Person-oriented election in Turkey

June 1st, 2011   Articles | Countries and Regions | Turkey

On June 12, Turkey goes to the ballot boxes. “The ongoing campaign is probably the most person-oriented campaign that I’ve ever seen in Turkey” comments Thomas Gür, senior advisor to the Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation. While the AK will claim a landslide victory “with 40 to 50 percent of the votes” and form a majority government, the key issue is whether the AKP will manage to achieve at least 330 of the 550 seats in Parliament. “With such a majority, the AK Party would be able to put constitutional changes up for a public vote. Making constitutional changes in Parliament would require 367 of the votes, i.e. two thirds.”

The classic ferry route across the Bosphorus leaves from Eminönü, home of the new Mosque (inaugurated in 1655), to the Üsküdar, a city founded in the 700’Th century and formerly known as Chrysopolis or Scutari. At the ferry slip at Üsküdar, nowadays a municipality within Greater Istanbul, the campaign for the June 12 election is running on full speed.

Campaign workers hand out leaflets to surpassing ferry passengers as they enter and leave the terminal. The air is filled with the sounds of fluttering party pennants and flags hanging from the trees and streetlights, side by side with the mandatory Turkish flags. However, the sound environment is not likely to invite to neither spontaneous small talk nor serious discussion with party representatives. The low key square meeting speakers have been replaced by loudspeaker from at least three parties at the time – all of them shouting out pompous music mixed with recorded speeches of the party leaders. The loudspeakers thrones at the top of huge trucks with open sides – combinations of mobile election stands and propaganda machines equipped with some serious audio visual technology.

In mid April, at my last visit to the ferry harbor at Üsküdar, the atmosphere what somewhat calmer, albeit not much. The AKP election booth/propaganda truck broadcasted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoðan’s speech on live satellite from central Anatolia.

While local party branches and side organizations, such as the AK Party’s substantial women’s league, run extensive door to door campaigns and other mobilizing activities, Turkish square meetings have always come in the shape of manifestations and rallies circulating around a single person – the party leader.  Even with this standard, the current campaign is by far the most leaders oriented that I have seen in Turkey so far. It is noteworthy that almost all posters for local candidates for parliament are designed with the party leader portrayed in the background as a benevolent father figure.

There are no doubts that the ruling AK Party will win a landslide victory, probably securing 40-50 percent of the votes and forming its own majority government. What remains to be determined is the balance between the different groups in parliament.

Due to the 10 percent threshold, those parties that manage to get in receive a larger proportion of seats compared to the election result. Naturally, this distorts the representativeness of the parliament as several parties, all representing 4-9 percent of the electorate, will fall outside.

Thus, the key issue is whether the AKP will manage to achieve at least 330 of the 550 seats in Parliament. With such a majority, the AK Party would be able to put constitutional changes up for a public vote. Making constitutional changes in Parliament would require 367 of the votes, i.e. two thirds.

Such a support would facilitate pushing through President Erdoðan’s constitutional reforms. The reforms aim at altering the Turkish constitution in a civilian direction by removing the last remains of the constitution initiated by the military junta in 1982. In addition, they serve to strengthen the presidential power at the expense of the parliament. The latter combined with an extensive decentralization of power to regional and local levels are commonly understood as Erdoðan’s plan for the upcoming years – including the possibility for himself to run in (and win) the Presidential elections of 2014, when the Turkish electorate will, for the first time, directly chose a President.

The decisive factor is the election outcome for the two largest opposition parties, the left-nationalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and most of all for the right-nationalist and post-fascist National Movement Party (MHP). Yet another force will be around 30 Kurdish candidates expected to enter Parliament as representatives from the Kurdish provinces. Formally running as independents, these candidates are likely to form their own party group after the elections. While, the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) itself falls below the threshold but independent candidates who get enough voter support are still able to enter among the parliamentarians from each constituency.

CHP seems to have outgrown the worst forms of Turkish grand nationalism and has to some extent (albeit far from always) used a political rhetoric which reminds about the party’s official position as Social Democrats – a change of policy for which they may to a large extent thank the new party leader Kemal Kýlýçdaroðlu. Most analyst agree that the CHP could expect a better election result this time than in the elections of 2002 and 2007 when they got around 20 percent.

The decisive factor is the election outcome for MHP. The party had slightly more than 8 percent of the votes 2002, thus falling below the threshold (thereby pushing the AKP party with its 34 percent up to 363 seats). In the last election, the MHP got 14 percent and should thus be safe for next term – had it not been for the still running tape scandal that has severely damaged the party leadership in the last few weeks.

The tape scandal is the term used for several clips, shot with a hidden camera, showing male MHP politicians from the party leadership in, as the Turkish would call it, “inappropriate situations” together with women, some of them very young. Anonymously posted on YouTube, the clips, having quite obviously been shot illegally and after a great amount of planning, has fueled widespread conspiracy theories and allegations. Whether the source of the videos will ever be revealed remains to be seen.

To the highly conservative electorate of the MHP, the video clips where shocking. That one of the male politicians involved is also the party’s spokesman for women’s issues and family policy have made an already bad situation worse, not the least since the same man has also been caught on tape accusing the part of the electorate that vote for right wing parties of stupidity.

So far, the scandal has caused the resignations of four vice chairmen as well as the party secretaries and his deputy. The party chairman for MHP, Devlet Bahçeli, has so far survived the crisis without having his role or position questioned.

The election of June 12 will indicate to how large extent the scandal and resignations in MHP will affect its electorate and if the party leader orientation could become a saving hand, dragging MHP above the threshold. Should the MHP enter parliament, the AK party would find it difficult to push through constitutional changes on its own but would have to find partners.

A parliament without the MHP would give greater influence to AKP and CHP proportionally and increase the freedom of movement for the AK Party. The legitimacy of parliamentary decisions would, however, be questionable, especially in Kurdish issues. In addition, it would mean that MHP’s well-defined version of Turkish nationalism would not be represented.

The election campaign unusual party leader orientation could thus be what keeps the parliament from becoming even more skewed than what the 10 percent threshold already made it.

Text: Thomas Gür, writer and advisor to the Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation

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