Election preview: Turkey

Apologies for the recent shortage of blogging, due to a combination of travel and poor health. There’s been a lot happening, so we’ll try to catch up with some of it over the next few days.

Turkey votes today in a general election to determine whether the Islamist-based Justice and Development Party (AKP), in government since 2002, will secure a fourth term. It’s widely considered to be both one of the most important and most unpredictable elections in Turkey for decades.

AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been probably the most successful Turkish leader since Kemal Attaturk, who founded modern Turkey in the 1920s. Although the roots of his party are in political Islam, the early part of his tenure was noteworthy for its liberalism and modernisation, moving Turkey away from its authoritarian past and towards the democratic standards required for membership of the European Union, which Erdoğan strongly supported.

This, of course, failed to fit the western narrative of irreconcilable opposition between Islam and democracy, so it was largely ignored. But it was domestically popular, and Erdoğan was re-elected with large majorities in 2007 and 2011 – helped by Turkey’s electoral system, of which more shortly.

All power, however, tends to corrupt, and since 2011 if not before, Erdoğan has looked much less like the model democrat. Turkey has slipped to 149th (out of 180) in the World Press Freedom index, and the BBC reports allegations that “this could be the last democratic election before Turkey becomes an autocracy.” The parallels should not be overdrawn, but it’s easy to see an analogy with the creeping authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin.

Young, secular Turks in particular are starting to feel threatened by the AKP’s policies, although it’s not always easy to tell whether this is about a fundamentalist agenda or just the natural conservatism of older men who’ve been in power a long time.

There have been a number of landmarks since the 2011 election, but two stand out: the nationwide wave of protests in 2013 that began in Taksim Square in Istanbul, and Erdoğan’s transfer last year from the prime ministership to the presidency, which he won in a nationwide ballot with a modest 51.8% of the vote.

Technically, therefore, it is not Erdoğan but prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu who is seeking re-election today. But although the president is supposed to be a figurehead, Erdoğan’s ambitions for the job are much more substantial, and an AKP victory will undoubtedly put constitutional change to achieve that on the agenda.

Voting is by D’Hondt proportional representation in 85 electoral districts, with a high nationwide threshold of 10%. In the past, Kurdish-based parties have circumvented the threshold by running as independents; 35 of them were elected that way in 2011, with a total of 6.6% of the vote. The remaining 515 seats were divided among just three parties: 327 to the AKP (from 49.8% of the vote), 135 to the centre-left opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP, 26.0%), and 53 to the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP, 13.0%).

The big difference this year is that the Kurds are supporting a new party, the broadly social-democratic People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which is polling very close to the crucial 10% mark. If it falls short, it seems overwhelmingly likely that the AKP will again win a clear majority, raising questions about the democratic legitimacy of the system – questions that will be exacerbated by the fact that because both local and presidential elections were held last year, there will be no more electoral tests for the government until 2019.

But if the HDP makes it into parliament, and the AKP finds itself in a minority as a result, things will get very interesting. A grand coalition of the three opposition parties would be incredibly difficult: the CHP and MHP managed to agree on a joint presidential candidate last year but otherwise have little in common, while the HDP and MHP each seem ideologically closer to the AKP than to each other.

Yet it’s equally hard to see any of the three being willing to make peace with the AKP without at least a very serious clipping of Erdoğan’s wings.


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