The Meaning of the Elections in Turkey

On the surface, last week’s nationwide regional and local elections in Turkey ended with few surprises: the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) confirmed its popularity with a convincing lion’s share of the vote–almost 42%.

In fact, the AKP fulfilled many predictions, including its own, that the people’s trust in them would, not only be confirmed, but strengthened with a vote superior to the 2002 national election results, which brought the party to power. They posted an 8% increase.

Emboldened by this result, the government is eager to pursue its programme of reform with European Union candidacy in mind. So far this programme–which includes a stable economy, a strong anti-corruption stance, a resolution to the Cyprus problem, and democratising political and social reforms–is popular with many Turkish voters, as the election results demonstrated.

This rosy picture is complemented by the notion that the AKP is perhaps becoming a party with broad-based support for its policies. As majority governments are a precious commodity in Turkish political history, the current situation offers an interesting if not promising outlook. However, a more detailed look into the election results hints at challenges to come.

Politically, the Turkish public has always displayed a marked preference for moderate conservatism, which bests describes the current AKP administration. The rest of Turkey’s political rightwing family is rounded off by the religious Happiness Party (SP), which won 4%, and the far-right parties: the National Action Party (MHP) and the True Path Party (DYP) who won 10.5% and 10% respectively.

Taken together, the Right’s performance at the ballot is over 60%; a fact not lost on the liberal newspaper Radikal, whose headline screamed, “Turkey Drew to the Right”. It is worth mentioning that if the MHP and DYP repeat their performance at the national elections, the 10% threshold law gives them access to parliament. The far-right tends to take a tough stance on many issues key to the government’s reform policy.

But for now the more important story is the AKP’s gains at the ballot and how they were taken at the expense of the Left, namely the national opposition the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the leftist coalition under the Social Democratic People’s Party (SHP).

The CHP could only manage 18% of the vote–a slight drop of about 1%. Significantly, the CHP lost two important regions to the AKP: Gaziantep, long considered a CHP stronghold, and Antalya, CHP leader Deniz Baykal’s electoral province. As such, these elections are considered as a defeat for the CHP and in particular for Baykal.

Most intriguing is the gains the AKP made on, or rather, the losses of the Social Democratic People’s Party (SHP). The SHP represented a coalition of minor leftist parties and, significantly, the Democratic People’s Party (DEHAP) whose main support comes from Turkey’s large Kurdish population.

The SHP lost 4 provinces to the AKP which had previously been under the firm control of DEHAP’s predecessor HADEP. These include the provinces of Siirt and Van, the former the province that sent current Prime Minister Erdogan to parliament and the latter the hometown of the current education minister Huseyin Celik. Strong campaigning helped win the day.

Moreover, whilst 4 out of SHP victories were won by a convincing margin, one SHP victory and two AKP victories in contested provinces were taken with margins of about 6%–a close race considering the general trend of landslide victories that characterised most districts.

Additionally, Turkish media reported violence in several southeastern provinces leaving as many as 8 dead and up to 200 injured. Mainly, the violence was the result of confrontation between rival supporters of the AKP and SHP.

In the southeastern city of Diyabakir (a Kurdish capital of sorts), Welsh member of the European Parliament Eurig Wyn reported being denied entry to a polling station by police even though he was there as part of a team sent to observe to elections. He relayed reports of up to one hundred people being detained and not allowed to vote.

And according to Reporters Sans Frontières, the press freedom NGO, “activists of the pro-Kurd Democratic People’s party (DEHAP) had gathered around the Diyarbakir court house at the close of polling at around 11pm on 28 March, accusing the security forces of rigging the elections. Police set about violently dispersing the demonstrators, then attacking journalists covering the clashes.” The SHP won Diyabakir province by the way.

Despite these tensions and divisions, it seems as if the AKP is able to gain some support among the Kurdish population, much for the same reasons everyone else voted for them, but also because the government seems sincere in its promise to democratise. As part of the aforementioned drive towards EU membership, the government is constrained to grant more rights and freedoms to the Kurds of Turkey.

With the beginnings of significant democratising reform for EU candidacy, the AKP is coming face-to-face with another strongly held tenet of Turkey’s state ideology, namely that of equating Kurdish demands for more cultural rights as tantamount to an attempt to destroy the Turkish state and nation.

Turkish nationalism and state ideology rests on a concept of a common Turkish ethnicity (and rejection of any other ethnic political identity) and the equating of the territory with the state and the nation itself. In this view, the Turkish state and nation do not simply occupy a territory, the state and nations is the territory. Consequently, any attempt to use a non-Turkish ethnic identity (i.e. Kurdish) as a basis for political protest is deemed an attack on the very integrity of the Turkish state.

This policy is behind the protracted conflict between the state and Turkey’s Kurds and in many ways is responsible for Turkey’s deplorable human rights record–that most oft cited obstacle to EU accession.

Recognising Kurdish cultural rights and extending economic development to them is certainly key to Turkey’s future. That the ruling party seems to be taking steps in that direction seems a positive sign but it still is too early to tell. There is still the gap between rhetoric and actual implementation, which needs to be bridged. This will be the true test of government policy.

Underlining the importance of this are developments that are immediately unfolding in Iraq. What role that country’s Kurdish population and currently autonomous region will play in the near future will most certainly affect Turkey, whose Kurdish provinces run along the current border.

As the USA is planning to hand over sovereignty back to ‘free’ Iraq this June, the future is far from certain. It goes without saying that serious instability not to mention territorial dissolution of Iraq will carry grave consequences. Real or not, there is the fear that a Kurdish state would destabilise Turkey vis-à-vis its own Kurdish population.

The European Union is supposed to decide on giving Turkey a date for membership discussions at the end of this year. Unfortunately, the things that are crucial to Turkey’s internal politics–the economy, Cyprus, and the Kurds–depend largely on external factors beyond the full control of Ankara. The AKP will have its hands full if it hopes to keep everything running smoothly by the time the December meeting with the EU comes around.

SACHA GUNEY is a Canadian freelance journalist living in Ankara, Turkey.