Politics of Uncertainty: Possible Outcomes of Turkey’s Forthcoming Elections
A week before Turkey’s parliamentary elections, speculation regarding possible outcomes occupies the minds of political leaders and pundits alike. The intricacy of the Turkish electoral system, in particular the 10 percent national electoral threshold and the volatility of voters’ preferences, make accurate predictions difficult. Although the results of differently timed polls are at variance with each other, they agree that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKParty) will not achieve a sufficient majority to change the Turkish constitution, either directly by a two-thirds parliamentary majority (367 votes) or by a three-fifths majority (330 votes) on condition of ratification by referendum. Excluding the increasingly remote likelihood of AKParty achieving a majority of more than 330 deputies, what are the likely outcomes?
Many observers feel that the AKParty may still manage to achieve a parliamentary majority. Recent polls, however, point to an erosion of support for the party, creating the possibility of a coalition government. That both the president and the prime minister have made references in their recent speeches to the inherent inefficiency, instability, therefore the undesirability of coalitions may indicate that they do not rule out the possibility. If a coalition government does become necessary, who forms it with whom presents a challenge. The campaign rhetoric of parties would appear to rule out an AKParty–Republican People’s Party (CHP) or an AKParty–Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) coalition and bringing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and HDP together. Yet caution is needed. First, political parties maximize their differences during the election, but ultimately they want to enjoy the benefits of being in government. Second, parties may reach accommodation and support a minority government or coalition. One needs only to recall that after the elections of 1973, the CHP and the religiously oriented National Salvation Party (MSP), presumably impossible partners, managed to form a coalition that survived almost a year, or that both Süleyman Demirel (1979-1980) of the Justice Party (AP) and Bülent Ecevit (1999) of the Democratic Left Party (DSP) headed minority coalitions of reasonable duration preceding elections.
One Party Government
Before proceeding with a discussion of possible coalitions, it may be useful to offer observations about a one-party government. If the AKParty secures less than 330 but more than 276 seats, enabling it to form a government by itself but not change the constitution, the political landscape will be redefined. Numerous polls have shown that majority of AKParty supporters do not desire a presidential system, in contrast with what President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants. It is widely thought that a majority of the AKParty deputies and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu himself share the supporters’ sentiment, but they have felt obliged to yield to the insistence of Erdoğan, whom they consider their “real” leader and on whose charisma they rely on to win elections. The president has led his “former” party’s campaign, departing from the letter and the spirit of the constitution, which does not allow for such a partisan role. The AKParty’s failure to achieve a “constitution-changing” majority may therefore, instill in the AKParty desires for the parliamentary government to be restored and the president to return to his constitutionally defined duties. The impossibility of change that would ensconce Erdoğan as president in a presidential system and with diminished parliamentary majority may actually present Davutoğlu with an opportunity to establish himself as an autonomous center of power, freeing him from appearing to be only a functionary implementing the president’s policies. He would likely find support for this within the parliamentary party and among party members. It remains to be seen how Erdoğan, whose tolerance for actions that do not fit into his preferences is known to be low, would respond. Internecine conflicts may erupt.
Coalitions and Minority Government
Considering that an arithmetic necessitating a coalition is possible, it may be prudent to look into the combinations for achieving a parliamentary majority. The most frequently proposed is an AKParty–MHP coalition. Despite the fact that MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli has publicly refuted this possibility, he has not been as dismissive of it as he has been of a CHP–MHP–HDP combination. Though sharing power is a bitter pill to swallow, there are indications that AKParty leadership is also sympathetic to an AKParty–MHP coalition, if that is the only option for staying in power. It is difficult, however, to predict how such a coalition would serve Erdoğan’s plans since the MHP leadership would not agree to a presidential system or a president who leads the government and exceeds his constitutional powers. Davutoğlu’s choice regarding his own political future, as well as the prevailing sentiment in the AKParty, will be critical in determining whether this option will become a reality. Some observers say that if the HDP is left out of the parliament and violent incidents attributed to Kurdish separatists become commonplace, an AKParty-MHP coalition, aligned with the military whose sensitivity about the territorial unity of the country is known, might result in an even more authoritarian Turkey.
Similar considerations will have direct bearing on the prospect of an AKParty–CHP coalition. If Davutoğlu, inevitably a target of internal and external criticism for electoral losses, chooses to lead the AKParty to a position that would pitch him against Erdoğan’s aspirations, this partnership, however unlikely it may seem today, might become a possibility. Some people even feel this would offer a remedy for reconciling the present discords and political polarization of Turkish society. This move might be backed, even encouraged, by a circle of disenfranchised AKParty doyens and the former President Abdullah Gül who was deprived of a chance to serve a second term. The scenario becomes more plausible if Erdoğan insists on commanding the political agenda.
To many observers, an AKParty–HDP coalition looks like an uneasy arrangement. The HDP’s declarations and campaign rhetoric strongly defies Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions. Furthermore, for the first time in its history, the Kurdish political movement has adopted a political stance that goes beyond their familiar blueprint of identity politics. Claiming to pursue a comprehensive framework concentrating on corruption, rights and freedoms, and the inclusion of all excluded groups in Turkish politics, the HDP has chosen to appeal to multiple constituencies. The extent that the public is persuaded by this campaign will be the main determinant of whether the HDP will pass the 10 percent threshold. It is unlikely that it would be ready to gamble on the credibility of its effort to become an all-Turkey party by joining an AKParty coalition. Currently, the HDP’s primary goal appears to be an expansion of individual liberties and democratic space. This hardly corresponds to the law and order preferences and authority proclivities recently characterizing AKParty policies.
There are also observers who insist that an AKParty-HDP coalition should not be ruled out. They argue that the apparent change in the HDP strategy has in fact been just tactical, and in the end HDP will not hesitate to go into a coalition with AKParty. Numbers permitting, it might even affect consensus on a presidential system in return for regional autonomy. They note that, beyond its core constituency, the HDP campaign has targeted both liberal Turks and more religious Kurds, an uneasy mix that has made for difficulties in devising a coherent post-election political stance. Whether the HDP might choose to ignore the thrust it received from liberal circles and cooperate with the AKParty in a coalition or even support an AKParty minority government remains to be seen. Such a stance might be so divisive as to produce a splinter party. Furthermore, any AKParty–HDP consensus for a constitutional change in favor of a presidential system in return for Kurdish autonomy is likely to be a hard sell in a referendum.
Finally, though the formation of a coalition between CHP–MHP and the HDP is a logical possibility, the strong ethnically based nationalism of the MHP and the positions it has adopted toward the HDP have been so profound that it is not currently within the realm of the possible. A similar observation holds for the HDP, which has perceived the MHP as its antithesis.
Forming a majority coalition is wrought with difficulties and is likely to take a long time, or prove impossible. In that case, efforts might focus on a minority government and possibly early elections. Previous experience with minority governments was that they were established during the third or fourth year of a legislative term and led the country to elections, in one case a year early. Otherwise, the Turkish parliament has demonstrated remarkable reluctance in moving the elections forward. Part of this reluctance derives from the rule that deputies are entitled to retirement benefits only after two years of service, and it takes about three years to recover resources expended in the previous campaign and accumulate fresh resources to engage in a new competition.
An Unconventional President
So far, we have assumed that the Turkish parliamentary system will function like conventional parliamentary systems, where parliamentary parties agree on a prime minister whom the president or monarch asks to form the government, and who then appoints a cabinet. Erdoğan, however, arguing that he represents a majority of the electorate, has pursued an activist stance in violation of parliamentary traditions and, to many, the Turkish constitution. It would be surprising if he does not continue this course of action. If the AKParty is able to form a government by itself, he may, for example, prefer to nominate a prime minister of his choice rather than one nominated by the AKParty, who is traditionally the party’s president. He may also reject the appointment of ministers the prime minister recommends, insisting on forming a government team that he personally prefers. If instead there is a coalition government, his interventions may render the establishment of a government even more difficult. The most potent weapon available to him in exercising political influence is a constitutional provision that allows him to force the legislature into early elections if a government with the confidence of the parliament is not established within 45 days; the prospects of a coalition government with that confidence are slim.
A Touch of Optimism
It is likely that Turkey will enter a period of uncertainty as a result of the June 7 elections, no matter what the outcome. The relations of any government with Erdoğan at the helm cannot but be difficult as long as he assumes that he can define an activist role for a president, irrespective of what the constitution says and whether a majority to transform it into a presidential system exists. While such uncertainty would likely create volatility in the short run, it may also create an opening for reversing the recently intensifying trend toward authoritarianism. During the concluding legislative term, parties in parliament had formed a committee to prepare a new, democratic constitution to replace the current illiberal document prepared under instructions from the 1980 junta. Although significant progress had been achieved, the efforts came to a halt when the AKParty insisted on introducing a presidential system. If the AKParty reconciles itself that this is no longer a possibility, and the elections show that all parties may one day become the opposition, Turkey may get a democratic constitution, an outcome that the citizens have long been hoping for.
 The statute of the AKParty does not allow members to run consecutively for a parliamentary seat more than three times.