In divided Turkey, election unlikely to resolve uncertainty

Todays Zaman
Publication date: 
Oct 29 2015

As extremist violence and political uncertainty cast a shadow over Turkey, voters are looking for Sunday's parliamentary election to usher in stability. But in a deeply polarized country, the most likely result is more confusion.

The election is a redo of June elections in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) stunningly lost its majority. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for new elections after Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu failed to form a coalition with any of the three opposition parties represented in parliament.

The ballot comes at a sensitive time for Turkey, a key Western ally that has major issues to navigate: It faces rising instability in neighboring Syria and Iraq and a refugee crisis that is spilling into Europe. There are also doubts about the country's once-booming economy -- concerns exasperated by political deadlock and violence damaging the key tourism sector.

With analysts expecting a similar inconclusive result in Sunday's election, the key question is whether Erdoğan would allow his party to form a coalition. Doing so would effectively force Erdoğan to relinquish his iron grip on power in Turkey.

There is a small chance that he won't have to. In the June elections, the AK Party won just over 40 percent of votes, falling 18 seats short of the 276 needed for an outright majority. The AK Party is now hoping it can cover the distance and eke out a slight majority by targeting some of the constituencies that it lost narrowly.

The June election showed that Erdoğan's biggest problem is the rise of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). For the first time, the HDP easily cleared the 10 percent threshold needed for representation as a party in Parliament, taking seats mostly at the AK Party's expense.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, the worst violence in years broke out in Turkey between the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and Turkish security forces. Two massive suicide bombings at pro-Kurdish gatherings apparently carried out by an Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group cell severely heightened tensions. Kurds charge that the government failed to secure the events, while Erdoğan and other AK Party leaders alleged -- without offering evidence -- that the bombings were planned by a "cocktail" of Turkish enemies that included ISIL and the staunchly secular PKK.

In the violence, one of Erdoğan's most notable accomplishments -- peace talks with the PKK to end decades of violence and integrate the Kurdish Southeast -- has come undone. Erdoğan has lashed out at the HDP, calling it the political arm of the PKK, which Turkey and most Western countries consider a terrorist organization. The election could give a signal on the direction of the peace process.

"A decline in [the HDP's] public support will be an indication of the decline in public support for the [peace] process," said Giray Sadık, associated professor at Ankara's Yıldırım Beyazıt University. He added that given the sensitivities there will be close observation from both sides of the security of ballots in the Kurdish Southeast. "Even relatively minor incidents may disturb the balance and are likely to raise questions about the legitimacy of the elections."

In ordering new elections, Erdoğan appeared to calculate that Turkish voters would conclude that returning the AK Party to a majority was the country's only chance of regaining stability and strong growth. Davutoğlu has been campaigning against a coalition, while Erdoğan has played a quieter role after barnstorming the country ahead of the June vote.

"Their claim is that currently Turkey is unstable because the AK Party has lost its majority, and whatever negative development is taking place in Turkey right now is taking place because the AK Party has lost its majority," says Özgür Unluhisarcıklı, the Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund.

But that's a hard argument to make with an AK Party caretaker government in place after 13 years of majority rule. It may be hard to win back lost voters, especially among a large number of religious Kurds who had backed the AK Party in previous elections.

To better steer the precarious situation, Erdoğan has tightened his control over his own party. Under the Turkish Constitution, the president is meant to stay out of party politics and mostly above the political fray. But Erdoğan has argued that as the first directly elected president, he has a moral mandate to lead the country. When he left his position as prime minister and head of his party in 2014 to assume the presidency, Erdoğan took a gamble that the AK Party could win a sufficiently large majority to change the Constitution and endow the presidency with broad new powers. With that strategy in tatters, he hopes that even with a small majority, he can guide Parliament from the presidential palace.

At a party conference after the June elections, Erdoğan managed to install his own loyalists among the party hierarchy and on the list of candidates for Sunday's poll. This came at Davutoğlu's expense. Now, ironically, a disappointing result on Sunday could empower Davutoğlu to form a coalition with the opposition, independent Erdoğan, who would be weakened by a slip in the polls.

As in past elections, Erdoğan's great advantage is that there is no comparable opponent in Turkish politics. The opposition remains fractured and comparably weak with the next largest party, the secularist main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), garnering only 27 percent in the June elections. Even if the AK Party slips a few points on Sunday it will remain the largest party and the leader of any conceivable coalition.

But analysts have doubts that Erdoğan would give Davutoğlu a free hand to negotiate a stable deal with the CHP, the HDP or the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). If the results are bad, he may look for early elections again. But it's hard to see why a third try would solve Erdoğan's problem.