Monday, June 13, 2011

Turkish Elections 2011: The Post-Mortem

The results of today’s parliamentary elections in Turkey are a bit deceptive. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), of course, can claim to be the day’s big winner, but the three other parties that made it into parliament can also claim something of a victory. That said, the victory parties shouldn’t last that long. Each party – the AKP included – comes out of this election facing some significant questions about what the future holds for it.

Some thoughts regarding each party and its performance:

According to current results, the AKP won the election with nearly 50 percent of vote, an increase of some 3.5 points over the last election and the party’s third consecutive victory at the polls. At the same time, because of Turkey’s parliamentary arithmetic, the party’s seats dropped from 341 to 326. In that sense, the AKP’s victory should be tempered by the fact that it failed to achieve its goal of winning at least 330 seats in this election, something which would have then allowed the party to pass a new constitution and then send it off to a national referendum, which it would have likely won.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in an effort to get above 330 seats, ran a blistering campaign that saw the AKP turn up the nationalist rhetoric in order to woo the voters of the rightist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and keep that party from reaching the 10 percent threshold necessary to enter parliament. In the end, the MHP still managed to pass the threshold, the AKP didn’t get the 330 seats it so desperately wanted, and Turkey is left with a Kurdish population that feels like it was badly burned by the PM in this election (the AKP lost quite a bit of ground in the Kurdish southeast region in this election) and a MHP that believes it was the government that was behind the “sex tape” scandal that seemed designed to bring the party to its knees. Obviously, this is not a good recipe for creating the kind of atmosphere needed to get the different parties in parliament to work together on drafting a new constitution, which is what Erdogan promised he would try to do in his victory speech. With its win, does the AKP use the occasion to further consolidate their power, or does the party work towards uniting what has become an increasingly fractured nation? After his party’s decisive win in the 2007 elections, Erdogan also promised to lead a government that represents all of Turkey, but that sense of inclusiveness soon fell to the wayside.

The election also leaves the AKP with unanswered questions about Erdogan’s future. Heading into the elections, the party’s forward plan revolved around introducing a new constitution that created a strong presidential system, with Erdogan moving into the president’s office after what would be his last term as PM. But its not clear if the AKP can get the other parties to agree to a new constitution that has the presidential system change in it (many in the AKP, especially current President Abdullah Gul, are apparently also not fond of the system change idea). The question then is what does Erdogan do after this term as PM, which is supposed to be his last according to his party’s bylaws? Does he become president under the current system, taking over a less-powerful position that would require him to play the role of non-partisan national paterfamilias? Does the AKP, which could very well find itself adrift without Erdogan at the helm, revise its bylaws to allow him to run again?

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) saw its share of the vote increase from 20 percent in 2007 to just over 25 percent, while its number of seats in parliament rose from 112 to 135. Again, party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu can claim a kind of victory, but the party’s showing falls short of the 30 percent of the vote that it had hoped for. Despite barnstorming the country and riding on what seemed to be a wave of increased enthusiasm for the CHP, Kilicdaroglu still only managed to do well in Turkey’s western Aegean region, a long-time CHP stronghold, and in the eastern province of Tunceli, where he was born. In that sense, the CHP failed to break out in this election, and even fell back in some areas that had previously supported it.

For the CHP, the election raises questions about what are the natural limits of what a left-leaning, social democratic party can achieve in electoral terms in Turkey and just how the party can realistically manage to return to power some day. For Kilicdaroglu, today’s vote was also a referendum on his position as leader of the CHP. He can claim that he has led the party to its most successful showing since the early 1980’s, gaining some 3.5 million new voters. But there will be voices within the party that will accuse him of having failed to capitalize on an opportunity to gain even more votes and get close to the 30 percent mark and that will blame this failure on the party's departure from the the strict vision of Kemalism that it had espoused under its previous leadership. This will leave the party, which must find a way to update and modernize its Kemalist vision, again susceptible to the kind of infighting that Kilicdaroglu had to deal with when he first became party leader.

Since the MHP was in danger of being shut out of this parliament because of the “sex tapes” scandal that plagued it, by getting over the 10 percent threshold and winning 53 seats (as compared to 71 in 2007), the nationalist party can also claim victory. But the party comes out these elections an undeniably diminished one, failing to make a significant showing in any part of the country that counts and with mounting questions about its relevance and future direction. Just what does it mean to be a “nationalist” party in 2011 and does Turkey really need one? If the party wants to survive, does it do so by (dangerously) doubling down on the nationalism or by rebranding itself as a more traditional center-right party? Like the CHP, the MHP also has to come to terms with the built-in limits on how many votes it can obtain and what that means for its future viability on the national level. And, like the CHP, it is likely to see an internal leadership struggle emerge in the coming weeks or months.

The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), could be seen as one of Sunday’s big winners, gaining an expected 36 seats, up from 2007’s 22 (the party, in order to avoid the threshold question, runs all its candidates as independents). With its tight focus on the Kurdish issue and with its base of support mostly limited to the southeast region, the BDP will remain an identity-based party whose role in parliament is to advocate on behalf of a set of issues that have a limited ethnic and regional appeal, a kind of Turkish Bloq Quebecois. Clearly, the party has benefitted from Erdogan’s backsliding on the Kurdish issue, but getting that issue back on track will require the BDP to deal with the AKP, which is promising to get back to working on its “Kurdish opening” after the elections. Can the BDP and the AKP work together after this bruising campaign, or will Erdogan once again ignore it and render it ineffective? Can the party step back from the more provocative statements made by some of its more militant members and step out from under the shadow of the PKK, which would enable it to become a more “mainstream,” but possibly more effective, member of Turkish political life? Either way, it’s clear that any serious movement on the Kurdish issue will not be possible without the inclusion of the BDP and its parliamentary group.

Collectively, this election – which failed to give the AKP the ability to determine Turkey’s political future on its own terms – represents a potential “growing up” moment for the four parties that made it into parliament. Can they move beyond the political polarization that has increasingly characterized Turkish politics for the last decade and work together on drafting a new constitution and a new political climate that can take Turkey forward? Can the parties envision a shared sense of Turkish national identity that they can all work towards building and strengthening? If Erdogan can preside over and guide such a process, then his position in the pantheon of great Turkish leaders would be truly sealed. On the other hand, if he helps create an atmosphere that brings out the worst in his rivals, his legacy will be tainted.

(photo: Inside the AKP's Diyarbakir headquarters. By Yigal Schleifer)

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