Towards the limits of dominant-party period? Notes and hopes for the June 2015 elections

Kıvanç ATAK

European University Institute, Florence


Is Turkey coming to an end of its dominant-party period? It is not entirely unrealistic to give an affirmative answer to this question. Still, for many observers and commentators alike, the more likely scenario is another term of Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, albeit with an eroding popular support. As the recent elections in the UK have shown, though, polls might prove mistaken and we may wake up to a surprise, wishfully without electoral fraud. Whatever will come out of the ballot box, one thing will remain unchanged: rule by men.

Since his first landslide victory in 2002, AKP capitalized on a narrative of political and economic stability. Discrediting previous actors in the mainstream notoriously fraught with corruption, internal disputes and unstable coalitions, the founding cadres of the AKP promised ‘clean politics’ and a strong economy in the hands of a strong government. Some of the ardent opponents of the AKP who were particularly allergic to his Islamist credentials and his discontent with Kemalist ideals, long resisted understanding why the latter enjoyed high levels of public support. Opinion polls, however, have repeatedly shown that public satisfaction with the living conditions, the government and the economy markedly increased especially during the first two terms of these ‘conservative democrats’. AKP’s policies, it turned out, were celebrated by large sections of the population. Diminishing rates of inflation, easy access to credit, the healthcare reform, housing facilities, growing incentives for consumption, to name but a few, were apparently well-received in society. Moreover, AKP governments managed to attract the sympathy of many self-claimed liberals who staunchly applauded the party’s democratization agenda especially in the field of civil-military relations, the Kurdish question, and the – once upon a time ambitious – EU accession talks.

What the AKP persistently portrayed as – and benefited from – a success story, nevertheless, has reached its limits. In traditionally political terms; the unequivocally authoritarian drift of the government, Gezi Park revolts, Soma, the corruption scandal, and the emergent splits not only between the party and his old ally, the Gulen community, but also between the top figures of the party itself – on issues such as the rule of law, balance of powers, the independence of the Central Bank and the presidential debate – have altogether revealed that the AKP is no longer a problem-solving actor as he usually self-identifies, but has turned into a problem-making machine. When it comes to the national economy, the post-crisis years of high growth with external capital flows and FDIs are obviously over. Turkey seems to have fallen into a middle-income trap with an unattractive industry, high levels of unemployment, poor labor conditions, rent-seeking but environmentally devastating projects and an aggressive construction sector. Overall, the electoral campaign of the AKP is a self-evident indicator of his political despair. The campaign is built on negative sentiments – above all fear – as well as old-fashioned symbolic strategies relying on headscarf and the Qur’an. Ironically, negative political campaign used to be the strategy of AKP’s opponents, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the first place, which did not truly serve the interests of the opponents themselves but the AKP in power.

By contrast, the opposition parties are signaling, if to varying degrees, that they have begun to learn how to combat AKP’s resilient hold on power. CHP shifted from its doomed-to-fail negative strategies to a discernibly positive rhetoric. CHP’s spokespeople now sound almost equally enthusiastic about their future accomplishments, policies and projects as their stormy resentment with thirteen years of AKP incumbency. The pre-election of the parliamentary candidates was also appreciated on a large scale as a positive sign of CHP’s commitment to improve the party’s internal democratic mechanisms. The ultra-nationalist MHP, on the other hand, follows his classical line and wishes for attracting votes from AKP’s constituency who might be disillusioned by the running negotiations with the PKK leader Ocalan. For this very reason, it is quite likely that MHP will enjoy a minor or major increase from the ballot box.

Most certainly, the key political actor for the upcoming elections is the People’s Democracy Party (HDP). So far, the party’s intention to move from a sole and outright representative of the Kurdish political movement to an inclusionary left-wing voice worked neatly. In many respects, i.e. from peace, gender issues and environmental justice to education, labor and urban policies, HDP speaks through a convincingly left-progressive language. The sympathetic co-leadership of Selahattin Demirtas already yielded promising results during the presidential elections in 2014. Together with his appealing political personality, the cheerful campaign HDP is running for the elections might attract those who have strong reservations for the party’s ties with the PKK, but otherwise would sympathize with the premises of the party. Whether or not this will come true is going to play a pivotal role in determining whether HDP will reach the necessary ten percent of votes at the national level to enter the parliament.

To conclude, it is useful to remember that political socialization in Turkey has long been strongly influenced by conservative, nationalist and authoritarian values. These values somehow translate into the configuration of political parties, voting behavior and their interaction. Hence, any possible scenario regarding the June 2015 elections is constrained by such long-term orientations of the electorate. By the same token, the degeneration of political Islam most viciously played out by the AKP, may generate new, perhaps initially amorphous, political subjectivities and realignments, and transform existing ones in the near future. Hopefully in a more peaceful, more conscientious, more democratic, more labor-and-eco-friendly, and a feminist direction.