Sunday, March 1, 2015

Turkish election 2015-a guide

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Turkish election 2015-a guide to party prospects

Turkey will be heading to the polls in three months, in an election that does not look to be overly competetive. However, the election results will be interesting. It is generally expected that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) will be re-elected to a majority government. However, the margin, and the circumstances in which the election is held, will be interesting and will be very meaningful for the future of the country.


Turkey, in the republican form we know today, is a relatively young country. The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 by Mustafa Ataturk, in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War 1. 

Ataturk believed in a strong state, and supported a secular Turkey. The new Constitution contained these principles. The Republic was governed by a National Assembly, and an indirectly elected President. Ataturk formed a political party called the Republican People's Party (CHP), which he made the only legal party.

Under Ataturk's rule, Turkey went through a period of fast modernisation, with women receiving equal rights and education being improved dramatically. Ataturk actually introduced a Hat Law making it mandatory for public servants to wear panama hats. He insisted upon the assimilation of Turkey's cultures into one nation. He also supported an official separation between church and state.

After his death in 1938, something of a power vacuum emerged in Turkey. Ataturk is a revered figure to this day, and any insult to his memory is illegal.

He was replaced as president by Ismet Inonu, who introduced multi-party elections. In the 1950 elections, the CHP was defeated by the centre-right Democrat Party, which was led by Celal Bayar. Bayar ruled until 1960, when the Democrat government was overthrown in a coup.

The coup members executed Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and certain members of his cabinet. Civilian government, at least in name, was restored within a month. Elections were held in 1961, and Ismet Inonu was elected to the post of Prime Minister. The Democrat Party had been superseded by the Justice Party.

From  1961 to 1971, single-party CHP and Justice governments alternated in office. A coup took place in 1971 in response to an increase in terrorism by the far-left and far-right, and martial law was declared in a significant number of province. Democracy was restored in 1973.

The 1973 election produced a hung parliament, with the Islamist National Salvation Party holding the balance of power. The CHP, being the largest party, entered into a coalition with the National Salvation Government. This awkward coalition didn't last, with the CHP leaving coalition and the government of CHP Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit collapsing. A new government, a coalition of the Justice Party, the National Salvation Party, and the Nationalist Movement Party, a small far-right party.

The 1977 election gave the CHP a large amount of seats: 213 seats out of 450 seats. This was about 13 seats short of a majority, and Ecevit was unable to form a long-lasting coalition. However, he was able to form government in 1978. That government was defeated in Parliament in 1979, and a new Justice-led government, led by Suleyman Demirel.

In 1980, Demeriel's government was toppled in a coup. Increasing terrorism and a collapsing economy caused military officials to take power. Under military rule, hundreds of thousands of suspected terrorists, dissidents, and political activists were executed, exiled, or imprisoned.

Military government didn't last, and a referendum on a new, more democratic constitution was held in 1982. The referendum passed. However, ahead of the 1983 election, a ban was introduced on pre-coup political parties and certain pre-coup political figures from taking part. As a result, three parties contested the election: the Motherland Party, the continuation of the Justice Party, the People's Party, which was the successor of the CHP, and the Nationalist Democracy Party, a new right-wing party founded by the coup leaders. The Motherland Party won comfortably.

The Motherland Party won in 1987, too, despite the appearance of the True Path Party, a competing centre-right group.

In 1991, the election produced a confusing result. The People's Party (known then as the Social Democratic Populist Party), had split, with former CHP Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit forming a new party called Democratic Left. This led to a vote drop for the Social Democrats, who lost 4% of the vote and lost 11 seats (in a 450 member parliament) and Democratic Left won 10.4% of the vote, but only 7 seats. A new Islamist party called Welfare won 62 seats and 16% of the vote.  The previous governing Motherland Party won just 24%, and won only 115 seats (down from nearly 300 in 1987). The winner of the election was the True Path Party, which won 27% and 178 seats.

As a result, a True Path-Social Democrat coalition was formed, with True Path leader Suleyman Demirel as Prime Minister.

The 1995 election produced an extremely fragmented National Assembly. The Welfare Party won, with 21% of the vote and 158 seats (out of 550). The Motherland Party came second, with 19.6% and 132 seats, followed by the previously governing True Path Party, with 19.1% and 135 seats. Ecevit's party won 15% and 76 seats. The Social Democrats, who had renamed themselves as the Republican People's Party (CHP), came last, winning 10.17% and 49 seats.

Despite winning the most votes and seats, Welfare was unable to form a government, as most other parties were opposed to its Islamist agenda. A minority government led by True Path leader and incumbent Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, who was the first female Prime Minister, was unable to last, while Mesut Yilmaz, the Motherland Party leader, led a short-term government.

Welfare leader Necmettin Erbakan eventually formed a government, with the support of True Path. However, pressure from the military and threats of a coup eventually led to his resignation. Another short-term government led by Yilmaz was formed, but collapsed quickly. Bulent Ecevit formed a caretaker government, which was re-elected in 1999. The 1999 elections were notable, in that the CHP were thrown out of parliament for the first time in their history. The Welfare Party were disbanded, and replaced by the Virtue Party.

Between 1999 and 2003, Bulent Ecevit was Prime Minister. A serious economic crisis took place in 2001, which dramatically reduced the popularity of the government. Given that most parliamentary parties were members of the government, this meant that all parties were hit.

In 2001, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the former Mayor of Istanbul, formed a new party, the Justice and Development Party (the AK Party). The party was a conservative Islamist party, and many members of it had been members of the Welfare Party.  Erdogan was unable to contest a parliamentary seat, as he was in prison after reciting a poem that 'incited racial hatred'.

In the 2002 election, the AK Party won a landslide victory. Under Turkish electoral law, a party needs 10% of the vote to enter the National Assembly. No party in the previous National Assembly won this, and, despite winning only 34% of the vote, the AK Party won nearly two-thirds of the seats. The only other party to win seats was the CHP, which managed 20% of the vote and 178 seats (out of 550). Erdogan was pardoned, and was elected to parliament through a by-election  in the Kurdish seat of Sirit.

Erdogan ruled Turkey as Prime Minister from 2003 to 2014. His time as Prime Minister was marked by controversy. He managed to improve Turkey's economy, reached a settlement with Kurdish militias, and reduced the possibility of a coup by removing some of the powers of the army. However, he has presided over an increase in child poverty,  a decline in working conditions, and a dismantlement of Turkey's secularism.

Constitutional change

Erdogan was dissatisfied with the position of President in Turkey. The President is elected by a two-thirds vote of the National Assembly, and the AK Party did not have that in time for the 2007 presidential election. As a result, the AK Party were unable to elect their preferred candidate.

A referendum was held in 2007 to decide whether Turkey should have a directly elected president. 70% voted Yes, meaning that the Presidential term would be lowered to five years (from seven), and that the President of Turkey would be directly elected. The first election was scheduled for 2014.

In the first presidential elections, three candidates decided to contest. Erdogan contested as the candidate of the AK Party, academic and president of the Islamic Co-operation Organisation Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu as an independent with CHP support, and Kurdish activist Selahattin Demirtas as the candidate of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party.

In the election, Erdogan won 52% (thus avoiding the need for a runoff), Ihsanoglu won 38%, and Demirtas won 10%. While this looks like a ringing endorsement of Erdogan, it is important to remember that in a runoff, most of the Demirtas vote would go to Ihsanoglu, and it would be rather close.

Erdogan was replaced as Prime Minister by his Foreign Affairs minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. It is generally expected that Davutoglu will be a quiet Prime Minister, and will allow Erdogan to do most of the work.

Electoral system

Turkey uses the D'Hondt proportional representation system to elect the 550 member National Assembly. However, the system has a number of modifications.

For a start, Turkey is divided into electoral districts. The map below shows them.
Credit to Wikimedia

As you can see, the districts are geographically quite small. The largest district, Istanbul's 1st district, elects thirty members, while the smallest districts elect just two. This small size means that elections are rather disproportional.

The other modification is the 10% threshold. This modification means that any party with less than 10% of the vote will win no seats. Other countries have this, but usually their thresholds are 5-3%.

The 10% threshold has meant that strong local results for certain parties have gone unrewarded. For instance, in the district of Diyarbakir at the 2002 elections, the pro-Kurdish Democratic People's Party  won 56% of the vote, but none of the 10 seats, as they did not pass the threshold. Eight seats went to the AK Party, which had won 16%, and two went to the CHP, which had won 6%. 

Proponents of this system claim that it stops parties from winning seats with small localised support, and creates stability. This is true. However, the system has meant that significant amount of voters have gone unrepresented. In fact, in the 2002 election, 47% of voters voted for parties that did not win seats.

The parties

Justice and Development Party (AK Party)

The AK Party will be going into this election in a strong position. Despite controversies over workers' rights, civil rights, and generally anything with the word rights on the end, a relatively strong record of economic development and a weak and divided opposition is likely to hand the AK Party another term in office.

What they will do with that term is a wholly different matter. The AK Party has been accused of covertly opposing secularism, and pushing an Islamic agenda. They have also been controversial for their reluctance to help the Kurdish militias fighting ISIS in Iraq. Erdogan and Prime Minister Davotoglu have stated that they intend to make significant changes to the Turkish constitution if re-elected, which sounds somewhat worrying.

Republican People's Party (CHP)

The Republican People's Party is Turkey's oldest political party. Founded by Ataturk, it has been around in one form or another since 1923 (excepting coup periods). The party, however, is not the group it was in Ataturk's day. 

Ideologically, they are a centre-left secular nationalist social democratic party. They have generally been considered the main opposition to the AK Party since 2002, but have generally been outfoxed by Erdogan at most turns. The party has not received more than 26%  of the vote since their reformation in 1995. 

At this election, it is generally expected that the CHP will win more votes, and more seats. However, it seems unlikely that they will form a government. Even if they did win and formed a government, President Erdogan will be in office until 2019, meaning that a CHP government would be unable to do an awful lot. Their leader, Kermal Kilicdaroglu, an ex-civil servant, has done badly in personal ratings in opinion polls.
Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)

I have not mentioned the MHP before in this post. However, they are a very interesting party.

They were founded in 1965, and were relatively unsuccessful, occasionally winning a handful of seats. However, they made a breakthrough in the 1999 local elections, winning 17% of the vote and coming second to Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's Democratic Left party. They won the same vote share in the 1999 national elections.  However, they dropped out of parliament in 2002, winning 8% and no seats.

 In 2007, the party came back, winning 14% and 71 seats. They came only 5% behind the CHP. The party dropped back somewhat in 2011, winning 13% and losing 18 seats. 

The party is far-right, and Turkish nationalist. They are not overtly Islamist, instead being somewhat aligned with Ataturk's ideology. They are opposed to rights for ethnic minorities. They also oppose membership in the European Union.

Opinion polls show that the MHP is likely to win slightly more votes than in 2011. If no party wins an overall majority, it is unclear exactly who they will support.

Peace and Democracy Party (HDP)

The Kurdish minority in the east of Turkey has had relatively poor political representation. Due to alleged affiliations with far-left terrorist group the Workers Party, most Kurdish parties have been banned. The 10% threshold has kept most parties that have not been banned out of parliament. 

In order to combat this, the HDP has run its candidates as independents. Independent candidates in Turkey are permitted to run as lists with one candidate on them. These candidates are exempt from the threshold. In some heavily Kurdish provinces, the HDP has run more than one independent candidate, and used vote dividing operations to ensure that the maximum number of candidates are elected.

However, the HDP are currently polling extremely well (for a Kurdish party), and are hovering at around 9%. This presents an interesting dilemma to the HDP. Do they run independents, and win a few seats, or do they run as a party and either win a large number of seats or no seats? 

Conclusion: an important election for the Middle East

Turkey has been a rather odd country in the Middle East. Their secularism makes them unique amongst a continent dominated by Islam. The AK Party are attempting to push Turkey towards the Middle East, while the opposition is more supportive of European integration, if not full EU membership. 

This is an important battle. Turkey is a key player in the fight against ISIS, and Europeans need Turkey's cooperation.

 One of the key fighters against ISIS is the Kurdish militias. However, Turkey is reluctant to support Kurds in Iraq, for fear that they will support the terrorists in the Workers Party. It remains unclear what a change in government would do about that, but it seems likely that a CHP-HDP government would be more cooperative with the EU and USA when it comes to fighting ISIS.

The Turkish election looks rather uncompetetive at the moment. However, if the race tightens, it looks to be an interesting and important contest.

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