Turkey Between Elections

On June 7, 2015, Turkey held general elections in which the governing Justice and Development Party, commonly known as the AKP, lost its outright majority in Parliament for the first time in 13 years. The electoral system in Turkey allocates 550 total seats. But the country also has the world’s highest election threshold, barring from the legislature any party that doesn’t register at least 10 percent of the popular vote. This unusually high election threshold is a legacy of a 1980 military coup and the consequent 1982 constitution. Kenan Evren, the general that orchestrated the takeover, is believed to have implemented this threshold to avoid political instability and inertia in the parliament. However, although this regulation was meant to promote efficiency in governance and lawmaking, it ended up leaving out minority voices—especially the Kurdish population—for decades after its implementation. The Kurdish minority’s recent success in finally crossing the election threshold has disrupted Turkish politics dominated by the AKP and resulted in the escalation of tensions between the AKP and its opposition.
Clearing the Hurdle
The election threshold has been crucial to the long-lived success of the AKP. Although there are always dozens of political parties that run in general elections, only a select few have been able to pass the 10 percent threshold. This has historically aided the ruling party, as every vote not cast for a benchmark-passing opposition party indirectly assigns seats to the AKP.
Interestingly, according to the constitution, this threshold applies to parties but not to independent candidates. For decades, Kurdish candidates ran independently because as long as candidates won the majority in their respective regions, they were able to enter the parliament. For the first time, however, in June 2015, Kurdish candidates as well as other politicians gathered under the People’s Democracy Party, also known as the HDP, and ran together under the leadership of Selahattin Demirtaş. Although the HDP participated in the 2014 presidential elections, this summer marked the group’s first effort at winning seats in parliament.
In advance of this year’s elections, Demirtaş organized an inclusive campaign advocating peace and minority rights that identified the HDP as a liberal democratic party, securing the votes of not only the Kurdish population but also of women and the LGBT community. As a result, the HDP leisurely passed the threshold on its way to 13.2 percent of the popular vote. 80 seats in parliament are now filled by the left-wing alliance. Now is the first time in history that the Kurdish minority has been represented in Turkey as a single party. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the HDP’s birth has triggered a major shakeup in the country’s political scene.
AKP loses majority in the parliament
Four parties found spots in the legislature following this year’s election: the AKP, the CHP (the main opposition party), the MHP (the Turkish nationalist party), and the HDP garnered roughly 40, 25, 16 and 13 percent of the vote respectively. This result translated to 258 members of parliament for AKP, 132 for CHP and 80 members for each of MHP and HDP. In Turkey’s parliamentary system, to form a one-party government, the party in question has to win more than half of the seats in the parliament, which is at least 276. Thus, with the HDP entering the parliament, AKP fell 18 seats short of forming a government on its own. As a result, a coalition needed to be formed. When President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave Ahmet Davutoğlu, the current prime minister and leader of the AKP, the duty of forming a government, coalition negotiations began.
All three parties entered simultaneous talks with AKP. One common demand emerged: each minority party demanded limits on Erdoğan’s presidential power. Yet, AKP made clear that President Erdoğan’s conduct as President was non-negotiable.
In Turkey, the role of the President is symbolic and apolitical. After taking office, a president is no longer affiliated with any political party and is required by law to stand neutral. Thus, the president’s role is much more administrative and diplomatic than executive and governmental—he’s the de jure head of state but has no legal role in the government. The president theoretically has the right to veto legislation coming out of the parliament, but any veto can be overruled by another simple majority in the legislature.
However, President Erdoğan has not been respecting his position’s constitutional limitations. Throughout the period leading up to the general elections in June, he campaigned on behalf of the AKP even though he is bound by the constitution to refrain from supporting any one party. When asked to comment on the coalition condition that the president would respect the constitutional limits on his conduct, Erdoğan publicly announced: “Whether you accept it or not, Turkey’s political system has been practically changed. Now the next step is to assure this within the legal system with a new constitution.” There was an effective standstill: While the opposition parties refused to form a government in partnership with AKP that still operates under the unconstitutional leadership of an unconstitutional president, the AKP deemed Erdoğan’s role non-negotiable and even proposed a fundamental overhaul of the constitution to protect their leader’s authority.
What’s next?
With Erdogan’s radical comments, the slightest possibility of a coalition was forced out of the picture. Thus, Turkey will have to resort to special elections on November 1 of this year. In the meantime, an interim government is running the country. This government is supposed to have representatives from each party in the parliament reflecting the percentage of the votes each of them received in the original election. Yet, the CHP refused to take part in this temporary government alongside the AKP, and only one MHP member and two HDP members of parliament agreed to serve. Recently, even those two HDP members resigned from their interim Ministry positions on the grounds that President Erdoğan is to blame for the extreme violence and chaos in the southeast of Turkey.
Before this year’s elections, President Erdoğan had been campaigning for a presidential system in Turkey, nominally much like the American presidential system but without the checks and balances that would assure that the president is not the only decision-maker and keep him within his constitutional limits. The elections in June functioned as a referendum on Turkey’s current political framework, and the presidential system was seemingly rejected. Yet, President Erdoğan still declares that there can only be peace again in the country if the AKP can manage to win 400 seats in the parliament, the two-thirds majority necessary to alter the constitution.
It is difficult to guess at the result of next month’s elections. Turkey has been in an incredibly unstable state ever since the AKP lost majority in the parliament. The state and PKK, a Kurdish paramilitary force considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States, declaring war against each other after two years of ceasefire—arguably the greatest accomplishment of AKP governance—has only added to the chaos. The Director of KONDA, a research institute specialized in predicting election outcomes, Bekir Ağırdır, argues that current surveys predict that HDP will still exceed 10 percent and that the AKP will not be able to win an outright majority. But Ağırdır also admits that voters may opt for stability and choose the AKP to stem the current fiasco.
But perhaps the most important question is whether the elections will even be fair: the AKP has a history of suspicious activity around voting season. And even if there were a fair election, the distribution of votes could closely mirror that of the last election and thus likely lead to more internal struggle. In any case, the very fate of democracy in Turkey will be at stake again in about a month.
Image source: Wikimedia // Yıldız Yazıcıoğlu

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