Monday, June 13, 2011

A Country Divided

Cartoon from Hurriyet

Sounding the same refrain as last September's constitutional referendum, yesterday's election results reveal Turkey to be increasingly divided between those who support the ruling AKP government and those who do not.

Yesterday the AKP managed to increase its vote from the  46.58% it captured in 2007 parliamentary elections to 49.91%, though the party lost lost seats and its 3/5 majority in parliament (see yesterday's post).

Additionally, the AKP became the first party since the Democratic Party in the 1950s to win three consecutive parliamentary elections; however, unlike the Democratic Party, the AKP has become more popular each election, not less. Yet, while the results hint at the AKP's growing popularity, they also hint at a growing disconnect between the party's supporters and those who fear its burgeoning illiberal tendencies (see last Tuesday's post).

The Other Half

As echoed by the results of a recent Pew poll, Turkey is becoming an increasingly divided country. While those who support the AKP continue to enthusiastically return it to power, the other half (and it is literally half) of its population is deeply concerned with the direction in which the country is headed. The abyss between the two camps has grown in recent years, revealing a social phenomenon much more complicated than the narrative so often told in Western newspapers of a conflict between the ascendant Islamist middle class and the secular Kemalist elite.

Instead, what is happening in Turkey is that half the population solidly supports the AKP and its policies while the other half are becoming increasingly alienated from the party for a variety of reasons. This "other half" is not some unified Kemalist/secularist/nationalist opposition bloc, but rather represents a diverse array of different facets of Turkish society that have been left out of the AKP's increasingly hegemonic vision.

Of those opposed to the AKP, there are those concerned with the party's Turkish-Sunni chauvinism. These include not only members of a secular elite, but also Alevis (15 to 20 million people), Kurds (also 15 to 20 million people, though many Kurds are also Alevis), liberals (including Islamists), and leftists concerned about the AKP's neoliberal economic schemes. There are also plenty of observant Sunni Muslims who are nonetheless less pious than the AKP and/or increasingly concerned with the party's attempts to legislate its values. At the same time, there is a significant number of voters (~10%) for whom the AKP is not chauvinist enough. Most of these vote for the ultra-nationalist MHP.

The Next Steps

From Radikal
Starting with Refah in 1994, the AKP's antecedent, the AKP has gradually increased its votes since first elected office in 2002 with the one exception being the March 2009 local elections.

This is where the steps the AKP takes after the elections become crucial. Prime Minister Erdogan is determined to push through a new constitution that would institute a presidential system. Erdogan is widely thought to have designs on running for president should the changes come into being.

However, in a twist, though the AKP increased its share of the popular vote, it lost seats in parliament and is now short of the 3/5 majority it needs to unilaterally amend the constitution as it did last year. The loss of seats is a function of two factors,  namely a high 10% threshold and a complicated system of closed-list proportional representation: an increase in the number of independent deputies associated with the Kurdish nationalist BDP and the increased number of voters in big cities where the party tends to do less well.

As a result of the shortfall, the AKP to some degree be pressured to compromise with opposition political parties if a new constitution is going to emerge, an objective supported by all political parties entering parliament.

That said, and despite Prime Minister Erdogan's acceptance speech yesterday in which he vowed to seek consensus as his government moves forward with a new constitution, it is possible, even likely, that the AKP will use its power to push forward its agenda with minimal compromise and consultation (as it has in the past). However, the risk, of course, is the way that power is enacted  (targeting of journalists, libel suits, increased reliance on executive and administrative orders, more power to cabinet/less to parliament, limited minority rights, restrictions on association/NGO activity, etc.).

The most popular politician in the history of Turkish electoral politics, Erdogan has accomplished a tremendous electoral feat. It is more likely to encourage his appetite for power than to tame it. Power corrupts, and the more absolute the power, the more absolutely it corrupts.

Weep Not for the Opposition

And, where does the opposition stand -- and those who did not vote for the AKP? For one, it is unlikely the AKP will be able to further increase its vote. Given that the number of people unhappy with the direction in which Turkey is headed is the same number of people who did not vote for the AKP (see Pew Poll above), there is little headway the AKP can make in terms of winning additional votes -- basically, the party is maxed out.

All the same, the AKP's uncanny ability to turn nationalist then liberal -- only to do it all over again -- cannot be underestimated, and the party has a decent shot at maintaining its current numbers, especially if it decides to move again to the left so as to not be out-done by the CHP. However, I do believe the party's most recent bout of illiberalism, on full-display in its handling of the Ergenekon investigation, has burned many bridges, as did its extreme nationalist return in the past few months preceding the election.

There is little likelihood that bridges with more nationalist-inclined Kurds can be repaired given the ruling party's tenor this election cycle, especially given the failure of its Kurdish opening to deliver many concretes. Even less likely is that the party will win back the liberals and progressives who have been breaking ranks since 2005, many of whom have come to fear the party as a new authoritarian threat.

While the AKP might win some hardline nationalist votes from the MHP, it is unlikely to have much success here without losing a certain remainder of optimistic liberals who have continued to support the party for its economic successes and in spite of its illiberal tendencies.


PHOTO from Radikal

Meanwhile, the CHP should regard its performance yesterday as a victory. "The new CHP," as the party has billed itself in the run up to the elections, managed to increase its vote share by 5% (a larger increase than the AKP) and gain 38 seats. Additionally, the CHP seems to have broadened its geographic reach, winning its party leader's home province of Tunceli while faring reasonably better in areas outside of its traditional strongholds. Support for the party might not be as deep in traditonally nationalist coastal enclaves (Antalya, Canakkale, and Izmir) as it once was, but the party has broadened its support beyond voters in these provinces while successfully moving toward establishing a different, much more liberal, pro-European electoral base.

Though no doubt disappointed, the CHP should realize it will take time for the Turkish public to trust it. A party in transition, the CHP had been up until a year ago an intolerant, oftentimes destructive force, providing people with little to no alternative but to vote for the AKP. There are likely plenty of Turkish voters who cast ballots for the AKP but are less than solid supporters; however, they do not trust the CHP either.

 Further, as Milliyet columnist Asli Aydintasbas (in Turkish) writes, the CHP lacks the organizational and fundraising capacity of the AKP and should give itself some time to catch up.

All the same, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu is likely to face extreme pressure from his party. There are already rumors that the party's old guard is plotting his demise and some papers are reporting the leader offered to step down.

Message to CHP: Patience is a virtue. After many years of not being progressive, it is simply going to take time and commitment to get people to trust in the party. If the party decides to once more change course, it is likely to do more harm than good to its long-term viability.


The BDP is the clear winner in this election. Most pre-election polls expected the BDP to win between 25 and 30 seats, a significant increase over its present 20. However, the BDP's ability to capture 36 seats has taken many by surprise, though it should not. As mentioned above, the AKP's nationalist turn (see past post) has thoroughly alienated many Kurds. Though many of these voters were already alienated, hence the BDP's electoral success in local elections in March 2009, the most recent electoral cycle has driven many to a virtual point of no return. It will be difficult for the AKP to build consensus with the party given the bad feeling and that the BDP will feel more emboldened by this recent triumph.
The good news is that two of the party's more dovish figures, Ahmet Turk and Aysel Tugluk, who were expelled from parliament in December 2009, have returned, but so has Leyla Zana, a Kurdish militant hardliner who often advocates on behalf of the PKK. Just what the BDP will do in the coming months is uncertain, but one thing is for certain: hardline Kurdish nationalism, including militancy, got a boost this election year.


While many thought the sex scandal would finish off what was already an ultra-nationalist party in decline, the MHP managed to comfortably pass the 10% threshold with relative ease. This might in part be due to rising unrest in the southeast and Kurdish nationalism, to which equally virulent Turkish nationalism is too frequently the response. No matter how hard the AKP tries to devour this ultra-nationalist core of voters, they still do not seem comfortable voting for Erdogan. Pro-state, nationalist idealists are just simply not going to budge on this one.

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