EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

The Tragedy of the 2015 Turkish Elections

Examining the AKP victory

The November 2015 election brought a landslide victory to the Justice and Development Party (AKP), increasing its vote almost nine points in 5 months. This surprising comeback would be hard to explain in an ordinary situation where such drastic shifts in voting in a short time period would not be expected. However, it is very difficult to accept the notion that the November election in Turkey was an ordinary election or that the election was fair and free, given the political crisis and violence between two elections that left hundreds dead, together with severe restrictions to any voice opposing the AKP. To understand the gravity of the November election we would need to go way back, before the June election. Given the limits of this article, though, let me start from there. 

In the June 7 elections, the AKP remained the largest party in Turkey, but lost the parliamentary majority it needed to form a single party government. These election results would not necessarily have meant a defeat for the AKP if it had had a genuine commitment to and respect for democratic values and processes: it could have, for instance, formed a coalition. However, for both the AKP and President Erdoğan, who have never embraced democracy, losing the parliamentary majority had damaging repercussions. For a party that had won each and every election since 2002 and had formed a single party government for 13 years — with neither experience of nor tolerance for power-sharing, let alone losing political power — the June election results were shocking.

What Erdoğan lost in June was more than the AKP majority. During the election cycle, he campaigned fiercely and unconstitutionally for the AKP, demanding 400 parliamentary seats to change the parliamentary system to presidentialism without calling a referendum. By entering the election as a party instead of running as independent candidates, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) became a threat to Erdoğan, who had expected the AKP to enjoy the benefits of the 10% electoral threshold as it had done in previous elections. In speeches, Erdoğan directly targeted the HDP, undermining the peace process, and accusing the HDP of being an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Both Erdoğan’s aggressive language and the bombings in Mersin, Adana and Diyarbakir targeting the HDP just before the election signaled what could happen if the HDP’s success had led to the AKP’s defeat.

For its part, the HDP reached out to different groups in society and succeeded in including their various claims to recognition and justice in its platform. As a result, it successfully passed the 10% threshold, gaining 80 seats in parliament. Erdoğan was preparing to win a qualified majority of at least 3/5, enough to change the Constitution, but he was deprived of even a simple majority. In a country with a history of military interventions, limiting a political party by means of an election was very important for strengthening its democracy. Had the AKP accepted the results and formed a coalition government, Turkey would have taken a step towards a stronger democracy. Furthermore, unlike the AKP’s polarizing and exclusionary political rhetoric, the HDP brought an inclusionary and pluralist political language to political discourse from which democratic politics in Turkey could further benefit. For these reasons, the June elections could have been a very positive turning point for democracy in Turkey.

Yet Erdoğan had different plans. Instead of accepting the election results, Erdoğan did everything in his power to block the formation of a coalition government. The Constitution gives the president the authority to renew elections if parliament cannot form a new council of ministers within 45 days. Erdoğan used this authority and renewed the elections. What he needed to do now was to regain the simple majority in parliament so that the AKP could form a single party government.

What does Erdoğan want?

Since 2002, Erdoğan has taken steps after every election to consolidate his power. To do so, he has appropriated all the authoritarian mechanisms and institutions set in place by the 1980 coup. Having eliminated the judiciary as an obstacle with his 2010 constitutional amendments, and won almost 50% of the votes in the 2011 elections, Erdoğan began to put his presidentialist plans in place. Yet the Gezi Park resistance during the summer of 2013 showed him that it would not be easy to realize his presidential ambitions. The Gezi resistance tore down the democratic façade maintained by the AKP and Erdoğan. Later in 2013, as a result of the fierce struggle between the AKP and the Gülen movement over who would control the state, the Turkish public learned of the scale of AKP corruption and abuse of political power. These events made presidentialism a more urgent goal than ever before for Erdoğan.

Erdoğan plans to establish a new Constitution that will transform the political system to a presidential one without a functioning system of checks and balances over the executive so that he can accumulate state power in his own hands. The 1982 Constitution has been criticized since the day it was ratified. Increasingly from the end of 1990s onwards, a new Constitution has been demanded by almost all sectors of society. The 1982 Constitution was a product of a military coup, and it strongly restricted political and individual rights and liberties. Despite numerous amendments, it retained the problem of legitimacy as an imposed constitution. However, Erdoğan’s support for a new constitution has nothing to do with the democratic deficit of the 1982 Constitution. On the contrary, his problem with the current Constitution is that it is not authoritarian enough. He needs a hyper-presidential system to consolidate his power so that he can evade all risk of facing trial. Since the Gezi resistance, everything Erdoğan has done to keep political power in his hands has left him with the only option of accumulating more power to save himself.

June to November: Turkey taken Hostage

As a reaction to the defeat in the June election, Erdoğan and the AKP adopted a political strategy to suppress the Kurdish vote and win over the nationalist vote in the renewed elections. Following the suicide bombing in Suruç and the murder of two police officers two days later in Ceylanpınar, Erdoğan and the AKP mounted airstrikes against the PKK. Meanwhile, state violence targeted Kurdish citizens. The government, for example, implemented a long and continuous curfew in Kurdish cities and towns. During the curfew, citizens were deprived of their basic needs. The curfew that was implemented using the excuse of security and the war against terror turned into the collective punishment of thousands of people in the region.Escalating political violence and implementing a politics of fear against Kurds has been one of the main ways of winning the nationalist vote, especially from those voting for the Nationalist Action Party.

Erdoğan and AKP have also increased their attacks on HDP. They have claimed that the HDP is an extension of the PKK, and hence is just as responsible as the PKK for the escalating violence and terror in the region. As a result, hundreds of HDP offices and many Kurdish citizens, newspaper buildings and journalists became the victims of mob violence by AKP followers and nationalist groups. The police made no attempt to prevent this mob violence, which was seen as acceptable by the government as long as it targeted whoever opposed Erdoğan and the AKP.

The media had been under pressure by the AKP government long before the June election, but the media ban has been reinforced both to silence the free and independent media and also to keep certain information from the eyes and ears of the general public. Through the pro-AKP media, Erdoğan and the AKP have successfully created a reality in which they are positioned as the victims of everything that has happened since June. The state’s obvious negligence in the ISIS-led attacks in Suruç and the Ankara massacre in October was not included in the story about bombings told by the pro-AKP media. With no evidence whatsoever, Erdoğan and Prime Minister Davutoğlu tried to link the suicide bombings to the PKK, as well as ISIS, so as to undermine the HDP in the November elections. The pro-AKP media has presented everything from democratic resistance to suicide bombings as part of a conspiracy against Erdoğan and the AKP.

Between June and November, using political arrests, media bans, and increased police and mob violence, Erdoğan and the AKP have shown Turkey what would happen if they did not return the AKP as a single party government in the November election. After June 2015, Erdoğan took Turkey hostage. Erdoğan and the AKP successfully manipulated the reality of political turmoil in Turkey and persuaded enough voters that the AKP’s single party government was the only way to bring back stability.

Since the Gezi resistance in summer 2013, Erdoğan showed that for him democracy is only a stage of plebiscitary acclamation; that democratic procedures and principles are worth respecting only as long as they lead to the consolidation of Erdoğan’s power. Constitutional limitations and the rule of law are nothing but obstacles before the will of the people, which is, for them, embodied by Erdoğan and the AKP. The law has turned into a means of oppressing and punishing opposing voices and has lost any relation to justice. Since June this year, Erdoğan and the AKP have shown the world that for them there is no difference between war and peace as long as it serves their interest.

After the November Election?

With the November election, Erdoğan once again showed his ability to set the game to his advantage and manufacture the results he wanted from politics. As he hoped, the AKP gained the nationalist vote and even convinced conservative Kurds to come back to the AKP. Since 2002 Erdoğan has interpreted the support he has gained in every election and referendum as a mandate to use unlimited political power. Erdoğan has violated the Constitution with his claims that as an elected president he has the democratic legitimacy to do so.

However, what is more important and critical than the high levels of electoral support the AKP received is how they have interpreted this support. If they had received these election results back in June it would not have had the same meaning. However, getting almost 50% of votes after a period of political turmoil caused either by the AKP’s political strategy for national politics or by its failed foreign policy has been interpreted as approval of their suppressive measures. Both Erdoğan and the AKP are more self-confident today than ever before in pursuing Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions. Erdoğan has already demanded constitutional change and Deputy Prime Minister Yalçin Akdoğan stated that they will not give up their presidentialism plans and this time they will use a referendum to make the constitutional change. For that purpose, it is most likely that Erdoğan and the AKP will try to tie the peace process to the presidentialism they want. That is to say, they will make presidentialism a condition for peace.

The AKP’s main political strategy has been the antagonistic discursive organization of political space, leading to the simplification and dichotomization of political and social reality. The fundamental antagonism that serves as the backbone of the AKP’s populist politics is the divide it has created between the people and its “other.” Depending on the political context, the “other” has been the Kemalist establishment, the elite, or, later, the Gülen movement. By assimilating political reality into this dichotomy and articulating the totality of society around this antagonism, and then associating itself with the people, the AKP constructed a discursive framework within which it presents itself as the sole democratizing agent. This antagonism has made it possible for the AKP to acquire democratic credentials without making any commitment to democratic values. And those who challenge the AKP in different ways and for different reasons are immediately labeled supporters of the Kemalists, the military or Gülen. What is dangerous about the political discourse since June is that an antagonism has been established between the people and its enemy, who has become labeled as a terrorist. While people lost their lives in the middle of Ankara during a peace rally, others were able to celebrate the massacre.

The hatred and deep polarization Erdoğan and the AKP have caused is alarming for Turkey. They are endangering political freedoms, dismantling constitutionalism and the rule of law, and threatening social peace.

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