The viewpoint of Prof. Ziya Öniş over the 7th June elections

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Several party flags hanging out in the streets of Istanbul during the 2015 legislative campaign – Eleonora Bacchi

Ziya Öniş is Professor of International Relations and the former Director of the Center for Research on Globalization and Democratic Governance (GLODEM) at Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey.
His last paper – Monopolising the Centre: The AKP and the Uncertain Path of Turkish Democracywas published on June 19th on The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs.

The first session of the newly elected 25th Grand National Assembly of Turkey will take place on Tuesday the 23rd of June. Following the 7th June elections, the Supreme Electoral Council has announced on the 18th the official results confirming the general trend indicated on the eve of the Election Day. The ruling party which has seamlessly been in power for the last 13 years, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) of the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, although gaining the first position by once again receiving 40.66% of the votes, failed for the first time to reach a majority that would allow it to form a government without searching for a coalition. The Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP) took 25.13% of the votes, becoming the second biggest represented in Parliament, while the third is the Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, MHP) with 16.45%. A fourth party reached the percentage to enter the Parliament, passing the 10% threshold; it is the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, HDP) which obtained 12.96% of the favors. Then the allocation of the Parliament’s seats will be so formed: 258 seats for the AKP, 132 for CHP, 80 for both MHP and HDP.

In light of the previous elections of 2011 some considerations can be made. The AKP faces a drop of around 9% of the votes compared to the 2011 result when it received 49.83% at the elections. This difference can be seen as specular to the advantage of the two parties that faced an increase on their votes, i.e. HDP and MHP. The pro-Kurdish party, which came into the elections in 2011 with independent candidates (because it is the only way to escape the 10% threshold), saw redoubling its share of the votes moving from 6.57% to 12.86%. The nationalist party, MHP, saw also an increase of 3.4% in the votes. The CHP position on the other hand remains almost the same with a loss of less than one point.

 

2011

2015

 
% votes N° seats % votes N° seats difference % 2011-2015
AKP 49.83 327 40.66 258 -9.17
CHP 25.98 135 25.13 132 -0.85
MHP 13.01 53 16.45 80 3.44
HDP 6.57* 35* 12.96 80 6.39
Source: Supreme Electoral Council website – http://www.ysk.gov.tr/
* the party ran for the elections not as a group but with independent candidates

Following the oath ceremony of the 23rd of June, the speaker of the Assembly should be elected within the end of the month. This will be the first test for a feasible coalition between the parties. Within 45 days after the election of the speaker indeed, the new government must be presented and this will be almost certainly a coalition government, given the fact that no party has a strong majority to create a single-party government.

Waiting for the next steps towards the formation of the new Turkish government we report the viewpoint of Professor Ziya Öniş over the elections and possible future scenarios.

Q: Prof. Ziya Öniş, which are your general observations about the 7th June elections?

A: I see this election as a major window of opportunity for Turkish democracy, because I think the period from 2011 – where AKP has won 50% of the votes – has led to overconfidence. Especially with Erdoğan’s growing power I think we see a sort of growing authoritarian turn and democratic backslide in Turkey. So I see it as a major reaction to the excessive power of Erdoğan in the recent period.

And obviously one of the major factors is the HDP phenomenon which I think is very important because one of the reasons why the AKP’s vote has dropped is that the religious conservative Kurds have voted for the HDP. This is important in showing that the Kurds, especially after the Kobanê affair (see our 09/23/2014 edition), have lost faith in Erdoğan and AKP in terms of strengthening and continuing with the Kurdish Peace Process. But also interesting in HDP phenomenon is that HDP with Selahattin Demirtaş presents itself not as an ethnical party anymore – although it’s predominantly getting Kurdish votes – but as a party of Turkey, coming to the center stage of Turkish politics.

This is an important step in terms of dealing with the major problem of Turkey, the Kurdish question, politically rather than militarily. Many Turks, who would normally vote for the social democratic party (CHP), have voted for HDP. For two reasons: one, the belief that this is a party which is genuine in favor of political rights and freedoms and it’s an opportunity for Turkey to deal with this Kurdish issue and in this sense the Demirtaş leadership has been quite attractive for many Turks not only for the Kurds; and second the fear of the regime turning into an increasingly more authoritarian mood, because (and this was the big fear) if the HDP failed to pass the electoral threshold and the AKP won about 330 seats, they would move in favor of the presidential system.

I hope this will be an opportunity to make coalition politics work in Turkey because in the past coalition politics have failed. But this doesn’t mean that coalition politics cannot work in Turkey, it requires a lot of restraint compromise behavior on the part of key political actors. But I think it’s difficult to have viable coalitions in a very polarized political environment.

Q: What are the main factors of the loss of AKP votes?

A: One of the reasons why AKP has experienced a significant drop in the votes is the Erdoğan factor. Erdoğan, who played a very important role through his personal charisma in the early stages of AKP, is now turning to a liability. If you look at participation rate in the elections it is around 86% which is very high, much higher than the 70% in the presidential elections. So I think the period spanning between the beginning of Erdoğan’s presidency and this election alarmed many people about the fact that increasingly, I think, we are heading on the wrong direction, especially with the symbolism – this new big palace and lavish expenses – Erdoğan is now increasingly presenting himself as a kind of Ottoman Sultan.

One of the positive developments could lead to genuine intra-party democracy in the AKP, with more discussion and more alternative. Because the AKP itself – which is still the dominant force in Turkish politics – is not a monolithic coalition. There are different voices: there are more liberal elements and more nationalistic elements; Kurds, plus the co-religious conservative people. […] There are many within the party who are strongly supporting Erdoğan and they will not concede defeat very easily. But at the same time there are people who are conservative but who are not happy about the way in what Erdoğan is trying to increase and use his power in the recent period.

Q: Like Abdullah Gül?

A: Yes, I think that Gül represents the most liberal face of the AKP and there are many people like that who are conservative but also pluralistic. The way that Gül acted during his presidential power was much more within the constitutional limits so Gül is very critical but he has been sidelined. I think that the hope of people close to Erdoğan is not to form a coalition government, delay the process, have an early election and hope that they will get many of the votes back. But I think it would be impossible for them at this stage, in the short term, to get the votes of the Kurds and if the Kurdish party still gets more than 10% they will still be not in a position to form a single party government.

An alternative strategy for AKP would be to form a coalition and try to go into early elections in a year’s time, not immediately. Hoping to show during this period that the coalition is not working effectively and they need a majority government. But that’s also a risky strategy because they could lose in the process, especially if the economy evolves in a sort of crisis situation.

To come back to the reasons for the loss of votes, another element I think has been the way Erdoğan presented this election as an election, seeking a mandate for a presidential system and I think that it has been a mistake. He calls for an extreme concentration of power, and the way he acted, violating the constitution during the campaign advocating for the cause of AKP, was a mistake because in our system the president has to be neutral in the elections while he was on the streets. So in a way I think that Erdoğan has lost the election more than the AKP.

Another reason is the relative economic decline of the recent period. We see a slowdown of economic growth – which is not as impressive as in the earlier part of AKP government – and rising unemployment, although we are not in a real crisis situation. […]

Another issue is the Kurdish Peace Process. The failure to show commitment with the Kurdish peace process has alienated the Kurds because in the past the Kurdish votes were evenly balanced between the AKP and the Kurdish ethnic parties. Now almost 90% of the votes of the Kurds have gone to the Kurdish party (or the HDP). The Kurdish Peace Process has also created a nationalistic backlash among the Turks. So the AKP has been undercut from two directions both the Kurdish nationalists and the Turkish nationalists.

Another element which I find important is the spirit of the Gezi protest. For the first time it had a political impact, perhaps not a major one, but it was channeled into HDP for 2 or 3%.

And another interesting factor that I want to emphasize is that Turkey’s major democratization reforms in the early 2000s were conducted under the impulse of the EU membership. The EU was a very critical actor in the period from 2000 to 2007. But now the real challenge for Turkey is that we have to regain the democratization impulse through domestic politics because the EU soft power is quite limited (in spite of the reports of the European Parliament). The reputation effect is not working without credible membership signals. In this context external dynamics are not that significant since nobody believes that membership can materialize in the foreseeable future.

Q: What about the possibility to form a minority government? Which are otherwise the feasible coalitions?

A: It is also an option for the AKP to form a minority government because they have quite a significant number of MPs. Then in the case that they will not be able to govern the Country, they can also use the weapon of “we tried to act constructively and others blocked us”. […]

If you look at different scenarios, an AKP-MHP coalition would be possible because many of the votes of the AKP have moved to MHP. So, discontent of the AKP has been channelized in part to HDP, and in part to MHP. In many Anatolian cities, the more nationalistic and the quite conservative electorate is channeled to MHP. But if that coalition takes place, then it would be a major barrier to resolving the Kurdish question, because MHP is the key actor which opposes any kind of opening. And especially one of their problems is that there is very strong leadership continuity. If the party [the MHP] could be transformed, with a new leader and a new vision, perhaps they could get a much larger percentage of the votes from the AKP. But they don’t’ have that kind of vision at the moment (MHP). So whenever they are able to increase their votes it’s primarily when there is dissatisfaction in the AKP rather than coming up with a positive agenda.

I think the best workable scenario is an AKP-CHP coalition. The problem in the case of CHP is that the CHP itself is a coalition of two very different elements: one is a very hardline secular nationalistic kemalist segment who are not willing to compromise in many issues and the other a more liberal and social democratic camp (which I think Kılıçdaroğlu is close to). So the problem for the CHP is that it also has to strike a compromise within the party which is a rether difficult challenge in itself. […]

An alternative coalition comprising of CHP-HDP-MHP, leaving out AKP is in my opinion not workable in any case given the extent of differences.

It is a big window of opportunity but it can be missed. […] The nice thing about these elections is that the complexity, the plurality of Turkey is now 100% represented in the Parliament. So you cannot say that anybody is now excluded. In spite of this infamous 10% threshold everybody is represented. In terms of representation it is fine, but whether representation can be turned into effective governance is a problem and that requires effective coalition building, political actors acting more in the public interest rather than for a short-term partisan interest. […] A politics of compromise in a country where politics is much pluralized and the term compromise means weakness. But the cost of not compromising could be quite alarming.

Q: How will the result of the elections affect the economy and the foreign policy of Turkey?

A: I think that economy is one of the major risks and the business community is right: it wants a new government formed because there is a lot of uncertainty and the economy is in a fragile situation. So one of the big challenges is to form a coalition government and use it to implement effective economic policies. […] The longer the process is delayed the more the uncertainty grows. And since the risks of a major economic downturn would hit the governing party itself, this should also increase the incentives for the AKP to form a government soon. […]

In terms of foreign policy already there has been a pragmatic turn and I think with a coalition government this will continue. Uncertainty was one of the mistakes of the AKP government on the Syrian case, for example. Taking a very sharp anti-Assad position versus a more lenient position towards ISIS has, I believe, affected quite significantly Turkey’s international popularity, and has led to major criticism from both US and the EU. So my sense is that with a coalition government a more restrained, and more balanced foreign policy will take place. I see also a link between democracy at home and foreign policy abroad. What we see in 2011 to 2015 period is a backsliding of democracy at home and unilateralism abroad.


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