A general election was held in Turkey on June 12, 2011. Turkey’s unicameral Grand National Assembly is composed of 550 members, who since 2007 are elected for four-year terms. Turkey has an extremely high threshold for representation, 10%, a threshold intended to keep out Kurdish parties but they circumvent that threshold by running as independents, given that independents are not affected by the 10% threshold. The 10% threshold has made for lots of wasted votes, the most egregious example being the 2002 election where roughly 45% of votes were cast for parties which did not achieve the 10% requirement.
Turkey has been ruled since 2002 by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The AKP was founded in 2001 by a group of reformist members of the banned Islamist Welfare Party, a group which sought to paint the AKP as a moderate European conservative party. The AKP is a mildly Islamist party which mixes social conservatism with economic liberalism and pro-European attitudes, such as favouring elusive EU membership for Turkey. The AKP, which increased its vote considerably in the 2007 elections, owes its popularity to a successful economic policy: a 31% increase in GDP since 2002, an increase in per capita income, strong 8.9% GDP growth in 2010, a decrease in inflation from 30% to 6.4% and increased investment on social programs such as healthcare, housing and energy. Turkey’s remarkable economic growth and political stability since 2002 has made it a model for democracy in the Muslim world, with the AKP depicted as a model for a democratic, moderate Islamist party. But the situation is not perfect. The AKP is accused by Turkey’s secular Kemalist establishment and military of working to undo the secular state built by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, notably by relaxing restrictions on veils in universities or by various conservative policies towards women including public calls for women to stay at home and have children. Secular Turks point to a marked increase in conservative attitudes in Turkey, notably in central Anatolia, the AKP’s stronghold. Erdoğan, undoubtedly one of Turkey’s most charismatic and successful politicians in decades, has often clashed with the secular Kemalist military, which tried to ban his party in 2008. Erdoğan struck back by amending the constitution to his desire in 2010, and seeks to do that again after these elections by writing a new constitution altogether and scrapping the secular-nationalist document written up by the military in 1982 after the military’s last coup in 1980. Opponents accuse Erdoğan of increasingly authoritarian tendencies. A lot of it is true: Turkey has the largest number of jailed journalists, even more than Iran or China, most of them banned for ‘crimes’ including referring to the leader of the Kurdish separatist terrorist organization PKK Abdullah Ocalan as “Mr.” Students calling for free state education are risking 48 years in jail. The AKP is increasingly intolerant towards criticism, notably deriding The Economist as an actor in a “global band” in cahoots with Israel.
The main opposition party is the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Atatürk’s old party and the traditional party of Kemalism, the staple secular-nationalist ideology turned into the driving ideology of the Turkish state by Atatürk. The CHP, which was refounded in 1992, is a centre-left social democratic party though its main ideology is staunch Kemalism, including opposition to the AKP’s traditionalist derive and staunch Turkish nationalism. The CHP is criticized by liberal and libertarian academics for its authoritarian leanings, including its staunch defense of Article 301 of the penal code which makes it illegal to insult Turkey or ‘Turkishness’. The CHP’s old corrupt boss since 1992, Deniz Baykal, was forced to resign in 2010 after a sex scandal. He was succeeded by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who has significantly reformed the party’s image. He swept out Baykal’s old guard, and moved away from Baykal’s centrist hardcore Kemalism to a more left-wing and conciliatory position. The party has become more conciliatory on the wearing of the veil, and Kılıçdaroğlu made significant overtures towards Kurds by supporting the abolition of the 10% threshold and showing himself favourable to talks with the PKK. The CHP, which is slightly less pro-European than the AKP, garners most of its support from the secular middle and upper-class “white Turkish” elite as well as from the military, civil servants, academics, students and entrepreneurs.
The far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) regained parliamentary representation in 2007 by winning 14.3% of the vote. It was founded in 1969 by a coup-plotting colonel, Alparslan Türkeş. The MHP for a long time was overtly racist, and closely connected to thuggish militias such as the neo-fascist Grey Wolves terrorist organization, known for assassinating left-wingers until 1980. The MHP, which mixes nationalism with toned-down secularism, has become less nasty under Devlet Bahçeli, the leader since 1997 and a former deputy prime minister who ironically lifted the death sentence on Ocalan while in office. The MHP has been hurt in recent weeks by a series of sex scandals affecting MHP leaders and candidates.
The Kurdish minority is represented by the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), a social-democratic party founded in 2008 after their previous party, the DTP, ended up being banned. The Turkish government accuses the BDP and the Kurdish politicians of being the political wing of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the blacklisted terror group aiming for Kurdish independence. Its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, is currently in jail but is thought to be giving orders to terror cells – and allegedly the BDP – from behind bars. The PKK declared a cease-fire in 2010, but broke it less than a year later and has since been responsible for attacks on AKP campaign events and a bombing in Istanbul. The AKP government has made some significant openings to Kurds, notably lifting the state of emergency in 2002 or lifting restrictions on Kurdish language courses. But the AKP has been seen as moving back towards a more nationalist attitude towards the Kurds.
The results are as follows:
AKP 49.9% (+3.32%) winning 326 seats (-15)
CHP 25.91% (+5.03%) winning 135 seats (+23)
MHP 12.99% (-1.28%) winning 53 seas (-18)
Independents 6.65% (+1.41%) winning 36 seats (+10)
SP 1.24% (-1.11%) winning 0 seats (nc)
The AKP won its highest vote share to date, but thanks to the workings of Turkey’s electoral system, it won its lowest seat count to date. It is amusing that as the AKP’s vote increases (from 35% to 50% since 2002), the AKP’s seat count decreases. True, in 2002 they won an artificially huge majority thanks to the fact that only two parties crossed the threshold which was brought back to earth when the MHP won seats in 2007.
The result is a strong vote of confidence in favour of the AKP, which has been helped by the strong economy and unprecedented political stability. Erdoğan becomes the first Turkish leader to win a third term since Adnan Menderes won a third (but final) term in 1957. But despite those gains, the AKP has fallen short of the 367-seat two-thirds majority which Erdoğan sought in order to win the right to create a new constitution alone without consulting opposition parties or having to ask the people for ratification in a referendum. And with 326 seats, the AKP will have an even harder time to amend the constitution than it did in the past. That will be a relief to the AKP’s opponents, who might also celebrate at the symbolic fact that the AKP has been held below the magic 50% line. But the AKP’s hegemony is yet to be seriously challenged, and the AKP remains the dominant party. Erdoğan makes no secret that he wishes to become President by the next presidential election, when Turks will directly elect their president. Erdoğan’s goal, which is why he wants to have a new constitution, is to create a presidential regime which opponents argue would only create an authoritarian state.
The CHP was reinvigorated by the leadership of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, and won its best result since its 1992 refoundation. But even though the Baykal old guard has been swept out and the CHP has moved away from its authoritarian base, it has yet to prove itself to be a viable alternative to the AKP. It is unlikely that any party other than the AKP will emerge as such as long as the AKP is seen by voters as being the architects of Turkey’s rapid economic growth and political stability. But that may change. A rise in domestic demand and lending is overheating the economy, and the CHP has warned of the country’s rising public deficit and a rise in inflation. Long-delayed reforms to the minimum wage, informal economy and reducing energy costs are seen as being increasingly necessary. Instability in Syria and Libya, where Turkey has major contracts, are being delayed and may hinder Turkey’s economy. In addition, the results of the 2010 referendum showed a polarized country which these elections do not show. Erdoğan may well control over half of the country’s population’s support, but the opposition represents a significant bulk of voters. But the CHP, as the main alternative, remains far too concentrated in the middle and upper echelons of society and with the ‘westerners’ in Turkey. It needs to break through in Anatolia, the conservative religious heart of Turkey which forms the AKP’s heartland.
The MHP didn’t collapse, but was hurt significantly by the series of sex scandals though it has cleared the 10% threshold necessary for representation. Also noteworthy is the collapse of smaller parties below the threshold, which in 2002 polled strongly and were still a significant presence in 2007. There seems to be growing polarization and strategic voting as small parties have lost the bulk of their voters. Notably, the Islamist Felicity Party (SP) fell back by 1% while the right-wing Democratic Party (DP) won a paltry 0.65%, 4.8% lower than what it had won in 2007. The Democratic Left Party (DSP), a former governing party and, in 2007, an ally of the CHP, won only 0.25% running on its own. The vote has become increasingly polarized between the AKP and CHP, leaving third parties with no chance whatsoever.
The electoral geography of Turkey is pretty straightforward. The CHP remains concentrated in Thrace (European Turkey) and along a handful of provinces along the Mediterranean coast notably Izmir. Outside Ankara, some Black Sea provinces and some major urban centres; the CHP remains very weak in the conservative AKP heartland of central Anatolia. This year, the CHP also won big (56%) in Tunceli province in eastern Anatolia, a province dominated by the liberal Muslim Alevis, old enemies of the Sunnis. Kılıçdaroğlu is an Alevi himself, which might explain the big swing to the CHP.
The AKP’s heartland is Anatolia, the rural conservative traditionalist heart of Turkey which stands in sharp contrast to the bustling western metropolis of Istanbul. But that itself is a stereotype as well: Istanbul is defined to foreigners by its ‘western-like’ neighborhoods. Istanbul province gave 49.5% of the vote to the AKP against 31.3% for the CHP, which finds its support in the wealthy neighborhoods and western-leaning neighborhoods.
There was a marked swing away from the AKP in Kurdistan, where the AKP’s vote fell significantly to the benefit of independent Kurdish candidates who won huge results in many provinces: 80% in Hakkâri, 73% in Şırnak, 61% in Mardin, 62% in Diyarbakır (the capital of the region), 51% in Batman, 49% in Van and 44% in Muş. In most of these provinces, the independent vote significantly, sometimes up to +24%. If the CHP’s new found opening to the Kurds was meant to appeal to them, it failed badly given that the CHP not only maintained their awful showings in Kurdistan but their vote fell back compared to 2007. I’m not sure what the surge in Kurdish independent support can be attributed to. It could be turnout (but voting is compulsory though unenforced), or it could be the AKP’s move towards Turkish nationalism. I don’t know how many of the 36 MPs are Kurdish nationalists, but probably a vast majority of them are. They also won support in Istanbul, where the famous young lawyer Sebahat Tuncel was reelected.