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Back to the Polls in Turkey

15 Sep 2015

Turkey is going back to the polls again. The YSK (Turkish Electoral Commission) announced that a new election will be held on 1 November. The commission says it picked the date by a majority decision, however President Erdogan had already announced the date 4 days earlier when he said ‘we will, God willing, have a new election on 1 November 2015′.  He was proven to be right. Crystal ball?

Following the June 7 election, which resulted in four political parties entering the parliament and no single party with a majority in the 550-seat parliament, the expectation was that a coalition government would be formed. There were 45 days to do so.

The president first asked the AKP (The Justice and Development Party) to try to form a coalition government. After a month long shuttle of talks, the AKP and CHP (The Republican People’s Party) could not reach an agreement. In the remaining days, MHP (The Nationalist Movement Party) quickly declared that, unless its four-point demands were met, it would not be involved in a coalition with the AKP at all. MHP demands included that the first four sections of the Constitution must remain unchanged, that there should not be any more talks with the PKK’s (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) leader Ocalan about a settlement of Kurdish issues and that corruption claims against four former AKP ministers (which potentially extend all the way to Erdogan’s son) must be investigated. It also demanded that President Erdogan must remain within the role defined by the constitution. These demands were rejected by the AKP.

According to the democratic conventions, the President should have asked the CHP, the second party in line, to form a coalition. He didn’t, for the first time in the history of the Republic, leading to much protest from the CHP and other parties.

Instead, President Erdogan decided that a new election should be held. According to the Turkish Constitution, a caretaker government should be formed, with ministries distributed among the parties represented in the Parliament, with the current Prime Minister Davutoglu remaining in his position. The ministries to be allocated include the AKP with 11, the CHP with 5, and the MHP and HDP with 3 each. The CHP and MHP have declared that they will not participate in this process, however, in an interesting move, the Kurdish-backed HDP announced they would. It will be interesting to see how the current campaign against PKK and HDP as a partner in a caretaker government will shape up. Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the HDP, to his credit, has called on the PKK to stop fighting, a call the PKK has rejected. When PKK killed a Turkish doctor this week, Demirtas said ‘this was unacceptable even in the most immoral war’.

This election has already turned into “Part 2” of the June 7 election, with the same, if not higher, stakes for President Erdogan and Turkey. President Erdogan declared recently that the Turkish government system had already changed through his role as  Executive President and all that is needed is to change the constitution to reflect the current situation. Opposition parties declared that this amounts to a ‘civilian coup’. Some went further and claimed ‘the secular republic of Turkey has been hijacked by an Islamist President’. Regardless, it is obvious that President Erdogan never wanted a coalition government which he could not control freely; a senior AKP minister said months before the June election that, if AKP could not form a majority government, there would be a new election. The process since the 7 June election has simply been to demonstrate that the AKP and the President are following the constitution. It appears their idea of democracy is holding elections until you get the result you want.

In this context, President Erdogan and the AKP government declared war on the PKK after a bombing in the town of Suruc, near the Syrian border. However, it emerged that the the bombing was carried out by ISIS, not PKK. From that point on, the government still declared PKK enemy number one, despite three years of trying to negotiate a peace deal. One cannot help but ask: if the June election had produced a majority AKP government, would this still have happened? Probably not.

With coffins of Turkish soldiers and police officers arriving in the Turkish towns in the Anatolian heartland, this does not indicate public opinion is shifting back to AKP. There has been resentment leveled at AKP ministers and the President Erdogan at the funerals by the public: a Turkish lieutenant-colonel screamed and hugged the coffin of his brother, a major killed by the PKK, asking ‘who murdered him? What is the reason? Why do those who were saying “peaceful resolution” up until yesterday, now say “war”?’ The government and the President were offended by this and the lieutenant-colonel is being investigated. This week, the father of a Turkish soldier was arrested for insulting the President at the funeral. It is clearl the AKP and President Erdogan worry about a voter backlash with these stories becoming too public. This probably explains a major crackdown by the caretaker government to silence the opposition media, accusing critical newspapers and TV channels that publish unfavourable news under anti-terrorism powers. Time, however short, will show if these will work for the AKP. So far, things do not appear to have changed much since 7 June. According to polling by fairly reliable Gezici Araştırma Poll of 4860 people, on 22-23 August in 36 provinces, voter intentions were: AKP 38.9%, CHP 27.8%, MHP 16.3%, HDP 13.5%. This would be about the same as, or even slightly worse than, the June election. The HDP leader Demirtas believes if the polls do not improve for AKP by late October, the President may even contemplate postponing the elections, using the current clashes with the PKK or another extraordinary attack by ISIS on Turkish soil as an excuse. This would mean the elections could not be held before the spring of 2016.

What is clear from the cabinet of the caretaker government, handpicked by Erdogan, AKP plans not to leave much to the undecided voters. Erdogan is playing for just increase of just 2-3% in AKP votes this time and the hope that either HDP or MHP will fall below the 10% threshold.  To this end, Tugrul Turkes, the son of the charismatic late MHP leader Alpaslan Turkes was, much to the protest by his own party, not only included in the caretaker government but was appointed deputy prime minister, clearly in a move to divide the MHP votes. The MHP has started an expulsion procedure for Mr Turkes. The other source of much-needed votes appears to be the other Islamist party, Saadet Partisi, which under a different name is where Erdogan originally started his political career. Although Saadet Party achieved a modest 2% or so in the last election, Erdogan and AKP clearly cannot be choosy. They need every single vote as the stakes appear to be much higher this time.

Sedat Mulayim is the Program Manager for Translating and Interpreting at the School of Global, Social and Urban Studies at RMIT University. This article can be republished with attribution under Creative Commons Licence.