Event Notes: “Turkey: Parliamentary Elections and their Aftermath”

On Tuesday, June 9, the Middle East Program and the Global Europe Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center held an event titled “Turkey: Parliamentary Elections and their Aftermath” featuring Henri Barkey, a professor at Lehigh University and, beginning in July, the Director of the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program; Stephen Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Gönül Tol, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and the founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies.

To watch a webcast of the event, click here. To read the notes below as a PDF, click here.

The participants discussed their reactions and analyses of the Turkish parliamentary elections that took place on June 7th, 2015, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority in parliament and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) crossed the 10 percent threshold to obtain seats. If the AKP had maintained its majority, it was expected to make efforts to alter the country’s parliamentary system to a presidential system, thus bolstering Erdogan’s presidential powers.

Barkey stated that many were skeptical of the largely Kurdish HDP party’s ability to cross the threshold. It appealed to many constituents to help curb President Erdogan’s power. According to Barkey, the HDP victory depended on the votes of conservative Kurds, who traditionally voted for the AKP but no longer felt represented by the party. Instead, these Kurds were upset by many of Erdogan’s actions, including his response to threats against Kurds in Syria. Whereas some have suggested that the HDP victory indicates an increasingly liberal and democratic political atmosphere in Turkey, Barkey believes the party’s victory can be attributed to conservative Kurdish votes.

Barkey added that the election results were a defeat for Erdogan, but not necessarily for the AKP. “If you look at the trends in Turkey,” he said, “they are not in [Erdogan’s] favor.” Barkey identified Erdogan’s biggest mistake prior to the elections as his failure to lower the 10 percent electoral threshold. Consequently, citizens focused on helping the HDP obtain seats in parliament. If Erdogan had lowered the threshold and the HDP had passed it, the HDP would have been indebted and may have been more willing to back the constitutional changes Erdogan sought. Turks value their political processes, and backlash was inevitable when Erdogan sought to hollow out political institutions, he said. Barkey predicted that, particularly considering the large, young voting population, the AKP would not regain ground in elections unless the party distanced itself from Erdogan.

Tol asserted that the HDP victory was a “historical moment” for the Kurds, as the party capitalized on Kobani and anti-AKP sentiment to help broaden its constituency. Selahattin Demirtaş, co-head of the HDP, ran a campaign that liberals and youth found appealing, and the HDP now has a broad support which could help it develop into a mainstream liberal party. If successful, Tol asserted, the HDP could transform the Turkish left, which has always had Kemalist undertones, into a movement that embraces different ethnic groups.

Tol then pointed out a number of dilemmas faced by the HDP. The first obstacle is how the party will balance conflicting constituencies. The election results have made the Kurds overconfident, Tol stated, in the perception that the West will support them and she  worries that the young Kurdish generation “could easily be radicalized.” Additionally, the conservative Kurdish votes that the HDP gained could make the party more ethnicized, Tol stated, as the party has come to “monopolize the Kurdish scene.” However, Demirtaş hopes to appeal to voters beyond the traditional constituency in order to maintain broader support. Tol stated that one of Demirtaş’s main challenges will be to balance these competing visions of the party. The second obstacle Tol discussed is the HDP’s difficulties in joining any coalition government. The MHP has opposed Kurdish language rights and other pro-Kurdish reforms, and the CHP will not be willing to meet Kurdish demands. Finally, a weakened AKP will likely turn to the anti-Kurdish MHP to build a government, thus “the Kurdish issue won’t be high on the new government agenda.”

Cook iterated that the AKP’s loss seems so great only when compared to its previous successes. Since the AKP will remain the dominant party in a coalition government, and since it has years of experience dealing with the country’s bureaucracy and resources, Cook said that it will “continue to wield significant power.” Even Erdogan, he stated, remains powerful, although he made a “maladroit move” by making himself the center of attention in the election. Erdogan’s attempts to hollow out Turkey’s political institutions “clearly overstepped his bounds,” Cook said, so much so that the public took notice.

While some suggest that Turkey is now returning to a more genuine democracy, Cook questioned whether any of the parties are really committed to advancing the democratic process. Meanwhile, he acknowledged the difficulties of creating and maintaining a coalition government. Cook noted that the HDP is new to the political process, and that the boost it received from strategic voters may not be sustainable. He was not willing to say that the HDP was the “savior party,” or that it is the new home for the liberal Turks necessarily. However, the election proved that Turks have internalized and are invested in democratic processes.

Since the MHP gained votes at the AKP’s expense, Cook predicts Erdogan will have to “tack to the right,” a move which will further alienate the Kurds. An AKP-MHP coalition, Cook stated, is the most likely and will not advance efforts for the Kurdish peace process. Thus, the MHP could be considered the biggest winners, as they will keep the AKP on a strong, nationalistic, anti-Kurdish track.

The first question in the Q&A touched on the possibilities of a coalition government. Cook maintained that an AKP-MHP coalition is most likely, if only because no other combinations make sense. Political instability will follow, he stated, as political infighting is likely. Tol believed that all parties in a coalition government will try to curb Erdogan’s power, and Barkey agreed. Tol added that the HDP had ruled out any coalition which included the AKP, since Demirtas hopes to become an alternative to Erdogan. Barkey cautioned against counting Erdogan out, and described him as “a wounded tiger [who] will fight back.” Barkey suggested that a CHP-MHP coalition could be possible with HDP’s support. If all parties committed themselves to addressing corruption, they could curtail Erdogan’s power and hold early elections. Tol said that the HDP would support a CHP-MHP coalition only if the Kurdish issue was not on “the back burner,” but Barkey disagreed, suggesting that as long as the coalition was not anti-Kurdish it could garner HDP support.

Another question focused on the effect on the election on foreign policy. Regarding Syria, Tol asserted that Turkey has an aggressive policy, which uses radical Islamist groups in its fight against Assad. Tol stated that U.S.-Turkish relations are strained over the conflict in Syria, and she reminded the audience that, for Turkey, responding to the crisis is a matter of domestic policy. After all, Turkey does not have the legal and institutional framework to deal with the overwhelming number of Syrian refugees flooding into the country.

Barkey stated that Erdogan had been running foreign policy rather unilaterally, and that the majority of Syrian policy is conducted in secret. Thus, he predicted little foreign policy change with a new government.