How to Make Sense of the Turkish Election Results

June 27, 2018 Topic: Politics Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Middle East Watch Tags: TurkeyElectionMiddle EastAK PartyErdogan

How to Make Sense of the Turkish Election Results

The dominant rule of the AK Party appears to have come to an end.

The June 24, elections in Turkey resulted in a clear win for the incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, according to unofficial results. He received nearly twenty-six million of about fifty million valid votes amounting to 52.5 percent of votes. His party, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) lost its parliamentary majority but remained as the largest party with 295 seats in a parliament with six hundred seats. Muharrem İnce, the leading opposition candidate against Erdoğan, received 30.7 percent of the votes while his Republican People’s Party (CHP) did poorly, receiving 22.6 percent of the votes with 146 seats in the parliament. The Nationalist Action Party (MHP) which had formed an electoral alliance with AK Party did exceptionally well by obtaining 11.1 percent of the votes and forty-nine seats. This is a performance that ups the 10 percent and forty-three seats of İyi (Good) Party which had been formed in 2017 after its leader Meral Akşener split from MHP and ran in the June election in alliance with CHP.

This is a picture considerably different from what was predicted by  most polls and  commentaries preceding the elections.  Accordingly, the presidential election was going to go into a run-off with even a small likelihood of İnce as the winner. The absence of a level field during the campaign and possible electoral irregularities may partly explain this outcome. However, the fact that İnce and other opposition leaders have conceded their defeat also reveals that the Turkish electorate has decisively given its seal of approval to Erdoğan’s project of transitioning Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system. With this electoral constellation under the new presidential system, the MHP leadership is likely to seek leverage over Erdoğan and AK Party on a range of policy issues drawing Turkey to an even more nationalistic line domestically complicating prospects of democratization and externally concerning relations with the United States, the EU, Syria, and the larger Middle East.

Why snap elections?

In April 2017 in a  referendum on  constitutional amendments , Erdoğan succeeded in getting the project to have Turkey’s parliamentary political system transformed into a tightly centralized presidential one endorsed by a mere 51.4 percent of the votes with less than 1.4 million votes margin. The amendments were designed to replace Turkey’s more than seven decades old parliamentary political system with its traditional checks and balances with a system tailored for a one-man rule by the president. The new system abolishes the office of the prime minister and creates an executive president empowered to appoint a cabinet from outside the parliament. There would be no confirmation process for anyone of these presidential appointments, unlike those that are made in the United States. The president would also enjoy significant powers over the selection of members of the judiciary and the higher ranks of the bureaucracy. The new president will also enjoy the power to issue executive decrees on issues that are not regulated by existing laws. The parliament will see its powers significantly reduced though it will still be able to challenge presidential decrees with new legislation and retain the power to legislate laws and adopt the central government budget. However, in a major break from past practice, the amendments also enable the president to be the leader of a political party hence allow exercise of control over the legislative process. The transition was meant to occur with the elections scheduled for November 2019. However, Erdoğan took a gamble and called snap elections to mitigate the consequences of a rapidly deteriorating economy as well as the fear of loss of prestige that could have resulted if AK Party were to lose the metropolitan cities at the upcoming local elections in March 2019. His gamble paid off handsomely.

Absence of a Level Field

The opposition parties voiced serious concerns about holding elections under the emergency rule that is currently in effect since the failed coup attempt of July 2016. Large numbers of academics, journalists and university students have often been detained under spurious terrorism charges awaiting their indictments let alone court cases. One prominent name is actually Selahattin Demirtaş, former leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and also a candidate in the presidential elections. He has been held in detention since November 2016 when he was charged with supporting terrorism and has had to run his campaign from his prison cell. Similarly, many HDP elected officials were detained and trustees appointed into their positions by the government. The general climate of fear and government control over media has led to a situation where media outlets have been reluctant to cover or give airtime to opposition candidates. For example , from May 14–30, while the state television coverage of the President Erdoğan and the ruling AKP was over sixty-seven hours, the main opposition CHP and its presidential candidate Muharrem İnce got only six hours, the Good Party and candidate Meral Akşener twelve minutes. The other opposition parties received even less airtime, and the HDP and its presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş had no coverage at all. Impressive rallies organized by İnce in Izmir and Ankara involving millions of supporters were largely ignored by the state and private media outlets. The fact that pro-government outlets dominate the media and that one of the last relatively independent media group, the Doğan Media Company, was sold to a conglomerate widely considered affiliated with the governing party ahead of the snap elections left little room for open and free debate.