Turkey election: Turks don’t live by bread alone

Turkey’s general election on Sunday punctuates a 12-year period of single party rule in that country and signifies a return to coalition politics. All good things must come to an end in politics, after all. But then, things in Turkey’s highly competitive political arena are never simple as that.

The fact of the matter is that the ruling Justice and Development Party (known as AKP), which was elected with majority support of around 50% of the votes in the last general election in 2011, managed to secure just about 40% of the votes in Sunday’s poll. But there are caveats here. Many outside observers may have rushed into a wrong judgment that Islamism has suffered grievous setback in Turkey — or, worse still, that the secularist tide is on the ascendancy.

This astounding 20% drop in vote share prima facie indicates much alienation on the part of the public from the AKP rule in the most recent period. Quite obviously, the AKP can no longer form a government of its own and it needs partners.

Having said that, the surprising part is that the AKP still commands a solid support base of 40% of voters, who root for the “Islamist” party led by its charismatic leader Recep Erdogan.

In any democracy, it is indeed a remarkable feat by any reckoning for a political movement based on ideology to continue to dominate the center stage of the electoral arena, as the AKP is doing, despite the wear and tear of being in absolute power for over twelve years at a stretch. This is one thing.

More importantly, the Turkish electorate who felt alienated from the “Islamist” AKP haven’t quite switched sides to the “secularist” social democratic opposition represented by the Republican People’s Party (known as the CHP). The CHP could barely hold its ground at 25.3% of the vote share, which is a marginal improvement of only 0.3% on its tally in the 2011 election.

Whereas, it is the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which could be labeled as “Islamist Lite” (and far more militant in its nationalist ideology), which has actually improved its vote share from 13% in 2011 to 16.55%.

So, where did the disenchanted AKP voters migrate? And, why did they want to migrate?

From available data, it emerges that the AKP supporters in the southeastern Kurdish regions of Turkey (in the 2011 election) seem to have switched sides to vote for the main regional party, People’s Democratic Party (known as HDP, which is often blithely described as an anti-nationalist left-wing party but is in reality a political wing of the Kurdish people, somewhat like Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland at one time.)

The switch in the voting by the Kurdish electorate from AKP to the HDP has enabled the latter to gain representation in the Turkish parliament by crossing the mandatory10% vote share for the first time in history. This needs some explaining.

The point is, the AKP’s thumping majority in the previous parliament was possible partly because the HDP had narrowly failed to get any representation in the 2011 election due to its inability to secure the 10% vote share. Turkey’s strange electoral laws stipulate that if a political party fails to cross the 10% threshold, its vote share will be proportionally distributed to the other political parties represented in the parliament, augmenting their seats. The AKP became a major beneficiary in the process in the 2011 election.

On the contrary, there is a surge of expectations today among the Kurdish electorate. Many factors have contributed to it, especially the surge of identity politics in the region, the Arab Spring and so on. But over and above, Turkey’s Kurds sense that their interests are best served in a political scenario where the AKP needs HDP’s support in the parliament to form a minority government.

The Kurdish aspiration would be that in such a political scenario of interdependency between the HDP and the AKP, the latter would have to be receptive to granting autonomy for the southeastern provinces. (The large Kurdish presence in Istanbul probably accounts for the fall in the AKP’s vote share in the city, which has been its traditional bastion.)

What needs to be factored in is that the HDP’s comfort level with the AKP chief Recep Erdogan is appreciable.

Indeed, Recep Erdogan (presently president of the country) has been inclined to be far more sympathetic toward the Kurdish aspirations than any other national leader in all of modern Turkey’s history.

Erdogan for the first time stepped out of the Turkish mainstream political parties’ denial mode and began acknowledging that Turkey indeed has a Kurdish problem. He began talking of respecting the Kurdish identity. The audacity on his part gives hope to the Kurdish people.

All in all, therefore, the AKP’s apparent “defeat” in the general elections on Sunday needs to be put in perspective. To be sure, there has been some erosion of popular support, but where the disenchanted voters have ended up is no less important to know than why such alienation occurred at all.

There is no doubt that Turkey’s lurch toward Islamism as a life force in the country’s politics and society is firmly established and there is no going back on it. The AKP and the MHP account for over 56% of the total vote share. The so-called “secularist” constituency has shrunk.

The causes of the alienation with the AKP government are not difficult to find — corruption, economy in difficulty and so on. The AKP stormed the citadels of power in 2002 on an appealing plank of fighting corruption, presenting a seductive development agenda and holding out the promise of democratization of the constitutional rule dominated by “Kemalism”.

The AKP did spectacularly well in the first two terms in delivering on growth and development, as Turkey witnessed an unprecedented level of economic prosperity. The country’s European Union membership drive compelled the AKP government to undertake major reforms to democratize the political system.

But the heady victory in the 2011 general election became a turning point. Inebriated by absolute political power, the government no more felt the need to be accountable. A weak, insipid opposition lulled it into a mood of complacency. The EU’s cussedness incrementally eroded Turkey’s hope for membership, which in turn led to a depletion of interest in undertaking serious reforms. Corruption became rampant and the government resorted to blatant cover-ups using the governmental machinery. Meanwhile, mindless acts such as the crackdown on the Internet and the media alienated large sections of the intelligentsia.

But, more fundamentally, the AKP’s record in fulfilling the development agenda suffered setbacks in the recent years because of an adverse international economic environment. Europe is Turkey’s principal market and Turkish economy is driven by exports. The prolonged recession in Europe has hit Turkey hard.

Also, crony capitalism has led to great concentration of wealth – Credit Suisse’s 2014 Global Wealth Report estimated that 10 percent of Turkish population holds almost 80% of the national wealth. The opposition CHP alleges that 1% of the Turkish population controls nearly 55% of the national wealth. Out of the 30 strong work force in the country, 21 million earn less than $750 per month (which is the “poverty line” for a worker in Turkey.) The minimum wage in Turkey is no more than $356.

Indeed, in the given circumstances, it is astounding that 40% of the Turkish electorate still decided to renew their mandate for the AKP. Simply put, what emerges is that the Turks do not live by bread alone, to use the Biblical saying. The AKP’s ideological base remains intact and there is no political party that can rival it in a conceivable future in its profound appeal to the deeply conservative Anatolian Turk.

But at the same time, it cannot be overlooked that there has been an avalanche of criticism over the authoritarian tendencies of the AKP leadership of Erdogan, especially during the third term in office from 2011. There is much disquiet that the AKP intends to change the country’s constitution and make Turkey a presidential system of government. In the popular perception, Erdogan harbors a secret agenda to aggrandize political power.

Meanwhile, Erdogan’s independent foreign policies have annoyed the West. Thus, the westernized Turks have joined hands with Erdogan’s critics abroad in conveying a picture of total disarray under Erdogan’s leadership. To be sure, a very substantial section of the Turkish people refuses to buy into that thesis, as the AKP’s support base testifies.

The real significance of the general election, therefore, is that Erdogan’s ambitions for an executive presidency have been stalled – temporarily, at least. Put differently, for any constitutional reform, an AKP-led government will now need to evolve a political consensus.

A potential ally could be the HDP, provided – and it is a big caveat – there is a quid pro quo in the form of autonomy being granted for the Kurdish majority regions of the country, which of course is a hugely emotive issue entangled in Turkey’s national identity.

Clearly, the right wing politics – represented by the AKP and MHP, which account for over 56% of votes – will continue to dominate Turkey’s political landscape. Both AKP and MHP have Islamist leanings and both are nationalistic. On the ideological plane they do overlap, and the AKP and MHP are possibly natural allies, but then, the respective leaderships are fiercely competitive too, and given their vaulting ambitions, a co-habitation becomes problematic (although it cannot be excluded as an alliance of convenience in the short term.)

The MHP’s best bet will be to exploit any further erosion of the AKP’s Islamist electoral base and to strive for a mid-term poll to capitalize on the latter’s disabilities. On the issue of Kurdish identity, the MHP takes a hardline nationalistic stance, insisting that all the people of Turkey are “Turks” first and last, and there can be no exceptions.

Single party rule provided stability during the past decade, while coalition politics in Turkey was traditionally the recipe for short-lived governments as the country lurched from one mid-term poll to another. On the other hand, political stability is not necessarily a good thing either, as the Turkish experience shows, especially during the last term of the AKP government.

Devoid of the checks and balances that are essential for running a minority government, and the absence of consensus politics, the “stability” that the single party rule provided tended to breed authoritarianism and highhandedness, and eventually massive scale of corruption. The verdict of Sunday’s election, therefore, underscores the maturity of the Turkish electorate.

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Categories: Asia Times News & Features, M.K. Bhadrakumar, Middle East

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