The Turkish democratic space and the future of the Middle East

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced his re-election on the basis of unofficial results after winning 52.5 percent of the national vote for the presidency, as the first executive president on the terms of the April 2017 Constitutional Referendum. The presidency had also previously shifted from being determined by parliamentary vote to a direct plebiscite in 2014. Now that virtually all the 180,996 ballot boxes have been opened, the Turkish Election Board, confirms the result. This is Erdoğan’s thirteenth election win since his days as Istanbul mayor.

However, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) only winning 42.5% of the vote in the accompanying elections for the expanded parliament of 600 seats, clearly missed its target of a majority win. The popular vote it acquires translates into 292 seats. Nevertheless, the new government’s ease of manoeuvre in parliament, for legislative purposes, will be made possible through the continuation the AKP’s alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and Erdoğan’s alliance with its leader, Devlet Bahçeli.

Erdoğan’s main rival, Muharrem İnce, the presidential candidate of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), was on 30.8 percent of the votes at the time of Erdoğan’s announcement. The CHP accused the Anadolu Agency of “manipulating” the vote count in its broadcasts in order to deter ballot box monitors from keeping a close eye on the counting. This appeared to be a desperate manoeuvre to buy time as at that time the CHP was on 22.7 percent of the vote, sharply down from its 25 percent performance in the last November 2015 elections. This is standard practice on the part of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who leads the CHP, and always cries foul. His raising of suspicions about ballot tampering was not based on any kind direct evidence, but on the mere fact of a turnaround in votes coming in from the Ankara and Istanbul counts, which favoured Erdoğan, and which simply didn’t meet his expectations or predictions. İnce, however, performed much better in the presidential race than Kılıçdaroğlu did in the parliamentary race, conceding gracefully, as he pointed out that the massive lead Erdoğan enjoyed put the result beyond question.

Meral Akşener, leader of the newly founded right-wing İYİ (Good) Party, with a 7.4% result, failed to live up to the promise of her expected performance in the presidential race, where some polls had put her popularity at 20%. Furthermore her party only managed to scrape through into parliament due to her alliance with Kılıçdaroğlu’s CHP.

The Kurdish issue-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) succeeded in getting 11.2 percent of the national vote, helped especially by support from non-HDP voters, principally Turkey’s ultra-left voters, who deserted the CHP with negative consequences for the party. Compared with that, therefore, the HDP’s jailed presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş won a disproportionate 8.2 percent support, given that the support from the left was only directed at the party and not its leader.

These June 2018 elections mark the beginning of a new era in Turkey’s administrative system, and is an endorsement of the results of the 2017 Constitutional Referendum. Erdoğan’s tactic of allying with Bahçeli paid off. Erdoğan’s political success has always been predicated on carefully judged alliances both within and outside the AKP, although his early alliance with Fethullah Gülen’s movement soured as the latter began to plan his extra-constitutional take-over of power through a parallel state apparatus. This culminated in the attempted coup of July 2016, and led to the current judicial process of expurgation of the deep state, with the imposition of a state of emergency yet to be lifted.

Now, Erdoğan’s AK Parti will clearly have to continue to work with the MHP as a coalition partner in parliament, to pass the legislation that will be needed to put flesh on the bones of the presidential system. Although the MHP is regularly tarred with the brush of “fascism” by ultra-left commentators, it is clear that it has nevertheless left behind the negative image it had in 1990s, when its youth movement fostered the violence of the “grey wolves”. The ultra-left’s continuation of the “fascist” meme in its current discourse about the MHP displays a nostalgia for the street battles and the ideological conflicts of the depressed 1990’s.

Indeed Bahçeli seems to have become a mainstay of the Turkish constitutional system. His wily political nous has positioned him as the “kingmaker” of Turkish politics ever since his call for a snap election back in 2002. He has predictably proved Akşener and the pundits wrong by garnering close to 12% of the parliamentary vote for the MHP. The MHP’s resilience seemed to surprise many among the commentariat as it now becomes a key player in parliament. The members of Akşener’s İYİ (Good) Party will find it hard to watch Bahçeli’s success, having defected from the MHP, and are likely to be attracted back into its fold as Akşener – unable to sit in parliament because she ran as presidential candidate – just watches.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s tactic to lend 15 CHP deputies to the İYİ (Good) Party, to help Akşener run as a presidential candidate and later ally with İYİ Party, was an act of self-immolation and sabotaged the CHP’s own chances, as Akşener attracted more votes from the CHP than from the AKP, and much less than was hoped from the MHP, which had been her main aim.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s tactic to put his party rival, Muharrem İnce, in as the presidential candidate, rather than run himself, allowed İnce to demonstrate an unexpected charisma and popularity, which helped him to win 30% of the national vote, or 7.3% more than the disappointing 22.7% achieved by the CHP. The CHP lost votes not only to the İYİ Party but also to the HDP, as a result of the ultra-left’s desertion of the CHP in its mission to drive the HDP over the 10 percent national threshold, and reduce the AKP’s lead in parliament. There will be considerable infighting in the CHP, which might consider an emergency congress to elect İnce as party chair ahead of the March 2019 municipal elections.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s various tactics, shorn of any long-term vision to compete with the AKP, will have thus proven to be a complete failure. To the sense of catastrophe surrounding Kılıçdaroğlu, the bitter irony that the CHP’s lowest showing in the national vote since 2011 was to be actually buoyed by the votes of an Islamic constituency, must be added. The CHP’s appropriated 671,000 votes from the Felicity (Saadet) Party, which had joined CHP’s “Nation Alliance” in this 2018 election, but failed to pass the 10% threshold required to enter parliament. The Felicity Party’s failure thus adds 3 deputies to the CHP’s tally of 144 seats, an outcome which will haunt the remainder of Temel Karamollaoğlu’s political future, such as is it. His inability to attract voters away from the AKP for the Felicity Party will surely have drawn it to a close.

The HDP’s success is down to the ultra-left voters, but it gives the chance for the party now to draw a clear line between itself and the terror acts of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), despite sharing the same grassroots. This is a distinct possibility since its leader, Demirtaş, serving a jail sentence for aiding and abetting terrorist violence, has recent admitted the error of the party’s previous support for the PKK as inconsistent with democratic participation. Furthermore, the presence of the HDP in parliament now gives the Turkish establishment a formal interlocutor for the Kurdish people and is thus a positive development, especially in the light of the fact that Erdoğan’s alliance with Bahçeli will undoubtedly mean a ramping up of military action in Iraq and Syria against the PKK, now that has been all but eliminated within Turkey.

This particular adventitious outcome is significant. The HDP presence in parliament will represent the sweetener for the Kurds that will balance out the harsh military action against the PKK, potentially to finally encourage the Kurds to insist on full participation in the civil community and in the Turkish democratic space, which the PKK umbrella group – the KCK – rejected in July 2015 in favour of war and the prospect of Kurdish national independence (Rojava), based on the political opportunities afforded it by Assad’s policies in Syria, on US logistical and weapons support from the US, and on financial support from the UAE/Saudi Arabia. The choice remains and is stark: the HDP will have more seats in parliament (67) as the MHP (50), and thus the wherewithal to negotiate with Erdoğan if it commits to a democratic agenda rather than blindly following the PKK’s programme of violence.

As Erdoğan recently stated, the Kurds have a nation wherein the Kurdish language, Kurdish media, and Kurdish aspirations will flourish: it is called Turkey, the geographical designation. Bringing the enmity of Turks and Kurds to an end by sidelining the PKK’s divisiveness will help stabilise both Iraq and Syria. While Syria has a long way to go yet to reach a political solution to its devastating crisis, Iraq’s political scene is developing apace. The acceptance by the Barzani clan of the lack of wisdom in the Kurdish Regional Government’s (KRG) independence referendum, and of a renewed commitment to the Iraqi constitution – under pressure from Turkey, Iran and (from within) from the Talabani clan – was an important recent step towards Iraqi stability. But most important was the fact that the elections were a breakthrough in the process of overcoming the narrow Maliki-type of sectarian governance, while the post-election visit of Qasim Suleimani to Baghdad led to a shift in Sadr’s proposed alliance with Hadi al-Amiri, to one with al-Abadi, more conducive to political stability. This is surprising in that al-Amiri is much closer to Iran than Abadi.

In regards to Turkey itself, the electoral catastrophe suffered by Erdoğan’s opponents on June 24 is only partly due to Kılıçdaroğlu’s astonishing lack of political skills, and to Akşener’s delusions about her popularity among Turkish nationalists. It is also partly a result of the credit due to Erdoğan for his total transformation of the Turkish economy since the depressed 1990’s, with the quintupling of Turkish per capita incomes since that time. Above all, however, it is due mainly to the relentless attacks by the Western media on Erdoğan over the years, and the support – entirely transparent to the Turkish public – of its masters in the Western security state, of the Gülen movement  (aka FETÖ) and the PKK as Western proxies.

Erdoğan’s electoral success is thus mainly due to the continued perceived threat of interference by foreign powers in Turkey’s affairs by the people. Such interference, in their minds, promises only the same kind of devastation that is plainly evident in Turkey’s neighbourhood, and which is viscerally felt by Turks first-hand, from their need to support 4m desperate refugees at home. The reaction of the new middle classes who have risen during the Erdogan boom in this electoral cycle has thus, quite naturally, focused on defending the country’s integrity and sovereignty, reliving in this new chaotic era Mustafa Kemal’s rescue of the nation from dismemberment by foreign powers in 1919-23.