BEYOND THE BOSPHORUS: No matter the election result, Turks remain centre right

By bne IntelliNews June 11, 2015

Suna Erdem in London -


There is much to celebrate in Turkey’s election result. By ensuring his Justice and Development Party (AK) failed to return a majority for the first time in its existence, the electorate taught President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a lesson in humility – just because he had once proved a popular and competent leader, this did not mean that he could do as he liked.

Voters didn’t like his grandiose plans to alter the political system of Turkey to mirror his leap from premier to presidency; his grotesque new presidential “bling” palace of a thousand rooms; his angry, arrogant dismissal of whole swathes of voters; his careless abandonment of the human rights agenda that helped make him popular. Very damaging, politically, was his disregard for the Kurdish peace process, which sent conservative Kurdish voters into the arms of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) and helped deprive AK of many southeastern seats. Many were also put off by his involvement in AK’s re-election campaign – blatantly disregarding the rule for the president to be politically neutral. Turkish people like a strong leader, but there’s a limit.

And with Erdogan on a power trip, there were also signs of an economic slowdown. Turks will tolerate corruption allegations and probably care little about banning Twitter as long as the government is seen to be working well. But when the numbers start going the wrong way, then the flaws of the leadership become more apparent.

The rise of the young, charismatic Selahattin Demirtas and his HDP was also refreshing. For the first time, a party representing the country’s 15mn Kurds managed to get enough votes to vault the 10% barrier and enter parliament. That they did so thanks in part to liberal voters who had once been wary of Kurdish nationalism is also a positive sign that some old prejudices are slowly being worn down.

Erdogan was in large part responsible for the rise of the HDP – by first championing, then abandoning the much-vaunted peace process, he ensured the Kurds played on the main political stage and were able to capitalize on his public backtracking. But the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) will have bled some of the least dogmatic of its supporters – the young, the intellectuals, the modernisers, who had lost all hope that the CHP would ever come out of its statist torpor. It will be interesting to see how the party’s support base changes when the die-hards die out and today’s young dominate their voter base.

Hung, drawn and quartered

However, here is a hung parliament that in normal circumstances everyone would view with distaste. The stock market fell and the dollar rocketed at the result, and already parties are busy ruling out various coalition possibilities. For those who have been around long enough, it is an unpleasant reminder of the fractious coalitions that sunk the country’s prospects in the 1970s and again in the 1990s.

So what kind of government will they form? 

On the one hand you have the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), with past links to far-right militants. Despite the protestations of its leader, Devlet Bahceli, the MHP is seen as the best match for the conservative AK in government. The MHP has already said one condition for its support to any party was an end to the peace process, which aims at ending decades of state discrimination against Kurds and a bloody guerrilla war.

The HDP, mindful of the anti-AK protest votes it won, has said it would not support an AK government, but how can it in all conscience support an MHP one? Its election showing will give it a strong hand against the restive rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), but if the process supported by imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan is abandoned, can it stop them from fighting once more?

As for the CHP – proud as always of its static 25%. It shouldn’t be. The desperate search for a proper opposition is one reason voters tried out the Kurds. Without the numbers to govern with just one of the other opposition parties, CHP is calling for a grand coalition of all the parties apart from AK. But how harmoniously can they unite the MHP, which took votes from AK by conservatives angered by rapprochement by the Kurds, and the HDP, many of whose supporters would see the MHP as a sworn enemy?

One intriguing scenario would be an AK-CHP coalition – the union of two experienced parties and one the markets might like, if AK led on the economy and the CHP on democratic reform.

A rerun?

Whatever scenario, the fear is of another general election well before the end of this parliament, with all the inherent populism, instability and overspending that goes with it.

The trouble is, Turkey’s voters are overwhelmingly right of centre. All the Turkish parties that enjoyed strong majorities have occupied that territory – from the Justice Party of Adnan Menderes to the Motherland Party of Turgut Ozal, and now, AK. When these parties lose their wider appeal, the voters don’t quite know what to do. It would be nice to think that the CHP could widen its constituency to become a kind of New Labour and embrace Kurds and economic liberals, or, even less likely but as enticing, for the HDP to become a national party and take on a truly social democratic mantle – but I’m not holding my breath.

This means that salvation – in terms of a stable one-party government – is a long way off unless a popular politician from the centre right emerges either to take over AK party or form a new grouping. As one commentator said, what many voters really wanted was an AK party that had reverted to its “factory settings” – good economic governance and a pro human rights, pro-democracy, pro-EU approach.

Until someone or something fills that space, the future could be less edifying than the election celebrations could lead us to believe.

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