Is Erdoğan’s grip on power tighter?

July 3, 2018

Hakan Yılmaz analyzes the outcome of Turkey’s elections and considers whether the ruling party’s weaker showing is outweighed by sweeping new powers for the president.

TURKEY’S PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was again elected president in a snap vote held on June 24. His victory will allow Erdoğan to wield the sweeping executive powers that he won in a referendum last year, where his bid for greater presidential authority barely won, possibly due to vote fraud.

But at the same time, the vote for Erdoğan’s party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), dropped by 7 percentage points since the last election for parliament.

This means that the AKP will have to form a fragile coalition with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Going into the election, the AKP and MHP formed an electoral alliance that would have allowed the MHP to enter parliament even if it didn’t pass the 10 percent electoral threshold to do so. The MHP has won 11.1 percent of the vote, which surprised many people since the party had polled around 5-6 percent throughout the campaign. Clearly, the MHP won the bulk of the support that peeled away from the AKP.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaks at a campaign rally in Istanbul
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaks at a campaign rally in Istanbul

Erdoğan’s main opponent, Muharrem İnce of the centrist Republican People’s Party (CHP), fell short of preventing Erdoğan from getting over 50 percent of the vote, which would have led to a second-round runoff. İnce won 30.6 percent of the vote against Erdoğan’s 52.6 percent.

The CHP’s vote total also dropped by 2 percentage points since the last election. The CHP had formed an electoral alliance with the newly formed İyi Party (İYİ), a right-wing nationalist party that split from the MHP in 2017, and the right-wing Islamist Felicity Party (SP). The İYİ won just shy of 10 percent of the vote, while the SP had 1.3 percent.

The left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP) managed to increase its vote by 1 percentage point over last election, a remarkable showing considering that many of its leading members have been arrested and imprisoned by Erdoğan.

The HDP base is mainly among the Kurdish minority that has suffered systematic national oppression, but there is wider support in Turkey for its progressive platform around workers’ rights, feminism, LGTBQ issues, and environmental and social justice.

The party scored a breakthrough success in June 2015 elections, passing the absurdly high 10 percent threshold to gain seats in parliament.

The response of Erdoğan and the AKP was to unleash terrible repression and violence, particularly in the southeastern part of the country where Kurdish communities predominate. The aim was to bolster the AKP’s base by winning right-wing nationalist support, while repressing the HDP into submission.

This latter goal has failed. Selahattin Demirtaş, the HDP’s presidential candidate who was running from prison, took third place with 8.4 percent of the presidential vote — despite getting barely any coverage in the Turkish media and not having access to any of the resources the other candidates had.

Erdoğan and his party raised 87 million liras against İnce’s 16 million, while other candidates raised less than 10 million each. The HDP’s entire election budget was 132 million liras, while the AKP-MHP alliance had 792.4 million and the rest of the opposition had 424.3 million.

The AKP also had all of the resources of the Turkish state and its connections in the media to exploit. Between May 14 and June 22, the official government channel TRT broadcast 181 hours of coverage of Erdoğan and AKP, 16 hours of the CHP and İnce — and 32 minutes for HDP and Demirtaş.

Despite all this, Erdoğan only managed to get just over half of the presidential votes, and his party had one of its worst performances since the AKP first came to power in 2002.

THERE ARE two main takeaways to stress from this election.

First, although Erdoğan has consolidated more power than he had before, his rule is under pressure from many directions.

In the months before the election, the value of Turkey’s currency started dropping sharply. This has led to a high level of inflation in 2018. According to some estimates, prices in Turkey may have increased by 39 percent on average since the beginning of 2018. Meanwhile, according to recent estimates, unemployment had once again gone up to double digits in the second quarter of 2018.

To distract from the economic decline, Erdoğan had been ramping up his nationalist rhetoric and militarism. The Turkish military invaded Syria earlier this year in an assault on the Kurdish region around Afrin, which had been controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). This month, Turkey moved further into Menbic.

Before the election, Erdoğan also mentioned plans for new operations in Kandil, one of the bases of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish guerilla group based in Turkey that is also connected to the YPG. Erdoğan also denounced the HDP as “terrorists” and threatened to execute Selahattin Demirtaş.

Aside from economic decline and his war on the Kurds, Erdoğan will also need to manage the demands of the fascist MHP, since the AKP can no longer form a majority government in parliament on its own.

While the two parties don’t have significant differences in their views, MHP insisted throughout the campaign on a general amnesty for the likes of Alaattin Çakıcı, an ultranationalist mob leader who had called for assassinations of many journalists and public figures in the 1990s.

Erdoğan’s rule is also under pressure from below.

Turkey has been ruled under a state of emergency since the failed coup against the AKP government in July 2016. Demonstrations are highly restricted, many politicians, activists and radicals have been arrested, many left-wing academics have been fired from their jobs, and all strikes are still banned.

Despite this, there were big protests against the fraudulent referendum that gave Erdoğan his current powers, with nightly protests continuing after the fraudulent vote.

Erdoğan promised an end to the state of emergency after the elections, but given the economic decline, it is hard to imagine that he will allow more freedom for those who oppose him from below.

WHICH BRINGS us to the second takeaway from this election: The opposition led by İnce and the CHP failed to challenge Erdoğan and the AKP in the elections, but it showed the spread of anti-Erdoğan sentiment among millions of people.

Throughout the campaign, the CHP and the opposition outside of the HDP mostly focused on the politics of “normalization.” They campaigned against Erdoğan’s one-man rule and for “returning” Turkey to a parliamentary democracy — even though Turkish parliamentary democracy had always been very restricted.

Although almost half of Turkey’s population is against Erdoğan at this point, the failure of the opposition to come up with a radical alternative to Erdoğan’s politics limited its appeal. İnce — who had even met with Demirtaş before the elections and became the first member of his party to display a genuine commitment uniting the opposition — failed to provide politics that would challenge Erdogan’s rule.

Now that Erdoğan has gotten his sweeping presidential power and his party’s alliance controls parliament, many in Turkey could become detached from parliamentary politics. The current climate of the country is suffocating for many people who are burdened by economic pressures, state repression and militarism.

The nearly half of the country’s population that opposes Erdoğan appears more united than before. Hence, in the coming months, his rule will be both strengthened and also more fragile than it has ever been.

If the left — including the HDP, socialists and radicals alike — can provide a politics to ignite struggles and unite the opposition at the grassroots level, the situation in Turkey could change very rapidly. Until then, however, Turkey’s economy and political system will continue to be in free fall under Erdoğan.

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