Back to the Future on Coalition Debate in Turkey, and What it all means for Erdogan’s bid for a second term

By Huseyin Alp Sari

In liberal democracies, any political party that fails to fulfill its promises and looses touch with its constituency suffers greatly in the polls. The Labor Party’s loss against the Conservatives in Britain only a few months ago and PASOK’s dramatic decline and Syriza’s groundbreaking ascend in Greece since 2009 are only the few instances of such shake-ups in the national political scenes. Likewise, the results of the latest parliamentary elections in Turkey proved the quintessential rule mentioned above for the AKP as well, as the governing party since 2002, received %20 less votes in 2015 compared to the prior parliamentary elections of 2011.

June 7th Election

Just over a month ago, on June 7, the most recent and arguably consequential parliamentary elections took place in Turkey. The election resulted with the following two very important developments: on one hand, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) secured %41 of the votes, down 9 points, and consequently lost the majority in the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TBMM) that is necessary to form a government on its own. On the other, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) ascended spectacularly by capturing %13 of the votes in the polls, pushing them over the national threshold to acquire seats in the parliament. Therefore, HDP’s gain translated into the AKP’s actual loss of its majority as it ultimately stripped it of the ability to form a single-party government.

This outcome shocked many within the AKP even though in the past several years, there were early signs (i.e. Gezi protests, the 17/25 corruption scandals) indicating its imminent downfall. Moreover, AKP’s loss of the ability to form a single-party government created a jubilant mood across the anti-AKP movement, as ‘coalition’ became one of the most-pronounced words in the public spheres for the first time in 13 years.

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This is one of the famous photos that circulated in the media about the 17/25 corruption scandals.

The warning signs of the declining influence of the AKP pointed to the need for it to reconcile with the dissatisfied voters whose support it desperately needed. Instead, the AKP chose to double down with its divisive rhetoric that further alienated a substantial chunk of Turkish voters. Days before the June 7th election, when it was becoming clear that HDP may surpass the national electoral threshold of %10, the AKP embarked on a campaign to remind voters of the disastrous experiences of coalition governments in Turkey over the past couple decades. According to their argument, Turkey needed a ‘single-party’ government (Notice the implied notion that this ‘single-party government’ has to be AKP, not one of the other parties).

Even though it is far from being clear whether a coalition will be formed or the country will face an early election in the coming months, it is crucial to revisit the issue of what I coined as ‘informal coalition’ (IC) in Turkey. First, IC can simply be described as a highly diverse group of concerned citizens who were frustrated deeply by the economic and political instability prior to the 2002 elections. These concerned citizens decided to give unprecedented support for AKP. Second, while there were numerous small groups within the IC; the overwhelming majority was the concerned citizens of the ‘center-right conservative liberals (C-RCL)’, and the former prime minister and current President Tayyip Erdogan-led ‘reformists’ (yenilikci) – former members of the National Vision (Milli Gorus) movement.

It is important here to point out what I see as the crucial role of the C-RCL for the survival of AKP and Erdogan’s rule in Turkey. Understanding the role that C-RCL plays in keeping Erdogan in power is important for the following two reasons: one, to gain insight into what is happening in the post-June 7th election Turkey, interested parties need to grasp the dynamics of its internal politics. Two, for Turkey to maintain its hope of joining the European Union, and for its alliance with the West in the fight against ISIS to work, it is crucial that it maintains a functioning government.

Understanding the IC: Coalition of The Concerned Citizens

Even though AKP may give the impression of a well-established party today, it started as an IC that was formed by concerned citizens who came from diverse political backgrounds within the Turkish society. Within the IC, the overwhelming majority came from the C-RCL that traditionally voted for the True Path Party (DYP)-Motherland Party (ANAP) duo for many years. In addition, the C-RCL was composed by many non-political sub-groups, i.e. Gulen Movement, that were convinced that by supporting the AKP in the polls, Turkey could finally overcome its decades-long political and economic stalemate.

The second large block that formed IC was and still is the National Vision movement supporters. The National Vision, an Islamist grassroots organization, was represented under various party names (RP, FP, SP) in the polls. Similar to CHP and MHP, this political movement has a core support base that has been crucial for the AKP’s ability to stay in power since 2002. The majority of the National Vision members stood by the Erdogan –led AKP despite the reformists’ declaration of breaking with the National Vision movement during the formation of the AKP in 2001.

The IC’s initial momentum came from the natural outcome of the deep frustration in the society during the spectacular failure of the coalition government (DSP-MHP-ANAP) led by Bulent Ecevit, the former chairman of the Democratic Left Party (DSP). The coalition government lasted less than 3 years – between 1999 and 2001. During the tenure of this coalition government, Turkey went through one of the most devastating economic and political crises in its history.

Additionally, the common principles and elevated concerns for the well being of the country were the leading drivers for C-RCL’s support for the Erdogan-led AKP in the polls. These common principles and concerns could be described as follows:

  • Taking Turkey out of the decades-long cycle of political-economic turmoil.
  • Speeding up the EU integration process by adopting a series of urgently needed legislation for the betterment of the minority rights.
  • Rebalancing the civil-military relations in line with those of modern Western democratic standards.

Furthermore, AKP’s promises also included the fight against rampant corruption and an increase in promoting transparent governance in the state structure. In short, ‘modernizing Turkey in every way’ was the core undertaking that the voters believed in and therefore lend their support for AKP. These promises were important key factors for the AKP’s rise to power by securing %34 of the votes in the parliamentary elections of 2002, and for its subsequent victories in 2011.

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Scene from an election rally in Turkey

How important is the IC for Erdogan-AKP duo?

Here, it is crucial to look into the election results between the 1991 and 2002 timeframe, so that we may have a better idea about IC and its significance for AKP-Erdogan duo.

1991 1995 1999 2002
DYP %27 %19 %12 %9.5
ANAP %24 %20 %13 %5
CHP (SHP) %21 %11 %9 %19
RP (FP) %17 %21 %15 NA
DSP %11 %15 %22 %1.2
MHP NA %8 %18 %8
Youth Party NA NA NA %7
SP NA NA NA %2.5
AKP NA NA NA %34

What does the %10 electoral threshold mean?

Any party that receives less than %10 of the votes nationwide does not get to be represented in the parliament. For instance, in 2002 elections, DYP received about 3 million votes (%9.5) and therefore did not pass the threshold and did not get to send any MP to the national assembly.

In the table above, the National Vision (RP, FP) received %17, %21, and % 15 of the votes in 1991, 1995 and 1999 parliamentary elections, respectively. During the same time period, the two main center-right parties, DYP and ANAP, totaled %51, %39, %25 of the votes in 1991, 1995 and 1999, respectively. The DYP and ANAP duo could only get %14.5 of the votes in 2002, while AKP captured %34 of the votes. Nine years later, while DYP and ANAP were wiped off of the Turkish political scene, AKP was able to increase its votes up to %50 in 2011 elections.

The AKP’s core voter base, starting with the 2002 elections, has always been the National Vision. The rest of the voter support came heavily from the C-RCL voters who used to vote for the DYP-ANAP duo for many years prior to AKP’s rise to power. Therefore, it would be feasible to assume that AKP’s core voter base could total merely around %15-18 of the votes, if or when the C-RCL decides to abandon the AKP entirely.

As the June 7 election results indicates, while the sizeable portion of the C-RCL continued to support AKP in the June 7th election, some within the C-RCL ended their support for the Erdogan-AKP duo. For the first time in 13 years, AKP lost big in the polls and to many, this constituted a significant break that the opposition had been waiting for. The Anti-AKP movement is encouraged greatly by such a tender and fluid situation that surfaced at the June 7th election. I believe that the AKP’s higher echelon and Erdogan are well aware of such a delicate a situation. I suspect that Erdogan fears that the outcome of the June 7th elections has created the possibility of an unstoppable downturn similar to that of the DYP-ANAP duo for the party in the coming years if not months.

IC No More: Consolidation through Polarization

As many would agree, the deep resentments and disagreements within the IC initially started to surface in 2010 (Gaza Flotilla incident with Israel) and then this divergence increased dramatically after the 2011 parliamentary elections. In spite of the Erdogan’s promise of ‘open arms to everyone – voted for or against AKP’, AKP’s leadership increasingly ignored the demands for further reforms. Specifically, they ignored the demand to create a modern and civilian constitution. The party’s leadership started to sideline many of its original supporters in the IC and even framed the slightest criticism as a treason that was ‘orchestrated by domestic and foreign enemies’.

During the 2011-2013 period, the IC was in full swing of falling apart. The broad spectrum of intellectuals, writers and scholars from the C-RCL were expressing deep concerns for AKP’s unfortunate transformation from a broad-based reformist movement to a single-man’s authoritarian agenda. Marred with corruption scandals, the over-confident Erdogan-led former members of the National Vision were increasingly using fear-mongering tactics against the other members of the IC.

The Gezi protests in June 2013 and the eruption of the corruption scandals in December 2013 (coined as 17/25) were the two most important events that marked the beginning of the end of the IC. One of Erdogan’s oldest friends pointed out the AKP’s unprecedented transformation saying, “AKP is now governed by a small elite group of oligarchs”. Such references were among many others that indicated the AKP’s stark divergence from its founding principles that were shared by millions of Turkish citizens in 2002. It was becoming clear that Erdogan was aiming to ‘own’ the AKP by consolidating as much vote and power as possible. For Erdogan, the consolidation was necessary for AKP’s (and his) continued rule in the country. It was inevitable that this approach would only create catastrophic consequences on the cohesion that Erdogan desperately needed. These consequences were a direct result of the highly polarized methods used by Erdogan in order to consolidate power.

As a result, the support of some in the IC, namely Gulen Movement and some other conservative liberals, were not just sacrificed but they were immediately turned into ‘enemy #1’. Especially the Gulen Movement was declared by Erdogan as the illegal ‘parallel structure’ within the state and deemed that it was to be eliminated entirely for almost all the wrongdoings that took place during the AKP’s 13 years of ruling.

Alternatively, the US-led international allies were also concerned about increasing instability in Turkey during this time. However, the priority for the US-led allies was about what was happening in Syria. Their reluctance to be more critical of the AKP was due to the critical situation in Syria. Geopolitics, and a waning credibility acquired during the 2002-2011 period of the AKP’s reign were its own remaining cards to play. However the wide spread corruption scandals, a dissipating economic stability and a growing frustration within the society for AKP’s mishandling of the state power were slowly working against it.

Between the years of 2013 and 2015, AKP’s conversion from an ‘informal coalition’ to ‘one-man show’ intensified. Some in the C-RCL, including the Gulen Movement, pulled their support entirely during this era, while the rest were gradually starting to ask serious questions about the grave developments that were taking place in the country daily. For many around the country, the stark contrast between what AKP represented in 2002, and then later in 2015 is almost like day and night; from a broad-based IC in 2002 to the one man’s party in 2015.

Sleepless Nights for the Erdogan-AKP Duo

The outcome of the June 7th elections is a ‘stern warning’ flag, waved by Turkey’s citizens for AKP to go back to its original founding principles and values when it was formed in 2001. So far, voter support has decreased from %50 in 2011 to %41 on June 7 of this year. If the party ignores this warning, it is very plausible that AKP will continue its decline and eventually will lose its significance in the Turkish political landscape just like it did for the DYP/ANAP duo. Even the remote possibility of such a depressing outcome certainly means more sleepless nights not just for the top AKP officials but Erdogan as well.

The stakes are especially high for Erdogan as he is likely to run for the presidency once more in about 4 years. Given the seriousness of the number of allegations linking him and his family members directly to the 17/25 corruption scandals, his political future will be on shaky grounds for sometime to come. Furthermore, it is unlikely that he will be elected as a president one more time when AKP has mismanaged its political capital as proven by the significant loss of support within the Turkish society and especially among the C-RCL. Since he ‘successfully’ polarized the majority of Turkey’s voters, almost all of his support for his bid for the presidency has to come from the AKP’s voter base.

In short, the AKP’s officials need to remember that their party’s success was the outcome of an informal coalition between the years 2002 and 2011. Ignoring the AKP’s own background and assigning blame for Turkey’s current troubles to ‘highly coordinated domestic and foreign enemies’ will only destabilize Turkey further and place it in an even weaker position in it’s regional race to acquire supremacy in both diplomatic, and economic realms.

(This article was written in the weeks prior to the Iran Nuke Deal)

2 Comments

  1. This is a great piece Alp, and it demonstrates your grasp of Turkish politics. I like the connection to regional politics as well as other geopolitical issues that must be on the minds of Turkish leaders. My question for you is whether Erdogan can still survive with the damage to his credibility as you pointed it out?

    • Thank you for the question. Under normal circumstances it is possible that a politician’s ‘damaged credibility’ could be repaired for the future political ambitions. However, Erdogan passed that point long ago, at least 2-3 years ago with his reaction to 17/25 corruption scandals first broke out. No viable exit is visible for his ‘damaged credibility’, because I don’t think it can be repaired after what Turkey went through for the past 2-3 years. His ‘damaged credibility’ is like torn parachute:imagine a guy jumping from the sky with a torn parachute. 🙂 Gravity rules and the possibility of survival is very much in doubt.

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