Turkish General Election 2015: A Short Summary of the Political Forces

This is a guest post by Viking-Berber Erdogan fanboy Adam Sami Johansson.

It probably hasn’t escaped anybody’s mind that on Sunday Turkey will have yet another election, the third in 2 years. And just like the others this one is characterised as the most important in Turkish modern history. Yet despite this, many people in the west are generally uninformed about just what this election is really about, what the major issues are and what the positions of the major parties are and what ideologies they have. In light of this, I thought it would be a good idea to go through the major issues in a fairly short and concise way so as to give readers an idea of what is important to look for and have a clue as to what is going on. Without further ado let’s begin with the major parties (note; I’m only going to focus on the 4 major parties and perhaps a few words about the ‘National Alliance’ coalition. The other parties, as interesting as they may be, simply have no chance of reaching parliament or creating a major impact on any of the bigger parties in any significant ways.).

The CHP

The Republican People’s Party (in Turkish Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi) is the party of the founder of the modern Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Established in 1923, the party ruled the country in its formative years from the mid 1920s until the election of 1950, in which they suffered a major defeat at the hands of the centre-centre-right Democrat Party (in Turkish Demokrat Parti). This period is typically called the single-single-party period, during which no political opposition against the regime was allowed to exist. Two attempts to create a multi-multi-party system were quickly aborted in 1924 after the Sheikh Said rebellion in the kurdish areas of the southeastern parts of the country and in 1930 after the opposition party gained support from the conservative masses of rural Anatolia. After the 1950 election the party has spent most of its time in Turkish politics in the opposition, having only managed to come to power during its heyday in the 1970s through some very unstable coalition governments with rivals from the right side of the political spectrum.

The party defines itself as a modern social-democratic party, true to the principles of Ataturk of Ataturk, chiefly to the principles regarding secularism, nationalism & statism. It’s usually characterised as being split in two wings, the hardline left-wing Neo-Nationalists (Ulusalcilar) who can be defined as the more kemalist wing of the party and take the principles of secularism & nationalism very seriously, and the more moderate social-democrats who are struggling to make the party more attractive to other segments of Turkish society without sacrificing their principles too much.

The MHP

The Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi) is, as its name suggests, a right-wing nationalist party. Founded in 1969 by former colonel Alparslan Türkeş, the party has been a major player in Turkish politics since its inception. While in the beginning the party had a problem reaching out and gaining support from the broader public, it had a significant impact in Turkish daily life during the 70s through its street fights and violent campaign against various leftists groups, eventually pushing the country near to a state of civil war which then culminated with the coup d’etat by Turkish army in 1980. The coup regime moved quickly to ban all political parties and hitting hard against the MHP and the groups it had fought, punishing them for having brought chaos to Turkish daily life. This has a hard impact on the party and its supporters, having viewed themselves as soldiers for the state that was now punishing them for their ‘struggle’.

This was exemplified by the famous statement of Türkeş during his trial where he said that he was the only one whose ideology was now in power yet he has been imprisoned. This caused the party to have the reputation of being more or less a fascist party that seeked to eliminate its opponents through violence. This perception changed somewhat though after the death of Türkeş when current party leader Devlet Bahçeli took over and sought to cleanse the party of its violent and criminal elements. These efforts managed to result in the MHP expanding their base and becoming an established part of Turkish politics, sitting usually on around 14% of the vote, with the exception of the 2002 general election where the Turkish electorate punished all parties in parliament after massive corruption scandals and a gigantic financial crash.

The party is characterised by its very strong nationalism, its hawkish stance on the PKK and negative attitudes to the European Union and the west in general. They are very close to the Ulusalcilar/Neo-Nationalists of the CHP in this regard with the exception of their stance on religion. While the Neo-Nationalists see religion as something to be pushed aside and kept out of public life and be limited as much as possible, the MHP see religion, or more accurately Islam, as something essential to Turkish identity and regularly feature religious language. This attitude is perfectly illustrated by a statement of Türkeş where he said that they (the MHP) are as Turkish as the plains of Turan (where they belive the Turkish people originate from) and Muslim as Mt Hira (a mountain where muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad first got his revelation from God). As such, contrary to what many believe, their constituencies do not overlap that much.

The AKP

The Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi/AK Parti) is the current behemoth of Turkish politics, having ruled the country uninterrupted for 13 years and not showing any particular sign of giving up its dominant status anytime soon. The party was formed in 2001 as a split from the Islamist movement of Necmettin Erbakan and moderated its language and discourse accordingly, proclaiming that they no longer were part of the Islamist trend but rather now described themselves as ‘Conservative Democrats’, saying that they were now instead part of the centre-right that has been the dominant force in Turkish politics for most of the country’s multi-party history. The party therefore took a more pro-religion stance while affirming the secular nature of the state, saying they wanted to adopt what they called the American model of secularism where religion and state are separated yet the state doesn’t seek to limit religious practice, study or influence on the public. This,together with the liberal economic and political reforms the AKP implemented between 2002-2010, caused the AKP to be seen as a model by the West for the Muslim world in how Muslim majority countries can reconcile democracy, liberalism and modernity with their religion and cultures. This view started to change after the 2010 referendum however and increasingly the view among academia and the media has been that the AKP has been reverting back to Islamism and that the party is growing increasingly authoritarian. This became the prevalent view after the Gezi Protests in the spring of 2013 and the government’s heavy handed response.

So what is actually the AKPs ideology? The party can best be described as a big coalition party, uniting a broad range of ideologies to the political right under one roof. For simplicitys sake one can say that these ideologies are nationalists, islamists and various kinds of conservatives. This would explain how the party has managed to be as popular as it is, in a country that is known to have many different types of political currents with a fairly sizeable following. The AKP sees itself primarily as a successor of the political tradition of Adnan Menderes and the Demokrat Parti and the Anavatan Partisi (Motherland Party) of Turgut Özal who as well were big coalition parties, uniting various different right-wing currents under one roof until their parties were shut down in a military coup and collapsed respectively. Therefore it would be wrong to claim that the party is either Islamist, liberal conservative, nationalist etc. It’s all of those at the same time yet not exactly.

The HDP

The People’s Democratic Party (Halkarin Demokratik Partisi) is the most recent incarnation of the legal political wing of the kurdish nationalist movement. Founded in 2013 at the behest of Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, the party is an attempt by the kurdish movement to make inroads into the Turkish political establishment instead of being confined to the static state it has been in Turkey’s kurdish society. The party, like its predecessors, is leftist in nature and describe itself as a democratic socialist party that puts a great deal of emphasis on gender equality, minority rights and advancing the country’s LGBT community. However a large part of the party’s constituency and its MPs are religiously conservative, with one of their MPs (Altan Tan from Diyarbakır) having said on TV that shariah, Islamic law, should be the new basis on which Turkey is built.

The party has been accused during the current election cycle of engaging in double speak depending on who they’re talking to. So in the west of Turkey where they aim to snatch liberal and socialist voters who are disillusioned with the CHP the party has been speaking a fairly liberal language, talking about pluralism and the need to protect worker’s rights and standing up to the authoritarianism of the ruling AKP. İn the east of Turkey however, particularly in the majority kurdish areas, the party has been accused by its opponents of seeking to implement a one party system and systematically hindering opposing parties from engaging in a meaningful campaign and reaching out to voters, putting fear of chaos and violence breaking out if the party do not make it pass the 10% threshold. Critics have also said that militants affiliated with the PKK have engaged with violence, kidnapping of family members and stopping other parties from effectively campaigning in the southeast. They’ve also said that families, tribes and villages in these areas that are seen conversing with AKP or other parties that they will suffer consequences if they vote for any other party than the HDP.

What are the elections about?

Interestingly this election has been surprisingly empty of any real policy debates between the parties. While economic growth has started to slow down and inflation has started to rise, forcing the AKP to the defensive on the one issue that had always been its trump card over the other parties the opposition has failed to capitalise on it in any significant way. It instead has been forced into the background and become a sub issue. Religion, which usually occupies a high place in Turkish public debate, has also not seen that much activity in this election. The probable cause of this is that the parties don’t see anything to be gained from bringing it up this time around. The CHP is trying to change its image from a party that is anti religion.

The MHP is happy with the status quo on this and have nothing to criticise. The AKP has nothing new to bring its constituency on this issue. The only time religion really came into play was when the HDP first said that Taksim square, the stage of the Gezi Protests, is like their kaaba (to which muslims turn to pray five times a day and make pilgrimage to) on mayday. The AKP seized on this and accused the HDP of being a kurdish version of kemalism, the kemalists having famously said let the Arabs have the kaaba, we have Anitkabir, the mausoleum where Atatürk is buried, and that they are inherently anti religion and anti Islam. The other time religion came into play was when the HDP pledged that they would abolish the Diyanet, the religious directorate which takes care of mosques, hires imams, organises pilgrimage and so on, which is a long standing demand by Turkey’s alevi community.community. The AKP have responded to this by implying that the HDP are far-left Marxist,bent on destroying religious beliefs and that the Diyanet has been a bulwark against, what they call, deviant religious ideas and trends like ISIS and that they would not allow the HDP to touch the Diyanet.

Instead what the election has really been about this time around is the status of President Erdoğan changing the constitution from a parliamentary system to a presidential one which would give the president more powers in contrast to the largely symbolic role that the presidency plays today, the status of the peace process with the PKK and whether the HDP will manage to cross the 10% threshold and what impact it would have if they didn’t.

Since 2011 theTurkish parliament has tried to amend the 1980 constitution that was written by a military junta to a new civilian constitution. The problem with this has been that the parties have very different conceptions of how this document should look and after several years of negotiations they only managed to finish about a third of their work before the AKP decided that it had gone on for long enough and that the way forward would instead be to getat least 3/5ths of the seats in parliament to unilaterally write a new constitution and put it to a referendum.

Among the things they’d like to see in the new constitution would be the implementation of a new presidential system which would give the presidency more executive power than it currently has. They justify this by saying that in 2007 the way of electing the president changed from the parliament to a popular vote.This is a process that is time consuming, expensive and far too important for it only to be about a ceremonial figure. The opposition on the other hand claims that this is a way for the AKP to monopolise even more power to themselves and that the most democratic & representative system one can have is a parliamentary one.

This debate has been one of the major reasons why in this election it has been more a contest between the AKP and the HDP than the other opposition parties. If the HDP, which for the first time is running as a political party instead of running independents, manages to pass the threshold, of which the (largely unreliable) polls have have put them around but not conclusively shown that they really will pass, the AKP will not have enough seats to write the constitution unilaterally. Concern has been though that if the HDP passes they might succumb to their kurdish nationalist impulses and engage in a grand bargain with the AKP where the AKP will pass major reforms on the kurdish issue,the HDP will give the AKP their presidential system and in return the AKP will lower the threshold enough so the HDP will continue to be represented in parliament. This would give the presidential system more legitim the publics eyes and make it harder for the CHP and MHP to campaign against it.

Another issue that, while not featuring so much in the actual election, is important to Turkey as a whole has been the issue of Syria. Syria today is in complete disaster, with a civil war raging and a humanitarian crisis that keeps getting worse day by day. Turkey today is hosting about 2 million Syrian refugees and keeps on hosting more as the fighting rages all over the north of Syria. As such each party directs at least one segment of their electoral platform to this issue.

The AKP are pretty straightforward in this aspect, the Syrian refugees will be hosted and taken care of until the fighting stops and the country can begin to be rebuilt. Until that happens Turkey will do its part in protecting their Syrian brothers and sisters. The AKP also puts it plainly that they will continue to support the opposition and work for the end of the Assad regime which they see as the reason for why Syria is in the mess that it is today and that no solution can be found without Assad leaving power.

The CHP takes an ambiguous stance on this issue. While their electoral platform states that the Syrian refugees will be hosted and taken care of until the end of the war, party chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has been touring the country, saying on multiple times that the Syrians need to go home. Likewise, while their platform states that they support a peaceful solution to the conflict and making Syria a democracy, Kilicdaroglu has been saying that he has a plan for how to solve the conflict without expanding upon how that would happen or how the plan looks. Also on multiple times members of the CHP and media friendly to them have visited Assad and voiced support for him in his struggle against, what they call, the terrorists destroying Syria. A big part of the CHP base have also on multiple times voiced the support for Assad, particularly the alevi and alawite communities who see the current stance of the AKP on Assad as an inherently sectarian one. The CHP base have also lately been startingrumours of electoral fraud in the waiting and that the AKP are going to use the Syrian refugees to give it extra support by sending them to vote.

The MHP have come with a much more nuanced position on all of it. They pledge that until Syria has gone back to peace the refugees will stay and be taken care of and have said that Turkey under their rule will be an active partner in making Syria stable and democratic. The party has not taken a stance on the actual rebellion in Syria but are believed to be in favour of supporting it, particularly as Syrias Turkmen community has overwhelmingly sided with the rebels against the Assad Regime. They’ve also voted in favour of allowing the Turkish military to conduct military operations in Syria if need be, probably since the PKK aligned PYD and YPG have established a stronghold in Syrias north, right next to the border to Turkey. It’s important here to remember that syria hosted the PKK for a long time, particularly during the 90s when the PKK rebellion was in its height.

The HDP has taken a position somewhat similar to the CHP on this issue. The party platform speaks a lot about Rojava and how it is a model for the Middle East. With regards to the actual war the party simply states that they want a democratic, secular syria where the rights of minorities are protected and that there should be no foreign intervention. Now, given that the party has not spoken against the intervention of the US led coalition against ISIS on behalf of the YPG, people have cried foul on this stance and assumed that no foreign intervention means on behalf of the Syrian rebels. This have caused them to be accused of hypocrisy, that foreign intervention is good for some but unacceptable to others.

What to look for in the election.

Obviously the first thing one should look at is if the HDP manages to cross the 10% threshold and how much support they got from the Western parts of the country where they’ve been quite weak. One should then take and compare this with how much the CHP and AKP got in these areas in previous elections. One should also see if the MHP is gaining any significant grounds as the polls have suggested that the AKP have started to bleed nationalist votes to them. One should also look at just how many votes the AKP gets. Lately the party seems to have been stuck at around 22 million. Last thing one should look for is if the National Alliance (an electoral coalition between the Islamist Saadet and the nationalist Islamist BBP) gets anything above 2%. The two parties together have been stuck just below the 2% range and anything above that will likely have come from former AKP voters who have grown disillusioned with the party and is seeking a religiously oriented alternative.

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