When Turkish voters go to the polls this Sunday, it will mark the end of what has been an interminable 15 month long election cycle in Turkey encompassing municipal elections, a presidential election, and finally parliamentary elections. This would be have been taxing under the best of circumstances, but given the factors involved – including but not limited to the transition of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from prime minister to president, the fate of Erdoğan’s desired constitutional overhaul and prospective presidential system, the pending forced retirement of term-limited AKP legislators, the ongoing fallout from the Syrian civil war, the Kurdish peace process hanging on by a thread, the increasingly nationalist tone of the government following the 2013 Gezi protests, the war between the AKP and its former Gülenist allies, worsening assaults on freedom of speech and expression, and allegations of rampant AKP corruption – the last 15 months have been rough on Turkish society and Turkey’s political system, to say the least. Many of my Turkish friends are eager for Sunday’s election to be behind them and hope that this will mark a turning point of some sort that puts an end to what has been a volatile time by any measure.
Despite this fervent wish, not only are the parliamentary elections unlikely to bring much stability, but there is a significant likelihood that the immediate and medium-term aftermath will be even stormier than the past couple of years. There are too many variables in play that hinge on the election’s results, and many of them will create chaos irrespective of the outcome. Rather than do a deep dive into what the actual outcome of the elections themselves will be – for that you can read excellent previews from Carnegie Europe, the Center for American Progress, and my friend Aaron Stein, and your first and last source for polling and polling analysis should be the indispensable James in Turkey blog – I thought I’d highlight some issues to watch out for that are main drivers of Turkish political volatility and that will be magnified in the election’s aftermath.
The most immediately pressing issue is the role of Turkish Kurds going forward. The outcome of the election will primarily hinge on the success or failure of the Kurdish HDP in passing the 10% vote threshold – the world’s highest such threshold – that is required for a party to sit in the Grand National Assembly, and nearly everything that happens is going to follow from this result. When the last legal polls were published last week (publishing polls is prohibited within ten days of the election), the HDP was hovering between 10.2% and 10.6%. For comparison’s sake, the HDP’s candidate in the presidential election, Selahattin Demirtaş, received 9.76%, which surprised most observers as he was not expected to do so well, and most analysts attributed his success to his personal appeal rather than to the party’s. Demirtaş is the party leader and is thus the public face of the HDP for this election as well, but he needs to improve his party’s performance by pulling off two difficult maneuvers that are diametrically opposed. He has to simultaneously attract disaffected liberals who voted for the AKP or CHP in past elections and attract religiously conservative Kurds who voted for the AKP in 2002, 2007, and 2011. Without siphoning off voters in both of these groups, the 10% threshold is going to be hard to crack as there is not a large enough base for the party to rely on its traditional Kurdish supporters alone. While I hope that the HDP makes it into the Assembly since it represents a new and important voice, my gut tells me that it will not. Aside from having a tough uphill climb, it is operating in an environment in which the AKP has an enormous incentive to ensure that the HDP does not make it in (more on that below) and is close enough to the 10% line that some well placed election fraud – such as occurred in last year’s municipal elections – will guarantee that it falls short.
If this happens, Turkey is going to experience protests and unrest on a scale that equals and likely surpasses those that rocked the country during the Gezi protests of June 2013. The southeast of the country, where the majority of Turkey’s Kurds reside, is going to be a disaster zone, since it will be impossible to convince Kurds that the HDP lost fair and square. Turkish Kurds are highly distrustful of the government and believe that the government has been supporting ISIS in an effort to stamp out Kurdish nationalism. Kurds blame the government for not actively aiding Kurdish fighters in the fight against ISIS for the Syrian town of Kobane and for preventing the fighters from being resupplied, and this resentment is not one that will merely linger and eventually dissipate. Kurds also see the handwriting on the wall of a potential coalition between the AKP and the ultra-nationalist MHP if the AKP does not receive enough seats to form a government outright, and such a result will mean the cessation of any conciliatory moves in the name of the Kurdish peace process. In short, Turkish Kurds believe that the government has sold them out and will continue to do so in the future, and if the HDP does not receive a high enough vote share on Sunday, there is going to be unrest on a mass scale. It will also raise the question of how Kurds fit into Turkey’s political system, since the decision by the HDP to run as a party rather than as independents signals a Kurdish desire to renounce violence and separatism, and to work within the confines of Turkish politics. If this gesture is rebuffed in a way that convinces Kurds that the government is fraudulently trying to keep them out, it will be a terrible squandering of a historic moment in relations between Kurds and the Turkish state. It will tell Kurds that their grievances will never be redressed through politics, and it will empower the PKK and those who are inclined toward terrorism and separatism, unleashing a new round of violence similar to that which racked Turkey in the 1990s.
If the HDP does not crack the threshold, Kurds are not the only ones who will be upset. HDP votes will be reapportioned, with the AKP receiving most of them as the largest overall vote getter and the only other party that receives votes in the HDP’s stronghold of southeastern Turkey, and this could boost the AKP’s share to a 3/5 supermajority of 330 seats (the party currently has 311). This matters because Erdoğan’s single-minded focus since becoming president last summer has been on remaking Turkey’s political system into a presidential one, and 330 seats is the number he needs in order to submit a new constitution to a referendum. It is for this reason that he needs the HDP to fall short of the magic 10% number, and without that happening, not only is his dream of an empowered presidency dead in the water, the AKP is not guaranteed to reach the 276 seats it needs to form a government outright and may be forced to form a coalition for the first time since coming to power in 2002. The incentive for the party and for Erdoğan personally is to suppress the HDP’s vote, which is why both Erdoğan – who is constitutionally not allowed to campaign for any party and is prohibited from being a party member, but who in reality is still the de facto leader of the AKP – and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have been striking hard at the HDP and Demirtaş every chance they get. The prospect of an even more powerful President Erdoğan terrifies many non-AKP supporters, which is why if the HDP does not make it into the parliament, protests and unrest will not be limited to Kurds and southeastern Turkey. Anecdotally, there are a not insignificant number of erstwhile CHP supporters who are planning to vote for the HDP, and Istanbul and Izmir are likely to erupt should the AKP receive a supermajority on the back of a failed HDP bid. If I am right about the HDP ultimately falling short, Turkey is going to be in for a long and contentious summer, with all of the now-familiar scenes that have accompanied recent summers – tear gas, TOMA water cannons, police beating protestors, and mass arrests on vague and undefined terrorism charges.
Even if the HDP does garner 10%, another prevailing source of instability will be the continuing unraveling and unpredictability of Erdoğan, whose behavior has become nuttier as time goes on. If he does not get his presidential system, he is not going to react well to what will be his first real loss in over a decade, and for a guy used to getting what he wants – thousand room palaces, gilded drinking glasses, having his spy chief remain in his post despite said spy chief resigning and announcing a run for parliament – this will be a new reality for him. Erdoğan has built an independent power base of advisers and sycophants that make up a parallel government and that Turks now refer to in shorthand as “the Palace” and he intends to use it. If his presidential dreams are dashed, there is no telling what he will do and to what lengths he will go to try and get what he wants, but one can guarantee that whatever he does will be divisive and damaging to Turkish democracy, which as Erik Meyersson points out, is hanging on by a thread as it is even in the context of the very elections that purportedly legitimate Turkey as democratic. The perpetuation of Turkey’s current parliamentary system also means that the maneuvering between Erdoğan and the Palace on the one hand and Davutoğlu and the prime minister’s office on the other will continue, with jockeying between the dueling power bases. The AKP is already divided between the two camps, as personified by the spat between deputy prime minister and co-AKP founder Bülent Arınç and Ankara mayor “Mad” Melih Gökçek, and a setback for the prospective presidential system is not going to end this fight. It will continue to divide the AKP and prolong the Twilight Zone aspect of nobody knowing who is actually in charge and whether Erdoğan or Davutoğlu is running the country and the party. So long as the party controlling the government is unstable – and the AKP is as unstable as it has ever been – it is going to filter down into every aspect of governance, and while it may lead to the AKP’s downfall, which many will welcome, it may also lead to chaos for Turkey itself.
If the HDP does not get enough votes and the AKP does get to 330, this does not guarantee stability either. While Erdoğan has cowed dissident party members for years, there is significant dissension in the ranks. There is no guarantee that the AKP will march forward in lockstep toward unlimited Erdoğan despotism, and certainly the other parties are not going to lay down quietly without a fight. There will be nastiness ahead during the struggle over the terms of the new constitution within the Assembly, and then the real fighting will take place in the run-up to the referendum. As bad as things have been during the perpetual campaign of the past year and a half, it will be that much worse during the campaigning over the very future of Turkey’s political system. The talk of lobbies – Jewish, Armenian, interest rate, Greek, robot, preacher’s, blood, chaos, gay, atheist, and Alevi are among Erdoğan’s greatest hits – and foreign conspiracies will only intensify as Erdoğan seeks to paint all of his opponents as enemies not of him but of the “New Turkey” and of Turkish progress. If you think what has come up until now has been bad, just wait for what comes once Erdoğan really turns on the afterburners.
Finally, there is the question of whether the end of this seemingly perpetual election season will restore some stability to Turkey’s foreign policy and its relations with its once and future allies. There is certainly an argument to be made that if Turkey has some space to strategically reorient itself with regard to the U.S. and to the Middle East, it will undo some of the damage that has been done. Unfortunately, while Turkish domestic politics and the over-the-top rhetoric that has served the government’s domestic political needs have contributed to its foreign policy disarray, I don’t think that the end of Erdoğan and the AKP’s permanent campaign mode is going to be enough. Jon Schanzer and Merve Tahiroğlu take a quick glance around the region and convincingly argue that Ankara’s isolation is a permanent feature rather than a bug of its quest for regional dominance given the constraints under which it operates. I myself argued in World Politics Review earlier this week that Turkey’s relationship with Israel is doomed to the status quo for the indefinite future, and despite the nascent cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey on training and arming a subset of Syrian rebels, there is too much dividing the two countries for the relationship to be as robust as it appeared during President Obama’s first term. As much as Turkey is trying to create a new normal for itself in its neighborhood, its efforts can only go so far.
In sum, whatever happens on Sunday, Turkey is not about to enter a newly stable period. Turkish politics are in flux in ways that haven’t been seen in decades, Turkish society is reaching a boiling point, alarm bells are going off all over the economy, and Turkey is involving itself in proxy wars all over the Middle East. While it would be nice to chalk up the last couple of years to the constant electioneering, the fact is that Turkey is in a bad place, and nobody can confidently predict that it will get better with the advent of a new government.