Turkey elections: The long road ahead

Ahead of this Sunday’s general elections in Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is facing the strongest threat to their rule in the 21 years since they came to power in 2002. 

Three candidates will be running to become president: the incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from the AKP, the leader of the opposition Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu from the CHP and independent Sinan Oğan, formerly from the MHP who has little weight. A fourth candidate, Muharrem Ince, CHP’s former presidential candidate in the 2018 elections who resigned from his former party to run for the presidency again, has recently withdrawn. While Ince’s initial candidacy was controversial for splitting the vote, his withdrawal after the voting period had ended for the 3.5 million voters living abroad was equally so. 

Over two dozen parties, large and small, will be competing for seats in parliament and more than half have joined an electoral coalition. The previously 10 percent, recently amended seven percent, barrier of entry encourages minor parties to run as part of electoral alliances to overcome the high electoral threshold, even though seat allocations are distributed proportionally.

The ruling coalition, currently led by Erdoğan, is composed of the AKP, the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the conservative Great Unity Party (BBP), the far-right Islamist New Welfare Party (YRP) and Free Cause Party (HÜDA-PAR). Lastly, there is the Democratic Left Party (DSP) or what remains of the now collapsed member of the former coalition government that lost against the AKP in 2002.

The main opposition is a six-party coalition representing a large part of the political spectrum containing: the main opposition centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), nationalist Good (İYİ) Party, two splinter parties founded by former AKP ministers, the Future Party (GP) and Democracy and Justice Party (DEVA) and the Islamist Felicity Party (SP).

The second major opposition coalition is led by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), along with other minor leftist parties, such as the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TİP). 

The end of Erdoğan?

Although there might be a real chance Erdoğan might lose the presidency, the chance of the ruling coalition to maintain a parliamentary majority is significant. 

There are several factors going against Erdoğan this time over. One of the major events is of course the February earthquake that took over 50,000 lives and caused widespread devastation and the governments delayed and insufficient search and rescue efforts followed by the revelation of corruption scandals involving the construction and aid sectors. 

The second is rampant inflation, increasing instability of the economy and the resulting cost of living crisis. However, as the voters started to stray away from the party under economic distress, the government  has announced new policy measures to build affordable housing and a higher minimum wage.

Another factor making the government nervous is the five million new voters who will go to the ballot box, mostly young people who have become eligible to vote and who have known no other government in their lifetimes. 

One of the most eroded institutions has been public education and universities in the two decades of AKP rule. Universities have been ruined by cheating in entry exams, favouritism and nepotism scandals. Public school numbers have decreased as the party’s strategy has focused on diverting poor students to Imam Hatip Schools (religious vocational schools for forming imams) as more affluent parents were “offered an escape” by an expanding private school sector. Subsequently the number of Imam Hatip Schools has increased by 78 percent and private schools have increased by 20 percent during this time. As a result of this failed model, the youth are more likely to be skeptical of the ruling party. 

The government feeling the heat of the election has also resulted in escalating violence and prosecution against the opposition, in particular against the HDP and journalists aligned or sympathetic to the pro-Kurdish movement. The past months have seen a significant increase of arrests, detentions and court cases against the HDP and its members as well as its elected officials. 

Founded in 2012, the HDP and allied left coalition has been a thorn in Erdoğan’s side, especially since their 2015 electoral run had resulted in AKP losing its parliamentary majority. This electoral success had resulted in a hung parliament and AKP was only able to keep its grip on power by entering into coalition with the ultra-nationalist MHP. 

Ever since, the HDP has become a target for the government who was hellbent on dismantling the institutional base that the pro-Kurdish movement has managed to build inside Turkey and the wider Kurdish movement in neighboring Syria and Iraq. In fact, interior minister Süleyman Soylu was filmed bragging during a campaign stop about how overjoyed he was when he was appointed minister of interior and Erdoğan asked him to deal with the “terrorist” mayors and to seize municipalities that HDP won during the election. “Within 48 hours, in the morning, I arrested all co-mayors and appointed ‘trustees’” he said proudly.

Moving forward, this caused a rapprochement between the CHP and the HDP. In 2019, the HDP chose not to run candidates in most of the large cities outside the Kurdish areas and encouraged its supporters to back the opposition. With this support, the opposition was able to win key municipalities in Istanbul, Ankara, Adana, Antalya and Mersin. So it was crucial for the government to impede any attempts of politics from the HDP and with the leadership of Devlet Bahçeli (the chairman of the ultra-nationalist MHP) attempts at closing the HDP were initiated. The ongoing process has prevented the HDP from accessing funds during an electoral period and forced it to regroup under the banner of the Green Left Party as part of the Labour and Freedom Alliance, along with other socialist, green and feminist movements. They have also endorsed Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu for president. 

If the opposition is more united than it has ever been and if it manages to unseat Erdoğan this Sunday it will be a small victory and an initial step to start dismantling the entrenched corruption that has built up in the last decades. However, far from a parliamentary majority and with such a politically diverse coalition, any meaningful change is unlikely, as it is with most political projects that operate on a platform against a person instead of a political project. In the event of a minority government HDPs bargaining power can create a strategic advantage, a small beacon nevertheless. 

So Turkey goes to the ballot box not with hope and inspiration but with the dread and sense of duty one would feel for a long coming dentist appointment and an eerie sense of deja vu. The leader that came following one economic crisis and an earthquake might be leaving with another crisis and earthquake. 

There was no better reminder of this cycle than the curious coincidence of the news of the death of Kemal Derviş on May 8. Derviş was Turkey’s equivalent of Mario Draghi, whose commitment to austerity and central bank independence ushered in an era of right-wing populism and the collapse of establishment parties. Two decades on, the mainstream politicians have yet to learn these lessons and the revival of the radical left that resulted must continue to learn, organise and grow and break the ‘centre vs far-right’ duopoly and present an alternative to the oligarchy everywhere.

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