Turkish democracy, as every other democracy, works in interesting ways. In 1983, the voters voted for the only civilian party in general elections — signaling to the military that it was time to go back to the barracks. Similarly, after a decade of failing coalition governments in late 1990s, in 2002 the voters kicked out all parties that had seats in the parliament at the time. Yesterday’s election was not quite on par with those two general elections in that regard, but the voters did send a very clear message to the government, and in particular to President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an. With a sharp drop to 40% of the vote, their message this time was “not so fast.”
Since he was elected last summer as the President of Turkey, a quite symbolic head-of-state position with some veto and appointment powers, Erdo?an has been campaigning for a presidential system with him at the helm. He made it clear that he finds the American presidency quite weak and that he felt sorry for President Obama. Moreover, he also said he did not believe in separation of powers. He vowed he’d have a presidential system “Turkish style.” (Or what some might describe as a Putin-esque style presidency.)
Even though the Presidency is a “neutral” position by law, Erdo?an dominated the general election campaign and turned the election almost into a referendum on the presidential system. He openly asked for “400 seats” for the incumbent AKP (his party — Justice and Development Party) so that they could change the constitutional system from parliamentary to presidential system without consulting with any of the opposition parties.
So, what happened?
The Turkish voters said a clear NO to Erdogan’s aspirations for a presidential system. Yes, AKP will still have the highest number of seats in the parliament; however, they lost their parliamentary majority for the first time in 12 years. They still have a presence in every city (MPs are elected at city level) in Turkey, but they also lost votes in every city. They will not be able to change the constitution on their own; not even with a coalition partner. Prime Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu gave a speech last night declaring his party’s victory, but it is very telling that Erdo?an has been “off the air” in the last 24 hours (for a change).
In the campaign, Erdo?an’s biggest obstacle was HDP (The Peoples’ Democratic Party) a party that came out of the Kurdish political party that was, for decades, a regional power in the Southeast of Turkey. Because of the 10% electoral threshold that was put in place by the military government to stop smaller parties from getting representation in the parliament, only independent candidates affiliated with the Kurdish movement ran in the last few general elections.
An important political change occurred last summer. The Kurdish party, merging with the country’s socialists and other leftist factions, entered the national scene as HDP, a party of pluralistic democracy representing the underserved — Kurds, other minorities , women, the poor, the unemployed, non-Muslims, the gays, and the disabled. The party’s presidential candidate, as well as the co-chair of the party, Selahattin Demirtas got 9.8% of the national vote in that election.
Determined to be an all-inclusive national political party rather than a regional one, the party took a risk and participated in the general elections as a party rather than with independent candidates. They ran a very successful, positive and calm campaign with a very catchy slogan “We will not let you become president” (“Seni Baskan Yaptirmayacagiz” in Turkish) — despite all verbal and physical attacks on their campaign and campaign volunteers, including a bomb in Diyarbakir (a southeastern city in the heart of Turkey’s Kurdish region) that killed 3 people just two days shy of the elections. (In Diyarbakir HDP got 77.7% of the votes.)
HDP conveyed their message effectively; receiving 13% of the vote. They will bring 80 MPs to the parliament, 31 of whom are women, attesting to the strong presence of women in the party. A record in Turkish politics, the incoming parliament will have the highest number of women deputies in its history !
Interestingly though, all votes for the HDP did not necessarily come from HDP supporters. The party has been successfully able to convey its message of democracy and peace, but because of its organic ties to PKK and its imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan, there are many who still have second thoughts about the party.
However, if HDP had not exceeded the 10% threshold, most of the seats that have now gone to HDP, would have gone to AKP and AKP would have the numbers to change the constitution on their own to have a presidential system.
Thus, the super high 10% electoral threshold put in place by the military, but never decreased by subsequent civilian governments (because they benefited from it) has this time around worked in favor of a smaller party. Even though we do not have definite numbers at hand, we know that a good chunk of voters chose to “strategically” vote for HDP for it to exceed the threshold and get the seats that would have otherwise gone to AKP. The “strategic” vote contributed to HDP’s success, and in his speech last night, the co-chair Demirtas graciously admitted as much, while promising to do everything to keep those voters as HDP voters come the next general elections.
As much as HDP is making a good effort to become a national political party, a solution to the Kurdish problem remains at the core of what HDP stands for and their other catchy slogan in the campaign was “Peace will win” (“Baris kazanacak” in Turkish) referring to the decades long conflict in the South East between the PKK and the government forces. HDP has been negotiating with the AKP government for a political solution for a few years now, but Erdo?an took a more nationalistic stance over the past year to appeal to his Turkish nationalist constituents — ie “there is no Kurdish problem” — and the negotiations stalled. HDP would like to go back to the negotiating table and agree on a political solution that would bring peace to the SouthEast, and follow through on campaign promises to give more power to local governments across the country — not exclusively in the Southeast.
Now, what will happen?
President Erdo?an will probably ask Davuto?lu to form a government tomorrow. Davutoglu will talk to the opposition parties, all of whom said last night they would not form a coalition government with AKP. But, this is politics, and there is always room for negotiations. However, if Davuto?lu cannot form a government, Erdogan should ask CHP (second largest party in the parliament who won 25% of the vote) to form a government.
We don’t know if Erdo?an will do that or will use his constitutional power to take the country to an early election in case a government cannot be formed in 45 days. He may well want to do this if he wants to further push his aspirations for a presidential system — and he may even think about decreasing the electoral threshold in light of what happened.
Meanwhile, and perhaps most worrisome to AKP leaders, there’s been talk of the possible formation of a temporary coalition government of opposition parties (CHP-MHP-HDP) that could decide to launch a parliamentary investigation of several AKP leaders, including Erdo?an, who’ve been accused of corruption.
Editor’s note: Bahar Leventoglu is Associate Professor of Political Science and Economics at Duke University. Her research spans three main areas: (1) rationalist explanations of war; (2) public commitment in international reelations; (3) and political transitions. Her work has appeared in American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Conflict Resolution, International Studies Quarterly, Journal of Theoretical Politics. Leventoglu has also written for The Monkey Cage blog and been interviewed on Voice of America.
ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).
– See more at: http://islamicommentary.org/2015/06/voters-to-erdogan-not-so-fast-by-bahar-leventoglu/#sthash.UpWqntDZ.dpuf