Erdogan and the three-way split

Following a tense run-up to the June 24 election, the Turkish people have once again delivered a fragmented result that reflects the countryʹs deep divisions. The only true winner is the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which – despite a relatively small share of the vote – now has critical influence in Parliament. Ayse Karabat reports from Istanbul

By Ayşe Karabat

Twin ballots on 24 June in Turkey saw Recep Tayyip Erdogan elected the first leader to rule under a new presidential system of government, granting him strong executive powers. His Justice and Development Party (AK Party), however, not only lost its parliamentary majority but experienced a drop in support of around 7 percent.

The main opposition party Republican Peopleʹs Party (CHP) also fared badly: in 2015 it received 25 percent of votes, but this time garnered only 22 percent. Its presidential candidate, Muharrem Ince, was runner-up, favoured by 30 percent of voters.

The pro-Kurdish Peopleʹs Democratic party (HDP) made it past Turkeyʹs 10 percent election threshold, ensuring parliamentary representation, thanks to support from Turks in the western parts of Turkey. Many of Turkeyʹs Kurdish-dominated areas continued to vote AK Party, despite its pre-election alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).The nationalists, meanwhile, secured close to 12 percent of the vote; little change on their previous haul, but giving them significant clout when it comes to alliances in Parliament.

A simple reason for complicated results

Turks have gone to the polls four times since 2014, with two general elections, one constitutional referendum and a presidential race. However, as political analyst Bekir Agirdir says, “for the last five years we have not been holding elections, but polling identities.”

According to Agirdir, Turkish politics has become ensnared in these identities. Thus, the economy, environment, gender policy, education and more, which might easily form the backbone of debate in other democracies, are not core issues for elections in Turkey. In this highly fragmented country voters don't express preferences on the basis of issues, but on that of identities. And always with the same result: a three-way split.

Little has changed: Turkey's 2015 general election results by province (source: Turk)
Not holding elections, but polling identities: as political analyst Bekir Agirdir points out, issues such as the economy, environment, gender policy and education, which might easily form the backbone of debate in other democracies, are not core issues for elections in Turkey

The first of these divisions is the western, coastal area of Turkey; highly educated, economically developed and secular. The second is the central part of Turkey, which still needs state support and tends to be populated by the less educated and religious. The third part, economically the most underdeveloped and concentrated in Kurdish-speaking areas, demands recognition of its Kurdish identity.

The first group mainly votes for the CHP, which is incapable of securing the vote of the others. The second group is by far the largest and votes for the AK party and the MHP. The third, the smallest in size, supports the HDP, a party that is all but taboo to many in the first and second group.

In this fragmented picture, whatever the individual political parties promise, election results have a tendency to repeat. This also proved to be largely the case for the snap elections of 24 June, but not without a few deviations.

Complex reasons for simple changes

The Turkish electorate takes voting very seriously. Turnouts are always very high and Sundayʹs was one of the highest, at almost 90 percent.

As well as a new presidential system, there was also a new election system. Voters were asked to choose their preferred political party for the 600-seat parliament as well as deciding between the individuals standing for the presidency. This system favoured a strategic approach.

In the presidential poll, most of the usual AK Party voters – some 49 percent at the last elections – voted again for Erdogan. Added to this were some votes from the MHP, which did not field its own candidate. However, some strategic-minded AK Party voters appear to be tiring of the presidentʹs perceived arrogance, problems with the judiciary and Turkeyʹs economic decline. They chose to punish their party by voting not for the AK Party, but for the MHP instead.

Key to this support for the MHP is a strong belief that the Turkish state faces an existential threat. Voters worry about the U.S. supply of weapons to Syrian Kurds, affiliated with the outlawed Kurdish Workersʹ Party (PKK) and about prominent members of the Gulen movement, considered responsible for the failed coup of 2016, finding safe haven in Germany. In their eyes, no opposition party is able to address these foreign policy issues.

Votes gained from the AK Party enabled the MHP to compensate for losses to the newly established centre-right nationalist Good Party (IYI Party). This new party also gleaned some votes from the CHP, especially nationalists who believe the established party should take a harder line against the HDP.

CHP presidential candidate Ince outshone his own party as the only runner to gain support from all three segments of society. He visited Selahattin Demirtas, the imprisoned HDP presidential candidate and promised an equality-based solution to the Kurdish issue. He said that the headscarf ban would never return. He promised that all the economic support given by the AK Party government would continue and even grow.

The deadlock of division

Ince was able to convince some, but the same promises were not heard from the CHP, meaning the party lost out on the groundswell of support for its candidate. Potential CHP voters, especially in the West, voted for the HDP, hoping to push it over the election barrier and thus reduce AK Party dominance of parliament. Conversely, some HDP voters preferred Ince for the presidency. This was perhaps also symptomatic of an election campaign hobbled by the large proportion of key HDP figures who remain in prison.

Thus it was that the divisions in Turkish society brought about such a fragmented set of results. Despite minor changes in the electorateʹs behaviour, voters tended to stick to the same pre-election alliances. And, as analysts like Agirdir say, the only way to break the deadlock will be to produce policies that convincingly address the demands and concerns of all three segments of society.

For now President Erdogan, with strong executive powers but no parliamentary majority, will have to rely on the support of the MHP. This does not bode well for Turkeyʹs EU ambitions, or for the resolution of the Kurdish issue. And, as has been proven in the past, the MHP can prove capricious – the AKP may well face challenging times ahead.

Ayse Karabat

© 2018