition protocol. The fact that both of his possible partners are also demanding a resumption of the corruption investigations, which reached into the highest levels of the AKP in December 2013 before being effectively blocked by Erdogan as prime minister, also underlines the extent to which the balance of power between Erdogan and Davutoglu will shape the process of government formation.
While he cannot articulate it publicly, Davutoglu might secretly welcome the prospect of Erdogan being forced by political exigency to respect constitutional limitations on his actions in what is still a parliamentary system. However, Davutoglu’s bargaining position is undermined by the fact that he was nominated for his position by Erdogan; the party organization and supporters still reserve their primary loyalty to the man they continue to regard as their “real” leader, and the AKP congress in September will decide whether he will maintain his position as the party leader.
To be sure, Erdogan has been trying to keep a lower profile than during the frenetic final weeks of the campaign and has been toning down his virulent attacks on the opposition parties, the Gulen Movement, and the domestic and foreign media and conspirators against him and the “new Turkey” he is seeking to build. The tactical retreat is undoubtedly designed to avoid further polarization when a compromise with the opposition is on the agenda. However, despite polling evidence that his forceful intervention in the campaign worked to the disadvantage of the AKP, it is difficult to believe that Erdogan will manage to refrain for long from his high-profile, hard-charging style, in view of the success he has achieved that way throughout most of his career, or to expect him to give up his quest for a presidential system.
Characteristically, Erdogan has been keeping himself in the political equation since the elections. In addition to meeting Davutoglu, he met Deniz Baykal, the former CHP leader soon after the election and, according to reports, a leading unnamed member of the MHP, to review options in the changed political scene. Erdogan has also announced that he wanted to meet with the opposition leaders to discuss the formation of a government, a call that was promptly rejected. Bahceli commented on June 14 that “holding separate meetings with political party leaders is not Erdogan’s job. We would not regard such an invitation as appropriate. We would only meet the person who is tasked by the president to form the government.” CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu added on June 15 that it was “unacceptable for him to emerge as a first actor in the process of coalition negotiations.”
To avoid being perceived as the main obstacle to a coalition, Erdogan has been stressing that he wanted to see one formed “as soon as possible.” However, he has also said that going to the country again for “repeat elections,” as he has been calling it, was “inevitable” if negotiations failed to produce a coalition government. In order to ward off speculation that he would essentially play for time until the expiration of the 45 days without asking anyone outside the AKP to form a government, on June 14 he committed himself to giving the CHP the task as the second party if Davutoglu failed. Under Article 116 of the constitution, Erdogan has the authority to call for new elections in consultation with the TGNA Speaker if no government is formed within the allotted period, and there have been persistent signals from the palace that this is his preferred option.
If that is indeed his goal, Erdogan would no doubt be hoping for remorse on the part of voters who drifted away from the AKP in the elections but may now be disconcerted by the prospect of coalition government. He would also be hoping for a shift back to the AKP of conservative and devout Kurdish voters who chose the HDP on June 7. It is true that if the HDP had not been able to attract these voters, along with those from beyond the Kurdish southeast who found its liberal and inclusive message attractive, it would almost certainly have polled below the 10 percent national threshold. As almost all of the seats won by the HDP would then have gone to the AKP, this would have permitted the latter to comfortably stay in power with a seat total above 330. However, having effectively abandoned the peace process in an ultimately fruitless effort to retain as many of the MHP supporters who had switched to the AKP as possible, it might be difficult for the AKP to once again attract Kurdish voters.
At the same time, Erdogan has to be conscious of the danger of being seen as the politician who provoked new elections, not least because this would reinforce the “say no to Erdogan” message that was the common campaign refrain of the opposition parties, along with criticism of his authoritarianism, extravagance, and alleged corruption. Moreover, he has to take into account the possibility that, having failed to retain its parliamentary majority despite the overwhelming advantages of campaigning while in office, the AKP would be entering new elections with a weaker hand and without its previously invincible aura. It is noteworthy that a postelection survey conducted by Metropoll, which had accurately predicted before the elections that the AKP would fall to 41 percent and that the HDP would easily exceed the national threshold, has found that there would not be a significant change in voters’ preferences in a new election.
If no government is formed by mid-August, in accordance with Article 114, the acting government headed by Davutoglu would resign and Erdogan would appoint the prime minister of a provisional government that would lead the country into elections. However, with the exception of the Justice, Interior, and Communications Ministries, which would be given to independents as in every election, its membership would be determined by the new TGNA Speaker in proportion to the representation of the parties in parliament. In other words, the government that would be in charge during the preelection period—which could extend to as much as three months as in 1995—the election itself, and the immediate postelection period would comprise all of the four parties in the TGNA.
It is obvious that Erdogan and the AKP have very difficult decisions ahead of them. Having been in office for all but 15 months since the establishment of the AKP in August 2001, the prospect of giving up total control over government, along with powers of patronage and influence on virtually every aspect of life, is extremely unwelcome. They also do not wish to lose the loyalty of the bureaucracy, which has been refashioned in accordance with the AKP’s preferences and requirements. At the same time, there is an overriding motivation to stay in office to try to avoid the inevitable inquiries into alleged corruption and other irregularities during the long tenure in office. Significantly, neither the CHP nor the MHP seem inclined to ignore the corruption issue, which formed the core of their arguments throughout the campaign, as part of a coalition deal with the AKP. Bahceli in particular has continued to focus on the issue even after the elections. On June 10, he said “Can a compromise be possible before the settling of accounts? If we forget the past while looking at the future, will we would lose our existence or dignity?” In that context, he has also been bringing up the name of Erdogan’s son Bilal.
The essence of coalition government is compromise, and it is not clear how well Erdogan and the AKP will be able to adapt to the requirements of the changed circumstances. However, even if they overcome their aversion to sharing power and manage to form a coalition with one of the parties they vilified during the campaign to stay in office, such a partnership would be unlikely to endure until the end of the four-year parliamentary term. In addition to arguments about Erdogan’s role and corruption investigations, which seem certain to resume within whichever coalition emerges—despite whatever may be agreed in a protocol at the outset—there will also be inevitable disagreements on a whole range of domestic and foreign policy issues with the potential to threaten the coalition.
Finally, there is the state of the economy which will undoubtedly affect the political landscape and the calculations of the actors involved during the period ahead. It is clear that the worsening economic situation undercut the AKP’s ability to boast about its achievements and impacted its vote tally, just as in the 2009 local elections in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. The economic slowdown seems likely to get worse with the inevitable diminution in the flow of foreign funds to Turkey following the imminent decision by the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates after almost a decade. Consequently, if it continues in office, the AKP has to deal with the political costs of a serious downturn, even in a coalition.
Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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