November 08, 2015

Erdoğan’s Revenge in the Turkish Election

Vijay Prashad

ON November 1, the Turkish people went to the ballot box. Voting is mandatory in Turkey, so the turnout is always high. It was just above 84 percent this time. What the Turkish people voted for, however, was unclear.

The victory, plainly, was of the AKP – the Justice and Development Party – of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It won just short of half of the votes, giving it 315 seats in the parliament of 550. The threshold for governance is 267, which the AKP was not able to attain in this June’s parliamentary election. Despite having the largest bloc in parliament in that election, Erdoğan’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu could not bring in any of the other parties into a coalition. The AKP has become toxic for other parties, although it continues to be able to claim nearly a majority of the voting population. Neither the fascistic Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) nor the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) wanted to allow their delegates to vote for an AKP minority government. Erdoğan called for new elections. This was a risk. It paid off for the AKP.




But this is not a total victory for Erdoğan. The president has been eager to rewrite Turkey’s 1982 Constitution. There is a legitimate reason to revise this Constitution, which gives the military, via the National Security Council, oversight of civilian affairs. Erdoğan and his fellow Islamists fear the military, which as recently as 1997 overthrew the government of Erdoğan’s mentor Necmettin Erbakan. But this is not the only reason why Erdoğan is interested in Constitutional change. He is eager to turn Turkey into a presidential republic, which advantages his party, and to set aside the often fractious Turkish parliament. His ambitions for presidential authority are symbolised in the over thousand room Ak Saray (White Palace) in Turkey’s capital Ankara. The 315 seats for the AKP will not allow Erdoğan to change the Constitution.

To change the Constitution, Erdoğan’s AKP would have had to win 330 seats at least. This margin – three fifths of the parliament – would have allowed the government to call for a popular referendum. If they had won 367 seats – a two thirds majority – then they could change the Constitution inside parliament itself. Turkey has twice had constitutional amendments (2007 and 2010), so this is not unheard of for the electorate. But the scale of changes that Erdoğan proposed has worried a segment of the population, which sees the “Turkish-style presidentialism” as an entrenched form of authoritarianism. It would exert power over the parliament and the judiciary, disenfranchising more than half of the electorate that do not vote for the AKP.

Turkey’s parliamentary system allows parties to take seats in the parliament only if they win over ten percent of the vote. Any party that wins less than ten percent forfeits its seats. The AKP is blocked by three other parties – the CHP, the MHP and the Leftist People’s Democratic Party (HDP) – all of whom secured over ten percent in the two parliamentary elections of this year. The CHP – which has ruled Turkey for most of its non-military history – routinely wins a secure quarter of the votes and holds 134 seats. The fascist nationalist party – MHP – and the Left bloc – HDP – both win about eleven percent each, with another hundred seats between them. Erdoğan’s plan was to take as many votes as possible not from the CHP – whose secular republicans are resolutely against the AKP – but from the MHP and the HDP.




During the election campaign, the AKP government shifted hard right on issues of Turkish nationalism and the question of security. After a period of peace talks with the banned Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), the AKP government began to attack their bases in Iraq and arrest their underground cadres in south-eastern Turkey. In September, the AKP delegates fanned on their supporters and the fascistic Grey Wolves to strike at various Kurdish targets, including office of the pro-Kurdish HDP. Winks and nods toward Turkish supremacy over the minorities – including public statements by Erdoğan denying the Armenian genocide and denying the existence of the Kurdish problem. This hard turn drew voters of the fascistic MHP to the AKP. Why would they vote for the MHP when the AKP – much more likely to win – had adopted much of the vision of the MHP? The MHP support collapsed. In November, they lost half the seats they won in the June elections to the AKP.

The HDP is an alliance of Turkey’s Left and the Kurdish nationalist parties. These groups came together in 2012 as an electoral front, which has now morphed into a political party. But this new party had a tenuous hold on their electorate. The Kurdish population, which typically votes for the Kurdish nationalist parties, held faith with the HDP in June. The HDP won over a majority of the Kurdish electorate. A bomb blast at a HDP rally in Ankara sent a strong message to the Kurdish population: if the HDP wins, disorder and war will continue. It allowed the AKP to put itself forward as the party of Order. Sections of traditionalist Kurds, who had already been uneasy with the HDP’s radical political platform (socialism, gay rights, women’s rights), went for the AKP this election cycle. Between intimidation and a call for traditionalism, the AKP was able to make inroads into the Kurdish heartland. “Unfortunately, it was a difficult and troubled period of election campaigning. Lives were lost,” said Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the HDP.

Furthermore, the alliance between the Kurdish nationalists and the Left has moved the Kurdish parties to step away from the separatist ambitions of Kurdish nationalism. The new language is for human rights and dignity within Turkey not departure from Turkey. A section of (mainly younger) Kurds who have seen their livelihood collapse and an increase in the security pressure from the army and Turkish intelligence are not prepared to accept the Turkish bargain. The violence visited upon Turkey’s south-east by the Erdoğan government put a great deal of stress on these communities, whose youth broke their allegiance for the HDP and voted for the marginal – but firmly Kurdish separatist – Rights and Freedoms Party (Hakpar). Amongst the Left there is also a lack of unity, with the Patriotic Party (Vatan), the People’s Liberation Party (HKP) and the Communist Party (KP, founded in 2014) standing outside the HDP. Each of these parties took votes away from the HDP.




Press freedoms in the run-up to the election came under serious threat from the government. The situation got so bad that the US State Department called upon Erdoğan to “uphold universal democratic values, including due process, freedom of expression and assembly, and of course access to media and information.”

On October 14, the Turkish government arrested Bülent Kenes, editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman, for insulting Turkey’s president on Twitter – which is itself frequently blocked in Turkey. Kenes described the AKP rule in the terms of “arbitrariness, unlawfulness and one-man despotism.” In early October, another popular critic of the Erdoğan government, Ahmet Hakan of Hürriyet and Tarafsiz Bölge, was beaten on the streets of Istanbul. Abdurrahim Boynakalin, an AKP deputy and leader of its youth wing, is reported to have led the assault on Hürriyet’s office. He said that he would “wait” for Hakan at his home. Cem Küçük, who writes for the pro-AKP Star, wrote of Hakan in his column, “We will crush you like a bug if we wish. It is only because we have been merciful to you until now that you are still alive.”

BirGün, a Left daily newspaper, has been targeted for its coverage. Ibrahim Varli, BirGün’s editor, said, “All opposition media outlets feel that they are working under threat. All this is happening under the impact of AKP tyranny.” Journalist Ömür Sahin Keyif of BirGün fears that the “new state” of Erdoğan will no longer aspire to control the government. It wants to control all instruments of the State. This will put the press and opposition parties under great threat.




Erdoğan’s AKP government had been obdurate on Syria, insisting on the removal of the Assad government. Turkey and Qatar have a proxy in the fight – Ahrar as-Sham – and Turkey has allowed ISIS almost free movement across its borders. But this has set Turkey at loggerheads with the US government, which has not only asked for the border to be secured but also for Turkey to cease its hostile position vis-à-vis the Kurdish militias. But the US position is weak. Turkey allowed the US to use its Incirlik air base for bombing runs on Syria only if the US allowed the Turks to bomb the PKK bases in Iraq. Turkey’s antipathy to the Kurdish Question has meant it will not allow anyone to resupply one of the most effective on-the-ground fighters against ISIS.

The Russian intervention in Syria has closed down the question of Western-backed regime change. That means that Erdoğan’s hope to remove Assad is now foreclosed. Ankara has come to terms with this. It continues to support its proxy, which has been hit hard by Russian airstrikes. At the Vienna meetings of the regional powers, held before the election results, Turkey took a mute position. It has drawn down its view that the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria will be able to ride into power in Damascus. More parochial questions are at stake – such as the permanence of what Syrian Kurds call Rojava, the autonomous Kurdish province that is on Syrian territory but abuts Turkey. Will this be allowed to exist in a new Syria? Turkey would prefer it does not. If this is its main ambition, then Turkey will have to dial down its insistence that Assad leave office. Despite the election victory, in fact, Erdoğan will have to dial down many of his ambitions.