Towards the new Turkish general elections: will this time be different?

Once again Turkey will be holding general elections, on November 1st, because the main political parties failed to form a coalition government after the June results. The previous elections marked the end of the political supremacy of the Justice & Development Party (AKP) led by the current Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and the President of the Republic Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, after their party won the absolute majority of seats in the Turkish National Assembly in 2002, 2007 and 2011. The following graph shows the distribution of seats in the June 7th election:

 seats in June elections
We have already discussed the consequences of the previous elections (to read the analysis in Italian, click here), so in this occasion we will try to evaluate the possible outcomes of the upcoming ones, taking into consideration the major political developments which have recently occurred. The coalition talks between the AKP and the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), failed mostly due to President Erdoğan’s belief that an election rerun would have been necessary in order to secure a one-party majority and push towards a presidential system. In fact, the President of the Republic of Turkey should have a non-executive and impartial role in the domestic politics of the country, but the political ambition of Erdoğan, coupled with the directed election of the President as a result of the 2007 referendum backed by the AKP, are actually informally re-shaping the constitutional role of the Presidency.

The regional quagmire: Syria and the Kurdish issue 
Since the end of July, Turkey announced a military campaign against terrorism as part of the effort of the US-led coalition, notably against the Islamic State (IS) and the Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK) with airstrikes in the South-Eastern part of Turkey, Syria and Iraq. According to some sources, however, Turkey has been focusing more on the Kurdish militias rather than the Islamic State. The conflict between the Turkish Army and the PKK led to the collapse of the peace-process and the cease-fire which had guaranteed a relative stability in the South-Eastern part of the country after decades of fighting. Turkey has also recently targeted the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Northern Syria which are the armed wing of the political Democratic Union Party (PYD) and one of the key allies of the US in the fight against the Islamic State.

The conflicting strategic priorities of Turkey and the United States have sparked criticism and casted doubts on the long-term objectives of Ankara. Being often criticized for the lax control of its borders in the attempt to restrain the flow of foreign fighters into Syria, the heinous bombings at the Ankara peace rally on October 10th have definitely showed the security fallacies of the Turkish intelligence and could eventually result in a backlash against the AKP government.

The political discourse of the AKP has tried to link the IS to the PKK since the beginning of the military campaign of late July, suggesting that even the Ankara bombings were staged by the Kurdish movement itself. By now, one of the suicide bombers has been identified and consequently linked to the IS, even though there is no official revendication by the self-proclaimed caliphate. Regarding its Syria policy, it seems that the recent Russian intervention in the civil war is shifting the position of the regional actors, Turkey included, even though it reaffirmed the necessity of the removal from power of the Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

 The polls and the threats to free and fair elections
The military campaign and the rising social tensions haven’t dramatically increased the popularity of the AKP nor that of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). In fact, most polls show no real significant shifts in the distribution of votes, as this average opinion polling shows:

Moreover, the upcoming elections and the Ankara bombing have increasingly put pressure on the Turkish media. For example, after the terrorist attacks, the authorities issued a ban on the publications of photos of the massacre, while social media such as Facebook and Twitter experienced a significant slow-down. The crackdown on critical journalists and TV channels resulted in the arrest of the editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman for allegedly insulting the President on Twitter or to the seizure of the Koza İpek Holding which also holds media assets that stand accused of “funding the terrorist organization” led by Fethullah Gülen.

Finally, the Turkish Supreme Elector Board has rejected the call to relocate ballot boxes in some cities in the South-Eastern part of Turkey due to security reasons, but fear of vote-rigging and frauds remain high. The United States have recently expressed their concern regarding the protection of media and 65 lawmakers asked President Obama to put pressure on Turkey in order to ensure free and fair elections.

Post-election scenarios
Considering all the factors mentioned above, the most pressing needs of Turkey are a stable government and a coherent strategic posture in the region which will not undermine its long-term social and economic stability. Turkey is already facing the economic consequences of the previous elections and the turmoil which followed them, the reason being that investors increasingly reduced their market exposure to the country. As a result, Turkey is one of the most suffering among emerging markets and a continued financial pressure will not give room for maneuver to the Central Bank or the government.

Likely, the AKP will fall short of an absolute majority, opening the possibility to another coalition government. We take into consideration three coalition scenarios:

  • AKP – MHP coalition. Even though it is the most likely in terms of ideological affinity, the nationalists don’t seem likely to open up to a coalition with the AKP after the Ankara bombings nor agree with the relaxation of the condition of credible commitment to anti-corruption investigations and a non-political role of the President. It would however serve the short-term objective of a further polarization of Turkish society which could strengthen the AKP. It’s difficult to say if the AKP would embark itself in such a moral hazard;
  • AKP – CHP coalition. It is the most favored by the international community because it could pave the way for a more constructive role of the moderate MPs of the AKP, thus leading to more EU-oriented, less populist policies, while putting back on track the Kurdish peace process. One should consider, however, the transformation that the AKP has experienced in the last years, during which the most democratic and liberal components of the party have been increasingly marginalized, as the account of the former AKP’s MP Suat Kınıklıoğlu suggests.
  • CHP – MHP coalition. The leader of the CHP Kılıçdaroğlu has not ruled out such possibility, saying that there are several overlaps in their political manifestos. In this case, the role of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) would be crucial to guarantee the life of such minority government.

Another possible outcome is a new call for elections, possibly to be held in the first months of the next year. Again, such possibility would increase the instability of the country and eventually trigger financial turmoil.

Concluding remarks
Only an inclusive government will be able to refrain from further civil and economic tension. The crackdown on the media and the opposition seems like a short-sighted strategy, considering the challenges that the domestic and regional environment pose to Turkey. Ankara needs to tackle the Kurdish issue through a comprehensive, democratic and inclusive process. The electoral success of the HDP is a self-evident sign of the increasing dissatisfaction with the policies pursued by the government in terms of minority protection, gender equality and with its overall majoritarianism.

In this sense, the revitalization of the European Union’s accession process would serve as a credible anchor for reforms and the strengthening of the civil rights of all Turkish citizens. Considering the fact that both the EU and Turkey are facing the challenges posed by terrorism and the huge inflow of refugees from Syria, Iraq and the broader Middle East, these could push the two actors together, after the process lost its momentum in 2007.

Matteo Garnero


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