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.

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.