Turkey: Atop a Powder Keg?

April 5, 2014 Topic: Politics Region: Turkey

Turkey: Atop a Powder Keg?

Elections have done nothing to resolve the country's deepening political and ethnic divisions.

Last weekend, Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, claimed another landslide victory in a nationwide round of local elections, with his Justice and Development Party (AKP) pulling in just over 45 percent of the vote. Erdogan’s allies had been expected to perform poorly—and possibly to get the boot in general elections later this year. The last few months have not been kind to Erdogan, with street protests in the summer and a slew of leaked tape-recordings implicating Erdogan in corruption schemes with his son Bilal and some of his leading confidantes. Most recently, a tape leaked of a conversation among top members of Erdogan’s national-security team in which Turkish intelligence head Hakan Fidan proposes staging an attack on Turkey to provide a pretext for intervention in Syria.

And in this context, Erdogan's victory is taken with a pinch of salt. The opposition is already crying foul. Mustafa Sarigul, the Republican People’s Party (CHP)'s defeated mayoral candidate in Istanbul, told a news conference that "whatever the election results are, it will unfortunately go down in the history of our democracy as a dubious election." Mansur Yavas, CHP's candidate in Ankara, is now fighting a protracted legal battle against the election results and declared that his campaign "will go to whatever length necessary to defend Ankara's democratic decision." Despite a turbulent political past, elections in Turkey had generally been viewed as free and fair and the allegations of foul play now being voiced by the opposition are marking a new low in Turkish politics. In a society like Turkey’s, increasingly polarized along ethnic, religious, sectarian and ideological lines; even the mere semblance of the disappearance of an option for the democratic ouster of the incumbent government is akin to lighting a match in an armory.

The rise of Kurdish politics

Since 2009, the biggest winner of Turkish politics has been the Kurdish political movement. Having been frustrated by an unusually high 10 percent national electoral threshold and the activism of courts that dissolved four Kurdish political parties in 1993, 1994, 2003 and 2007, the Kurdish political movement has proven resilient, circumventing all these hurdles to carve its own political space. After failing to surpass the 10 percent threshold in the 1995 and 1999 general elections, the Kurdish political movement focused its attention on local elections, winning thirty-seven mayoralties in 1999. Until 2007, the Kurdish political movement continued to expand its local presence by claiming many of the local municipalities in the Kurdish-populated Southeast as well as leading cities like Diyarbakir. In the 2007 general elections, the Kurdish political movement made its leap to the national platform when its Democratic Society Party (DTP) joined forces with smaller, left-wing parties and fielded its candidates as independents, managing to bypass the electoral threshold. They got twenty-two of their candidates elected and formed their own caucus in parliament. In the 2009 local elections, the number of Kurdish-affiliated mayors rose to ninety-nine, while in the 2011 general elections they boosted the parliamentary delegation to twenty-six—and that doesn’t include "supra-party" Kurdish independents like Ahmet Turk and Leyla Zana.

In the 2014 local elections, the Kurdish political movement took the unexpected step of dividing itself into two parties. The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the existing Kurdish party, took a more Kurdish-nationalist character and entered local races in Southeastern Turkey while a new party, the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), entered races in urban/metropolitan areas where there is a strong Kurdish community as well as a left-leaning, non-Kurdish population with an emphasis on democratic socialism, minority rights (including LGBT) and feminism. The leadership of the HDP was composed by three outstanding parliamentarians from the BDP: Sabahat Tuncel, a popular Kurdish activist; Ertugrul Kurkcu, a former student leader of the '68 movement and Sirri Sureyya Onder, award-winning movie director and Kurdish activist. Tuncel and Kurkcu assumed the leadership of the party while Onder ran as its candidate for Istanbul.

For the Kurdish political movement, the 2011 election results are a partial success. The success is that there has now emerged a "contiguous" Kurdish space in southeastern Turkey, with twelve provinces and seventy-five subprovinces electing BDP mayors. To this extent, the Kurds have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with, especially with regards to the geographic concentration of their votes. The failure, however, is that the project to bring Kurdish politics into the mainstream and endear non-Kurdish, left-leaning voters with the Kurdish political agenda under the big tent of a left-wing alternative which sources close to Abdullah Ocalan had indicated to be his vision for these elections has largely failed with HDP's poor performance. In its most closely watched race, HDP's strongest candidate (Onder) received only about 4 percent of the vote according to exit polls, despite having publicly remarked that they were expecting to receive close to 20 percent. With Kurdish politics failing to gain traction beyond its geographic base, there is an incentive for Kurdish politics take an even stronger shift towards Kurdish nationalism—possibly triggering a nationalist counterreaction.

Onder's candidacy in Istanbul had its flaws. His offensive stance against the CHP's frontrunner candidate, Mustafa Sarigul, and alleged insults (now the subject of a lawsuit) to a secular journalist, Enver Aysever, hurt his cross-party appeal and were particularly divisive for what could have only been an alliance of convenience between the Kurds and the secular elements. At a time when there was a strong, cross-party momentum to unite against Erdogan, Onder announced his candidacy with a promise to "reduce CHP to a rubble." Such language provoked a strong backlash against Onder, who came to be viewed as running to divide the opposition's votes and remove any chances of reclaiming Istanbul from AKP. After the ban on Twitter and police brutality at the funeral of Berkin Elvan, a fifteen-year-old boy who was hit by a gas canister during the summer protests and died after 265 days in a coma, Zeynep Gambetti, a professor at Bogazici University and one of the founders of the HDP, made a public appeal to Onder withdraw from the race, tweeting that "enough is enough" and that "it is time to unite." Instead, however, she became the target of a virtual lynch mob within her party, including Onder.

The Secular-Nationalist Consolidation: Front Populaire or a Front Nationale?

The 2014 local elections showed strong signals of further consolidation between the secular CHP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), at least at the grassroots level. If such a consolidation ensues, at least on grounds of convenience against a mutual enemy, it is likely that the divide between the Kurds and the non-Kurds will widen, possibly triggering civil unrest. There are three lessons learned from last weekend's elections. Firstly, Turkish society is strongly polarized with all parties mobilized to defend their own space, as evidenced by turnout rates exceeding 90 percent. Secondly, there is a deepening rift between the coastal/urban cities and the continental/rural cities, with the latter strongly for the government and the former strongly against, Thirdly, there is now a contiguous "Kurdistan" in Southeastern Turkey where the Kurdish political movement exercises an outsized influence that it lacks on the national level.

Facing such a political landscape, the non-Kurdish political opposition is coming under pressure from its voters to unite, and this strong grassroots resulted in a de facto alliance of CHP and MHP. Before the elections, there were half-hearted efforts for CHP and HDP to enter the elections together under a left-wing coalition against the government. This opportunity never came to fruition, however, largely because neither showed a true willingness to form such a coalition. At the grassroots level, even in the absence of such a formal arrangement between the parties, popular pressure aligned CHP and MHP into a coalition as "concerned moderns" voted for the candidate most likely to win over the AKP, be it from CHP or MHP and the stronger candidates of either party staying out of the races where there existed a strong candidate from the opposition. Many political commentators, like Yilmaz Esmer of Bahcesehir University and Nilufer Gole of EHESS, interpreted this to indicate that opposition to the government has become a "transcendent political identity" that trumps over ethnic, sectarian, religious and ideological affiliations.

The most notable example of this dynamic was in Ankara, with Mansur Yavas, a former mayor of an Ankara suburb who had run in 2009 as the MHP candidate, won close to 30 percent of the vote. In Ankara, despite early opposition from left-wing and Alevi elements in the party, CHP nominated Yavas. Yavas's popularity among the MHP base also prevented the emergence of any viable candidate in MHP, with the stronger names opting out of the race and MHP having to run a relatively weak candidate. A similar dynamic was observed in Adana, where Huseyin Sozlu, mayor of Adana's biggest district, Ceyhan, ran on the MHP ticket and local pressure forced CHP to field only a nominal opponent against him. In Adana, Sozlu won, while in Ankara, Yavas waged a strong challenge and is now taking the election to court after revelations of political influence and vote tampering. Among one of the many irregularities uncovered was that in the box Yavas and his family placed their ballots into, there was not a single vote for him.

Eric Meyersson of the Stockholm School of Economics reported some interesting findings based on the preliminary results, like the number of invalid ballots systematically higher in pro-CHP districts and numerous ballots with turnout over 100 percent strongly in the AKP column. The night of the election, after reports of such irregularities and of the Minister of Interior visiting the Supreme Electoral Commission with the mayor as Yavas started to widen his gap, the race was called for the incumbent and thousands indignantly took to the streets. Demonstrating in support of Yavas were ultranationalist Grey Wolves, brandishing their signature wolf gesture; communists waving their red flags and young urban professionals with their suits and ties; a scene Radikal journalist Ismail Saymaz described on Twitter as "a congregation that would not come together on the day of the apocalypse." A popular chant was "United We Will Win" and it must be expected that this grassroots pressure will force the parties to unite to win, in some fashion.

Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios

The potential effects of such an alliance would be difficult to estimate. In the best scenario; the alignment of CHP and MHP into a coalition would create a strong challenger to the AKP, provide an outlet for the popular anger against the government in certain segments of the society and reorient Turkey towards the West, like a renewed effort for full accession to the European Union. In the triple coalition before AKP, Turkey had made considerable progress towards full membership in the European Union. The three partners in that coalition were MHP; center-left DSP, now practically merged with CHP and ANAP, which has dissolved into the existing political parties. Notably, MHP had even forfeited its insistence on the death sentence for PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan—despite strong opposition from its base—over concerns of derailing Turkey's relations with the EU. Therefore, if such realignment happens on the basis of a common reaction to AKP's increasing totalitarianism and autarchy, it could moderate secular-nationalists into a policy of accommodation towards the minorities and result in the further expansion of rights and liberties for minorities, further democratization of Turkey and realignment toward Europe and the West.

The worst scenario, however, would be that the perception that AKP is not conducting fair elections and the options for peacefully removing it from power have been exhausted would radicalize popular discontent. In such a case, a direct target of this anger is likely to be the Kurds; both for its perceived complicity in the AKP's political projects and for the history of animosity towards Kurds, especially among ultranationalist segments of CHP and MHP. For now, CHP still includes a strong progressive faction, including its chairperson Kemal Kilicdaroglu and prominent Alevi-Kurds like Sezgin Tanrikulu (former chairperson of the Diyarbakir Bar Association and recipient of the 1997 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for promoting Kurdish rights) and Huseyin Aygun (a Zaza-Alevi human rights lawyer). There is, however, also a small nationalist clique in the CHP. It has lost much of its power under the current party leadership, but it still retains some influence over the party's base. If this clique increases its power, CHP could be radicalized into a xenophobic, authoritarian, militant secularism akin to its stance in the early 1990s. Equally likely, the street's reaction could turn more violent, and parties could find themselves forced to radicalize under pressure from the street.

A trend to watch here is the strong nationalist enclaves emerging at the margins of the contiguous Kurdish political space in the Southeast. At the north of this region, the cities of Igdir and Kars and at the west, in the city of Mersin, MHP received 30 percent or more of the votes and won the election (with the exception of Igdir, where the election results have been contested). Such strong support for MHP in these regions is an anomaly, both considering MHP's nationwide performance and the sizable Kurdish communities in these cities. The likeliest explanation is that the resurgence of Kurdish politics in these regions and their periphery has triggered a secular-nationalist counterreaction and united voters from all three parties against the Kurds. Also, before the elections, HDP rallies in cities in the Aegean (Izmir's Urla and Mugla's Fethiye districts), the Black Sea (Ordu, Giresun and Zonguldak) and the Central Anatolia (Aksaray) were either interrupted or prevented by the local populace. Of these cities, Aksaray and Ordu were won by AKP. In Aksaray, MHP had about 30 percent of the vote while in Ordu, CHP received around 35 percent of the vote. Giresun, Zonguldak and Izmir's Urla district were won by CHP, while Mugla's Fethiye district was won by MHP. It is not difficult to imagine how easily this counterreaction, combined with popular anger with the government and fading faith in the electoral system, could prove a combustible mixture.

Atop the Powder Keg?

The critical factor here was Turkey's history of free and fair elections and the popular belief in the ballot box as a means of democratic change. Indeed, this was what had doused the flame of the Gezi protests in summer. The Gezi protests were a "leaderless movement" that brought various segments of the society in defense of their modern lifestyle and against the current government without any dominant political affiliation.

Consequently, when the government upped the ante by escalating violence, the protesters faced a difficult choice: They were either going to abandon their moral high ground and try to overthrow the government by whatever means necessary, or they would have to beat Erdogan on his home turf—the ballot box. That was indeed Erdogan's spin on the narrative; seeking to delegitimize the protestors by framing them as "bandits" and accessories of a "plot against his government" while organizing his own rallies and daring the protesters to oust him through the ballot box by promising to quit politics if his party comes second. The oxymoron of defending rights by undemocratically removing a democratically elected leader was widely discussed in public forums during the protests. The protests ended because the street accepted Erdogan's dare; as evidenced by the post-Gezi surge of mobilization in opposition parties.

Now, with a widespread perception that the game is rigged, the ballot will lose its appeal and worryingly, the street's reaction could end up being more radical and resilient this time. Looking at the Turkish Twittersphere, the fuse is already lit. Murathan Mungan, a popular novelist, was tweeting that "if elections changed anything, they would have been banned long ago." Another popular retweet was a link to Malcolm X's "If it's not the ballot, it's the bullet" speech. With so many with an axe to grind, any serious scholar of Turkish politics should fear what may come next if the ballot is no longer trusted.

Selim Can Sazak is a Fulbright Scholar from Turkey, currently studying as a graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. The views expressed here are his own.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mstyslav Chernov. CC BY-SA 3.0.