Turkey after the Election

Grim Facts

Turkey held National Assembly and Presidential elections last Sunday (24th June). Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan won an overall majority of votes and retained the presidency without a second round of voting. The pro-Erdoğan electoral list of his AKP (Justice and Development Party/Adelet ve Kalkınma Partisi) and the older (the second oldest party in Turkey) but smaller MHP (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi/Nationalist Action Party) took a majority of votes. The MHP took more votes than the breakaway Good Party (İYİ Parti/IP), though IP’s leader (Meral Akşener) is more popular than the MHP leader (Devlet Bahçeli) and the IP has more members.

The MHP broke through the 10% barrier to entry into the National Assembly in the votes cast for it, within the joint electoral list, though it was mostly expected to fall short by a distinct margin. Since the more moderate elements of the MHP joined IP, MHP forms part of a presidential majority in the National Assembly, with its authoritarian monolithic variety of nationalism unrestrained.

The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi/CHP, a centre left and secularist-republican party), lost about one tenth of its National Assembly votes. The third party in the opposition electoral list, SP (Saadet Partisi/Felicity Party), a religious conservative party with the same roots as AKP, failed to get up to 1% in either the presidential or National Assembly elections, thus failing to increase its vote significantly and failing to take any notable fraction of the AKP vote.

CHP and then IP leaders failed to live up to promises to demonstrate outside the Supreme Election Council building in Turkey to protest against likely electoral rigging. Opposition data on voting gathered by election monitors ended up almost entirely coinciding with ‘official’ results (strictly speaking official results will not be available until 5th July) and earlier information is preliminary only.

Qualification of Grim Facts 

The above gives the bare facts about the results with regard to the most disappointing aspects from the point of view of the opposition. This is a disappointing result for anyone opposed to the authoritarian regime of Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan, which began by appealing to supporters of reform in a country with rather limited liberalism in its democracy.

Erdoğan has since made it clear that he regards democracy as the unlimited power of one man who claims to represent the People against liberal, westernised, secularist, and leftist ‘elites’ and ‘marginals’, along with foreign and foreign manipulated conspiracies against the Nation.

One qualification to the bad news above is that the opposition during the election is fighting against bias, exclusion, threatening accusations, harassment, violence and legal persecution from the state apparatus, state media, private media effectively under state direction (which is most of the private media), and gangs of thugs, some armed. At the very least the opposition held its ground in terrible circumstances, which have been getting continuously worse for years.

Another ‘optimistic’ aspect is that while there was certainly some vote rigging of a kind it was difficult for opposition monitors to capture. This includes pre-marked voting ballots. As in last year’s referendum vote, videos of pre-marking of ballots have been circulating on social media.

In the referendum campaign the electoral authorities broke the law by accepting ballot papers which had not been stamped by a polling station official. This was legalised in time for the election and broadened to allow counting of ballot papers in unstamped envelopes.

Legal changes have also made it easier for state authorities to move polling stations and remove ballot boxes from polling stations to be counted elsewhere. On a less official level, reports indicate harassment of voters by armed gangs and some employers requiring evidence from a phone camera photograph of voting for the government.

There have been problems for decades with polling stations (especially in areas where the opposition does not send monitors because of a small local base) ignoring opposition votes and recording ‘100%’ for the party in control of the state at the time.

It is very difficult to know what the overall number of votes is changed by these malpractices. It is, however, clear that the southeast of the country (that is the Kurdish majority region) is much more vulnerable to such practices because of the atmosphere created by PKK (far left Kurdish autonomy terrorist/insurgent group) and the security-state counter operations.

The main Kurdish identity party, the leftist HDP (Halkların Demokratik Partisi/Peoples’ Democratic Party), competes with the AKP for first place in the southeast. It is regularly accused of supporting PKK terrorism and even of being an organic part of the PKK in government oriented media and legal cases opened by highly politicised state prosecutors.

There is certainly overlap between PKK sympathisers and HDP supporters, but ‘evidence’ that the HDP supports terrorism consists of statements calling for peace, criticising security operations against the PKK and it’s Syrian partner (PYD), and criticising state policy towards the PKK. Whatever one might think of the HDP’s policies and statements, these are not evidence that it is a terrorist organisation. The idea that it is legitimises official harassment (including imprisonment) and less officials forms of intimidation and vote rigging. It also legitimises less widespread but very real harassment of the CHP on the grounds that some supporters voted HDP to get is past the 10% thresh hold and, in a limited and very moderate way, the CHP has expressed some sympathy for persecuted HDP leaders and activists.

I can only make guesses but I think it is reasonable to estimate that 1% of votes have been historically manipulated and that this has increased along with the strengthening grip of the AKP on the state and parts of civil society, and also with its increasing demonisation of opposition.

I’ll estimate 3% for the votes manipulated.

Election evening results indicated just over 53% for Erdoğan as president and for the electoral list backing him. This has however been going down as later ‘preliminary’ results so it may now be about 52% for both votes. In this case, if 3% of votes are manipulated (a very sober estimate in my view) then we could be looking at 49% for Erdoğan and his supporters. This might still give a slight majority in the National Assembly, as distribution of seats is biased towards rural and small town conservative areas, and since 100% of votes are not represented by seats in the National Assembly in even the most pure form of proportional representation (because there are always some micro-parties which get some votes but do not enter the National Assembly).

A run-off for president after Erdoğan gets 49% seems very likely to still set up Erdoğan as the winner in the second round. It is of course wrong in principle to rig at this level but it doesn’t change anything important presuming rigging is at the level I’ve suggested. I will have a clearer idea about this when all results are officially released on 5th July.

On further relatively good news, the CHP vote in the presidential election was at 30%, about one fifth higher than before.

The presidential candidate Muharrem İnce turned out to be an inspiring campaigner and public speaker able to appeal to a variety of sections of Turkish society. He seems like a natural fit for the leadership of CHP, though so far the incumbent, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has been slow to step down and clear the way.,

The final results seem likely to show at least a slight decline for Erdoğan since the 2014 presidential election. IP is new and has no local government base. As there are local elections at the end of March next year, they should be able to establish local strongholds and build on that nationally.

The AKP does not have a majority in the National Assembly for the first time since 2002. MHP makes up the majority at present and as stated above seems likely to behave in a very nationalist-authoritarian way. However, its vote seems to have been increased by disaffected AKP voters (particularly in the southeast) who are not ready, so far, to vote against Erdoğan and a pro-Erdoğan electoral list. This makes their support rather unstable and the MHP is likely to see advantage in turning away from Erdoğan at some point, or at least cause him trouble by asserting its independence. Erdoğan is not someone to welcome, or live with, this kind of division in his support bloc and a conflict of some kind seems likely at some point.

More on the Turkish Elections

This is a sequel to my recent post Turkish Elections: Some Hope, so is best read after reading its predecessor.

In the last post, I covered the National Assembly elections on the 24th June. The first round of the presidential elections will take place on the same day and there will be a run-off between the two main candidates on the 8th July, if no candidate gets more than 50% on the first round.

As by far the strongest personality in Turkish politics over the last 15 years, Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan was no doubt expecting to win in the first round easily. He did so in 2014 when he was first elected to the presidency at a time when the president’s powers were much smaller. The two largest opposition parties of the time (CHP and MHP) put up a joint presidential candidate little known to the public and who did become much better known during the campaign. The campaign was in fact a surrender to Erdoğan who went on to ignore the constitutional limits on the presidency and push through plans for a presidential republic with little of the checks and balances known in other presidential republics, at least those in established democracies.

This presidential campaign has been an unpleasant surprise for Erdoğan. He has turned the MHP into a satellite party which supports him for the presidency. The cost of that, however, is that he has tied himself to a declining party in an attempt to compensate for a weakening of AKP (Erdoğan’s party) support since the days when it got 50% and over of the electorate.

The opposition has now found an energy unprecedented during the Erdoğan-AKP years (since 2002). It has turned the first round of the presidential election into a run-off to decide who will face Erdoğan in the second round, maximising opposition strength as its candidates enthuse different sectors of Turkish society against the current regime. It now looks impossible for Erdoğan to win the first round (without the help of rigging which is a real danger).

Some thought the opposition had already failed the presidential election when Abdullah Gül, who was President before Erdoğan, declined to run as a candidate of the small opposition religious conservative party SP. The idea around was that the two main opposition parties would accept him as a joint candidate. It is not clear this would have ever happened, and anyway Gül declined to run. He had been a founder of the AKP, but has not re-joined since leaving the office of President in 2014. At that time the President was required to resign from any political party. Gül has made indirect criticisms of the AKP under Erdoğan, but is a non-confrontational politician who has not put himself in clear opposition to Erdoğan and few expected he ever would. Some had the attitude that Gül was the only chance of the opposition winning the presidential election. I was never convinced myself. Adopting an AKP politician central to the AKP’s colonisation of the state and parts of civil society, particularly the main media companies, would have been a defeatist gesture, particularly given Gül’s own lack of energy in very stark contrast with Erdoğan.

The four largest opposition parties will all run presidential candidates, though three of these parties have formed a joint list for the National Assembly elections. Two of these candidates have a real chance to win. That is Meral Akşener and Muharrem İnce. Akşener is the leader of the second opposition party, İYİ, which broke away from the MHP. It has overtaken the MHP as the largest nationalist party. Though it has a clearly nationalist orientation, mixing Atatürk republicanism with nostalgia for the Ottomans and pre-Ottoman Turkish leaders, it has a a milder version of this than the MHP. İnce is a centre-left secularist CHP politician who previously tried to replace Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as leader of the CHP.

Kılıçdaroğlu is not a strong public personality and has often been dismissed even by CHP sympathisers. However, he did a good job of keeping the CHP relevant in the period after the coup attempt of July 2016, when Erdoğan seemed to be achieving even more complete domination of Turkish public life. Kılıçdaroglu most famously led a Justice March from Ankara to Istanbul last summer, usefully turning his anti-charisma reputation into an image of quiet decency and endurance, marching for many days under a hot Turkish sun, though he is in his late 60s and there were constant fears of state promoted violence against the march.

Kılıçdaroğlu was again dismissed as too passive at the time Gül declined to run, and Kılicdaroğlu ruled himself out of the Presidential contest. It has turned out that he has maximised his strengths and weaknesses, by showing the inner self-confidence to allow his rival İnce to run for the most powerful office in Turkey. İnce has been a great campaigner so far and is doing better than I expected.

I thought Akşener would easily be the strongest opposition candidate, and she is doing well, but is very close to İnce, both for getting through to the second round and defeating Erdoğan. The latest opinion polls suggest Erdoğan would beat both but by a very small margin, meaning that a strong campaign by İnce or Akşener could win in the end, particularly if supporters of rival parties turn out in a spirit of unity for change.

The general thinking in Turkey now is that the opposition is likely to win the National Assembly but not the Presidency. Nevertheless the presidential contest is going far better than expected for the opposition and Erdoğan could look very diminished running in the second round after the AKP-MHP electoral list loses the National Assembly (where it currently has a two-thirds majority). İnce represents the most leftist and most nationalist element of the CHP. This combination is not unusual in Turkey, though left-nationalists prefer to identify themselves through the Turkish word for patriot rather than nationalist. I thought this would be a problem for İnce, in that he might be a negative both for Kurdish and centrist voters, but he has shown a capacity to reach out and make gestures to these sectors. Since the CHP National Assembly list has reduced the number of left-nationalists, his presidency would not be the unconstrained triumph of that particular point of view.