Atatürk's Republic

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Archive for June 2015

Turkish Democracy: Still Alive, but Still Flawed

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The results of Sunday’s general election in Turkey are (almost) official.  With 40.8% of the vote, translating into 258 representatives, the AKP is still the largest party in parliament.  However, in contrast to the previous three general elections where it won a plurality of the vote, the AKP is 16 delegates shy of being able form a government. The party will likely have to partner with one of the three other parties sending representatives to parliament: the secularist CHP, which won 25% of the vote (132 representatives), the Nationalist MHP, which won 16.3% of the vote (80 representatives) and the Liberal Kurdish HDP, which broke the election threshold with room to spare and won 13.1% of the vote (80 representatives).  For a details on governmental rules and formalities governing the creation of coalition government in Turkey, see this BGN news explainer. For an indepth breakdown of all the possible and probable political scenarios, see Aaron Stein’s masterful piece for the Atlantic Council.

There are dozens of different aspects of these election results that are ripe for discussion, from the unprecedented number of women and minority representatives to the effect that the war in Syria (and seige of Kobane) had on the vote distribution.  The topic that has rightfully dominated the blog-o-sphere is what do these election results mean for both the immediate and long-term future of Turkish politics and democracy.

Despite the fact that the AKP is still the largest party by far, I do think it is fair to interpret these results as a reprimand to the party generally and to Erdogan’s leadership specifically.  Simply pointing out that the AKP is still won 15% more of the electorate than the next most population, or even spinning the results the opposite way and saying that 60% of Turks voted for another party, fails to take in to consideration the crucial context of both Turkish politics and this election.  First, Turkey still has a political opposition problem.  For millions of average Turks, there is still no party that better represents their interests than the AKP. The traditional opposition parties of the CHP and the MHP, despite some decent efforts during this campaign, still have not figured out how to put together a policy program that will convince voters that they can actually govern. The HDP succeeded in selling itself as not just a Kurdish party, but pluralist identity that represents a number of marginalized groups (Kurdish nationalists, LGBTQ, Christian, feminist and other minorities).  The politics of the HDP is arguably the politics of the next generation of Turks, a party that fulfills many of the ideals of the Gezi movement. Unlike its compatriots, the dynamic and (for Western liberals in particular) appealing HDP has a definite agenda and policy program. However, it is simply never going to draw enough votes from the current pool of average conservative, ethnic Turkish voters.  Until a new center-right alternative comes along (and barring any major crises such as a full out economic crash or invasion of Syria) a great number of Turks will continue to vote AKP.  There is no other party that better suits their beliefs and interests, and hence the AKP numbers will remain relatively high.  Even a dislike for the main plank in the the AKP platform, namely a constitutional change in order to create a strong presidential system, seems to have not been enough to drive many AKP voters into the arms of another party.

There is no doubt that both the AKP and Erdogan consider their party’s showing to be dismal and downright embarrassing.  The AKP’s share of the vote dropped 9% from the last parliamentary election in 2011, but more telling the party went from enjoying a near super-majority to not even being able to form a single-party government.  The party leadership looked like they were listening to a eulogy during PM Davutoglu’s post-election speech.  President Erdogan for his part has gone into hiding.  During the election campaign, Erdogan crisscrossed the country and dominated the airwaves asking, neigh demanding, that Turks grant the AKP a super-majority and, more importantly, allow him to be installed as the real (and not just de facto) executive authority in the country.  The election result was a firm rebuke of Erdogan’s authoritarian dreams and I suspect that, given the unpopularity of a presidential system among even those who were likely to vote AKP, that many AKP voters are quietly happy with the result.

Michael Koplow argued in Foreign Affairs that Erdogan is still quite dangerous given the defacto powers he has accumulated and the fact that many outgoing AKP MPs will be drawn into his circle of advisers.  I agree that Erdogan’s political career is far from over, but the fact that he has not been able to yet been able to find a way to spin these results in his favor, or even fall back on blaming one of his imaginary legion of enemies, speaks volumes. There is also no way he will be able to continue on acting with the unchecked impunity as he has for the past year as President.  There is a reason that Erdogan campaigned so hard to have his powers officially enshrined in the constitution.  Without a constitutional change to a powerful Presidency, the parliament and Prime Minister still officially have the real power in government.  Erdogan knows this and hence put everything he had into trying to legally secure his position.  Irony is that unpopularity of the proposed presidential system was very likely a main contributing factor to the AKP’s loss of support.  The opposition parties, particularly the MHP which is most likely to partner with the AKP in a coalition government, have jumped on this and made it clear that will not work with an AKP which is dominated by Erdogan.  There is no way the AKP can move forward, and form a government, without addressing, and restraining, the Presidential elephant in the room.

The good news is that the Turkish people have definitively voiced their rejection of a president for life and a single party state in what was, despite widespread fears of fraud, a free election.  The bad news is that democracy requires more than periodic elections, and Turkey is still burdened with a sycophantic media, weak civil society, corrupt oligarchs, and a majoritarian approach to rights.  The country’s institutional system, and political culture, are still set up to allow one party or individual to accumulate undemocratic levels of power.  Addressing and fixing so many ingrained problems would be a challenge for the most united, progressive government let alone a coalition government which will be lucky just to be able to hold itself together.  The party with the most reformist agenda, the HDP, is unlikely even to be part of the ruling coalition. A majority of Turks voted for change, and they are likely to get their wish in the form of a cowed President, but much needed institutional reform probably won’t even make it to the parliamentary floor.  I still truly believe that Turkey has a brighter, more liberal future ahead of it but the road leading there will be long and require a drastic overhaul of both the political parties and the institutions that govern Turkey.

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Written by ataturksrepublic

June 9, 2015 at 8:24 pm

Attacks at the HDP Rally: What We Know (and don’t know)

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In Diyarbakir on Friday, two explosions erupted at the final HDP rally prior to Sunday’s elections. The latest reports indicate that four people died, including 2 teenage boys, and close to 200 hundred were injured (update- more than 400 with at least 25 critically) as a result of the blasts.  Initially blamed on a malfunctioning generator, it now appears that a gas cylinder packed with ball-bearings was deliberately planted and responsible for one of the two explosions that were heard. Immediately after the explosions, police targeted the crowd with tear gas and water cannons.  The rally was canceled and some of the crowd regrouped outside the HDP headquarters in the city where party leader Selahattin Demirtas (who was scheduled to speak around the time the explosions occurred) urged HDP supporters in general, and those gathered in Diyarbakir specifically, to remain calm.  His message seemed to be taken to heart and no rioting occurred.  Instead, peaceful protests in the form of banging pots and pans and flickering lights in both Diyarbakir and Istanbul.  Prime Minister Davutoglu condemned the attacks. President Erdogan offered condolences and promised to investigate the bombings before going off on a tangent about how roaches in the old Prime Minster’s residence forced him to build a new palace for himself.  He also expressed his annoyance at the fact that Demirtas was refusing to answer his calls, which lead to a curt war of words between the two. Despite the obvious news-worthiness of this event, today’s pro-government papers lack any front page coverage on it.

The superlative importance of the Kurdish vote in this election has been explored in depth numerous times and there is no need to reiterate it here. The potential for Kurds to decide the election makes it safe to assume that the perpetrators behind these attacks wished to affect the outcome of the election by either 1) provoking violence 2) intimidating HDP voters 3) pinning the attacks on the PKK or 4) a combination of all three.  Motives one and three would feed into the pro-government media machine’s characterization of Kurds as uninterested in sustaining the peace process. and, ultimately, as a treacherous 5th column who will tear Turkey apart is allowed to gain political power. The HDP and their supporter’s maintenance of calm in the face of this provocation took much of the wind out of the sails of this narrative, but some pro-government elements still suggested that it was the “Kurds themselves” who planted the bombs.

What we very clearly don’t know at this point is who planted the bombs, or if they are related to the dozens of other attacks against HDP supporters, election vehicles or party headquarters.  Of course, many are blaming the AKP, if not for directly perpetrating the bombing, for their encouragement and use of offensive and goading language against the HDP.  With Turkey’s history of unsolved political violence, there is a chance that there may never be a clear answer to who perpetrated the attacks against the HDP and what if any organizations they were working for.

We also don’t know how this latest and most damaging attack on the HDP will affect the election outcome.  The best analysis of all the available polls indicates that the HDP will likely pass the 10% threshold (barring fraud, which is unfortunately likely to at least some degree).  Given the fact that both the leadership and the base of HDP supporters reacted coolly and called for peace in the face of ongoing violence, the bombing may very well serve as a last minute boost pushing undecided voters to the HDP.

Written by ataturksrepublic

June 6, 2015 at 7:58 am