Some elections are deemed important before they occur, others are judged to have been important only in retrospect. The June 12 elections in Turkey appear to be a candidate for being designated important both ex ante and ex post.
Last Sunday’s elections were seen as being critical in advance. To begin with, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the major opposition party, had changed its leader, a development accompanied by changes among the leadership cadres and party policies. After the change, the CHP chose to move toward pragmatism and issue- and policy-oriented politics, in contrast to the previously prevailing ideological approach that limited party activities to what the party leadership deemed as the defense of basic values of the republic. Earlier party policy had also relied on other pillars of the republican state, such as the constitutional court, to pursue political goals as a substitute for mobilizing voter support. The new leadership, on the other hand, chose a strategy of persuading the voters. Whether the changes in CHP policies would be vindicated at the polls constituted a question of major interest not only because this would affect the immediate outcome but also because of its implications for the future of Turkish democracy, which lacked an opposition that seemed to have a reasonable chance, one day, of becoming the government party.
Next, there was great anxiety that the Nationalist Action Party might fail to go over the 10 percent national electoral threshold at the polls. The continued presence of the NAP in the parliament was felt to be important for two reasons. First, failure would have helped the government party (and also the opposition) to be overrepresented, possibly allowing the government party to change the constitution by itself. Second, a parliamentary force that would balance the Kurdish ethnic nationalism represented by the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) would be missing.
Further, there were concerns that if the Justice and Development Party (AKP) obtained a sufficient number of seats to change the constitution by itself, or be in a position to approve a text that would then be submitted to a public referendum, it might forego efforts of forging a national consensus for a new constitution and devise the basic law to its own liking, which would, in all likelihood, include the change of the system from parliamentary to some form of presidential government.
The Kurdish ethnicity-based Peace and Democracy Party was competing against only the government party in Turkey’s southeast region, as was also the case in the elections of 2007. Judging that it was unlikely to achieve the 10 percent national threshold, in order to insure that its candidates would get elected, the party had chosen to run its candidates as independents.
The election would determine whether the party would be able to back up its claim to speak for the population of the southeast provinces or whether the government party could make a similar claim as well. Finally, in the economic domain, part of the Turkish economic success in recent years had been attributed to the stability that a business friendly one-party government offered. Businessmen both in the country and abroad, wondered whether such stability would continue after the elections.
In short, there were enough reasons to judge in advance that the June 12 Turkish elections were “important.”
After a hard-driven campaign based on mass rallies during which many an unkind word was exchanged among political leaders, the election in itself was uneventful. The new computerized system of reporting the votes to the High Commission on Elections made it possible to get the results about four hours after the closing of the polls.
Despite expectations that the governing AKP might suffer a decline in votes since it was going into its third election in power, the reverse occurred and its share of the vote improved by more than 2 percent. The CHP also registered a sizable improvement over its past performance while the Nationalist Action Party experienced a minor decline. The Kurdish-dominated Peace and Democracy as represented by independent candidates registered a modest improvement.
The figures by themselves may not communicate, however, the nature of the transformation that Turkish politics have undergone as a result of the elections. One major outcome has been the virtual elimination of small parties that were at one time “grand.” That four parties together received 95.3 percent of the vote points to a process of consolidation in Turkish party life that had been characterized by a wide dispersal of the vote until the last couple of elections. Such consolidation, which appears likely to continue, may constitute the background for the solution to a major problem of democracy in the Turkish electoral system : the 10 percent national threshold. As the highest percentage in the world, not only has it come under wide criticism as not being democratic, but it has also caused considerable distortions in how the voters’ choice is reflected in the parliament. It generally favors overrepresentation of the larger and underrepresentation of the small parties. It may be expected that the winners will become more willing to reduce this barrier to entry into the parliament if they feel that it is not going to hurt them much. Inevitably, those parties that have almost gone out of existence will engage in some soul searching, with some deciding to discontinue their activities while others prefer to unite with an already successful party. This will facilitate a reconsideration of the very high electoral threshold.
The outcome also shows that the general direction in which the major opposition party has been transforming itself has been paying off. Some sympathetic observers have suggested that the new leadership of the CHP had not had enough time to shape the party according to their visions, prepare programs, educate the rank and file, and motivate them for electoral competition. Others have complained that a substantial number of regulars, who were attached to the leadership cadre that was displaced, lent limited and unenthusiastic support to the campaign. There may be some truth in these diagnoses, but nevertheless, the energetic campaign during which the new leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu spoke at mass rallies throughout the country, plus some policy proposals that the voters found interesting — including the shortening of military service and payment of monthly stipends to families without income — generated sufficient interest to initiate an upward move the in the party’s vote. It does seem, however, that the favorable performance of the CHP will not spare the current leadership of the party from heavy criticism emanating from the old leadership that may still entertain hopes, however unrealistic, of making a comeback.
The success of the BDP with its independent candidates has reinforced its claim to be the spokesman of Kurdish aspirations. Although the AKP has run a strong second in some of these provinces and citizens of Kurdish origin living in other parts of Turkey do not necessarily all sympathize with it, it is clear that the BDP has to be taken as a serious partner in any process to address Turkey’s Kurdish question in the future, especially in the anticipated constitution making.
During the campaign and earlier, all political parties had called for a rewriting of the Turkish constitution after the election. There is no question that the current constitution written under military rule is a highly detailed document — obsessed with protecting law and order, restrictive of civil liberties and inclined toward maximizing state power against the individual — that is not ideal and should therefore be changed. It is to be added that there is also an existing body of law reflecting the same spirit as the constitution that will need to be revised in order to move Turkey in a more democratic direction. The major concern that the AKP might get a sufficient number of seats to change the constitution by itself has not materialized. Although it is always possible for the government party to try to attract a few deputies from other parties so as to get its own package through the parliament for submission to a public referendum, in contrast to earlier times when interparty mobility in the parliament was frequent and established practice, that option seems not to be currently in favor.
Under the circumstances, will the parties in the parliament succeed in producing a new constitution ? After the results of the election became known late in the evening on June 12, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, speaking in a conciliatory manner from the balcony of his party’s headquarters to a crowd of supporters, promised that the process of constitution making would be inclusionary. He would consult all political parties, he promised. He would also bring in civil society organizations and academic experts.
Yet, there are reasons to anticipate that the road to the new constitution is going to be a difficult one with no assurance of success. To begin with, it is unlikely that other parties will accommodate all Kurdish expectations. The BDP, which has adopted a maximalist hard line, may choose to use street politics as a tool of persuasion, which may then generate counter-reactions and stymie the process. The MHP, with its conservative, highly nationalistic outlook, on the other hand, is unlikely to go along with producing a more liberal and democratic constitution, more cognizant of the pluralistic nature of Turkish society.
In all likelihood, the burden of making a new constitution will fall on the shoulders of the AKP and the CHP. Will they rise to the challenge ? Both have expressed willingness to cooperate and compromise. Yet there may be a major difficulty on the way. The CHP understands compromise to mean that its views will be taken into consideration and be incorporated into the final document that emerges. If his approach on earlier occasions is taken as an indicator, the prime minister may feel that compromise is for others to come to his viewpoint after his irresistible efforts of persuasion. If this observation is correct, it does not constitute a good beginning to constitutional reform.
The parliament will not meet until October except to extend its confidence to the government. Calm is likely to prevail during the summer.