Monday, June 20, 2011

Turkey: An election without losers

An election without losers 

Last Friday, I was in Brussels where I took part in a panel discussion organized by the European Policy Centre (EPC) in cooperation with the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON). The topic of the discussion was “Turkey after the elections -- what next?” Here is the gist of what I said.
The June 12, 2011 elections in Turkey represent an important step towards consolidating a democracy on European Union (EU) standards and moving away from military - bureaucratic tutelage regime. This was the first election since the 1960s without the shadow of the military hanging over it. Over 50 million citizens were entitled to vote and no less than 87 percent did so, increasing the rate of participation from 79 percent in 2002 and 85 percent in 2007. No major incidents took place during the voting process and the results became known just two hours after the polling stations closed. Up to 95 percent voted for parties who stood any chance of surmounting the 10 percent threshold and for independents supported by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), thereby bringing the proportion of “wasted” votes to 5 percent down from 45 and 15 percent in the previous two elections. This was the first ever election in Turkey where verbal and written election campaign material in Kurdish was legally used. The share of women deputies in the 550-seat Parliament significantly increased, from 50 seats in the previous parliament to 77. The main issue in the election campaign was the adoption of an entirely new and democratic constitution to replace the current one that was drawn up by the military three decades ago, while any references to EU accession were conspicuously absent, indicating that Turkey is on course to continue to democratize not by being pushed from beyond by the EU, but by the people from below. The conservative democratic Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a landslide victory, garnering 50 percent of the national vote. It became the first party to win a third consecutive election by increasing its share of the vote from 34 percent in 2002 and 47 percent in 2007. This is also a personal victory for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is without doubt even more popular than his party or government. The electorate rewarded the government party for making Turkey a wealthier, more open, freer, more democratic, fairer and more peaceful country its citizens feel proud of. The AKP won in all the regions of the country including the Kurdish-majority region, receiving about as high a proportion of the votes as in the entire country. The number of seats won by the AKP, however, decreased to 326, which is less than three-fifths of the total, meaning that it will have to negotiate and reach a consensus with the opposition to draw up the new constitution, as repeatedly promised by Erdoğan.

I regard the Republican People’s Party (CHP), led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, also a clear winner. The new CHP succeeded in increasing its share of the vote from 20 to 26 percent, and its seats in Parliament from 112 to 135, despite the fact that the new leadership of the party has fundamentally changed its discourse, moving it towards support for liberal democracy away from military - bureaucratic tutelage. I suspect the CHP might have garnered even more votes had it avoided nominating a number of defendants in the Ergenekon case -- a criminal network accused of instigating a military coup against the elected government -- to run as candidates.

The vote of the ultra-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) fell to 13 percent, down from 14 in the previous election, and its number of seats in the parliament decreased to 53 (down from 71 in the previous one). The MHP cannot, however, be regarded as a loser in this election, because it managed to surmount the 10 percent threshold, despite all efforts by Prime Minister Erdoğan to steal votes away from the MHP, the sex tape scandals forcing 10 leading members of the party to resign and withdraw their candidacies, and surveys that showed the party risked falling out of Parliament. It seems that many cast their votes for the MHP solely to secure its representation in the Parliament.

The pro-Kurdish BDP is surely the other big winner in the June 12 elections besides the AKP. In order to overcome the 10 percent threshold, it fielded, as in the previous election, independent candidates, of which 36 out of 62 garnered enough votes to win. The independents are soon to formally join the BDP, raising its number of seats from 21 in the previous to 36 in the current Parliament. The election success of the BDP is explained mostly by its broad front policy of including among its candidates personalities who have formerly been highly critical of the BDP’s policies, who belong to the Turkish socialist left, and who represent religious minorities. BDP candidates were thus able to win Kurdish and Turkish votes who favor a political rather than violent solution to the Kurdish problem.

I concluded my presentation in Brussels by saying that the June 12 elections in Turkey was an election with almost no losers, except for the 12 small parties that could together only muster about 5 percent of the vote. My comments on the question as to “What’s next?” dealt with the real and alleged vulnerabilities Turkey faces which will be the subject of my column next week.

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