Turkish parliamentary elections, held on June 7, 2015, may hearald a significant realignment of the political landscape in Turkey. Below I will discuss these parliamentary elections explaining briefly the major political parties, the campaign period, the electoral system and results.
The Political Parties
Twenty political parties and 165 independent candidates participated the elections. Four political parties, i.e. the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) had a primary role in results. These political parties reflect and represent various and often divided parts of Turkish Society.
The AKP is a pro-Islamist party. It was founded in 2001 after the Turkish Constitutional Court’s prohibition of the pro-Islamist Virtue Party. The AKP was established by a dissident ‘reformist’ wing of the dissolute Virtue Party. Subsequently, the AKP has been in power with the absolute majority in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (GNAT) since 2002.
The CHP is the oldest political party in Turkey. It was founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Founding Father of the Republic and continues to represent Kemalist ideas. The CHP defines itself as a secular and social democratic party and it generally receives votes from secular and urban segments of the Turkish Society.
The MHP, formed in 1969, is a right-wing political party based on the ethnic Turkish nationalism. On the other side of the coin, the HDP is a left-wing political party grounded in ethnic Kurdish nationalism. It was founded in 2012 as a successor to the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). The pro-Kurdish party calls itself a ‘political party of Turkey’ to emphasize the difference between ethnic nationalism and loyalty to the state. Hence, in these elections the HDP aimed at polling not only from the Kurdish provinces in southestern and eastern part of the country, but also from every part of Turkey.
We may discuss the electoral campaign period under two headings:
- the fairness of the election process and
- the tactics and promises of the four major political parties.
The President of the Republic’s position during the campaign period was perhaps the most divisive issue regarding the fairness of the election. The original version of the 1982 Constitution provided a classical parliamentary regime. Hence, the president was elected by parliament to a seven-year of term. Reelection to the position was prohibited. The Office of President was to be nonpartisan and the constitution provided the president mainly ‘ceremonial powers’. In 2007 the AKP dominated parliament changed the election procedure of the president via constitutional amendments which were approved by a referendum. Due to these constitutional changes the president is directly elected by popular vote for five-year of term (Art. 101). However, these amendments did not alter the president’s impartiality vis-a-vis political parties or politicians and powers (Arts. 101,102,103 and 104). Indeed, the Constitution envisages that if the president-elect is a member of a party then his or her relationship with his party shall be severed and his or her membership of parliament shall cease (Art. 101.4). Also, upon assuming office the President of the Republic shall take an oath to be impartial (Art. 103). The first presidential elections after the constitutional reform was held in August 2014. The incumbent Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected in the first round with 51.79% of the popular vote.
However in contrast to the oath of office and tradition, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s activities during 2015 parliamentary election campaign were often criticized by the opposition. While Erdoğan was not a candidate in the election, he was center stage throughout the campaign. Indeed, he seemingly held rallies in favor of the AKP. He deployed bellicose rhetoric to attack opposition and convince voters to back his bid for more authority with adoption of a new presidential system for Turkey. He repeatedly attacked the Western and national opposition press which criticised him or AKP government (among others see Hürriyet Daily News, May 2015; Hürriyet Daily News 27 May 2015; Hürriyet Daily News 30 May 2015).
Clearly, the position President Erdoğan embraced during the campaign violated the 1982 Constitution that proscribes partisan activity by the president. Accordingly, opposition parties filed complaints to the Supreme Electoral Board claiming that Erdoğan’s holding rallies in favour of AKP, using religious symbols, and abusing religious feelings is a violation of the constitution. However the Board rejected all of the complaints on the ground that constitutionality of the president’s speeches is not within the Board’s power. As the Report of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on the 2015 Turkish Parliamentary Elections notes, the President’s campaign activity is not only incongruous with the constitution, but also is against the campaign rules under the legal framework and is also at odds with paragraph 5.4 of the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document and Section I.2.3a of the Council of Europe Venice Commission Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters (Code of Good Practice).
During the campaign there have been some incidents of direct or indirect suppression by the government upon opposition parties and independent or opposition press that have infringed upon the principle of fair elections. To give an example, the main opposition party CHP was prevented from entering a city center in the eastern part of Turkey by police (Cumhuriyet, 29 May 2015). State-run Turkish Radio and Television Cooperation (TRT) did not broadcast CHP’s campaign ads on the ground that they criticize the ruling party (Hürriyet Daily News, 11 April 2015 and BBC News). There was also a pressure on independent and opposition press. To give an example, prosecuters have started an investigation into daily Cumhuriyet over its May 29 story on Syria-bound trucks belonging to the National Intelligenge Organization (MİT) which were stopped and searched by soldiers. Access to all websites that published the story was banned (among others see, Cumhuriyet, 29 May 2015; “Erdoğan’s lawyer demands aggravated life sentence for Turkish journailist over news story.”, Hürriyet Daily News, 2 June 2015; Milliyet, 28 May 2015).
Also a lack of transparency on campaign finance had a negative impact fair political competition. According to the Law on Political Parties No. 2820 political parties which obtained minimum 3% of the votes in the most recent elections are entitled to receive State funding. However, before 2014 statutory reform the threshold for obtaining state funding was 7%. Only three political parties, i.e. AKP, CHP and MHP could obtain this aid, because only these parties in the last parliamentary election was able to secure 3 percent of the total votes. On top of this, funding provided to political parties is tripled in a parliamentary election year and doubled in a municipal election year. We should note that, among these three political parties the AKP receives the lion’s share of this funding. This situation created an unfair advantage to the political parties which obtained state funding against others. In addition, a lack of statutory regulation regarding financial tranparency and accountability of candidates multipled unfainess of elections. Also the financial source of Erdoğan’s rallies and media operations remains inaccessible.
Several physical attacks against the political parties during campaign has raised some questions about the safety of the elections. According to the Human Rights Association’s report, between 23 March 2015 to 5 June 2015, 187 attacks (e.g. raid, threat) were carried out to election bureaus, vehicles, candidates, demonstrators, and staff of political parties. 176 of these attacks were targeted towards the HDP. Although a number of politically related deaths and injuries occurred, it is fortunate that these attacks did not yield to a general atmosphere of chaos or disturbance. This may be attributed to the calm response of the opposition parties.
The platforms and promises of the political parties during campaign varied. The AKP’s campaign rested on the theme of political and financial ‘stability’ and continuity. Another campaign platform of the AKP was a promise to continue the fight against cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom the party accuses of seeking to establish a ‘parallel state’ within the state bureaucracy with the intention to overthrow Erdoğan.
Another central theme of the AKP was to introduce a constitutional amendment introducing wide-ranging powers to the President of the Republic; a so-called Presidential System.
Both the Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and President Erdoğan frequently used Islamic belief and symbols in their campaigns. This practice infringed upon Article 24.5 of the 1982 Constitution that prohibits persons to exploit or abuse religion or religious feelings, or things held sacred by religion, in any manner whatsoever, for the purpose of personal or political interest or influence.
One of the predominant themes of opposition parties’ campaigns was based on the state of the economy and promises regarding economic polices. For the first time since 2002, the AKP was heading into an election under fire over the economy due to a slowing of growth, high unemployment, inflation, and increasing household debt. Recent signals on weak economy has been an opportunity for the main opposition party, CHP. Hence, main pillar of the CHP’s campaign was based on promises that would ease economic conditions of lower and lower-middle classes, such as increasing the minimum wage, paying pensioners an annual pension, providing cheaper fuel to farmers. The other opposition parties followed suit (“Turkey’s main nationalist party MHP takes on gov’t with economy focus.”, Hürriyet Daily News, 3 May 2015). Hence, for the first time, the opposition have hijacked the economic agenda from the AKP. All the three main opposition parties have criticised President Erdoğan and the government for corrupting the state, eroding the rule of law, ruling the country with an increasingly authoritarian tendencies. Also, the so-called peace process between the government and the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan and Syria politics of the government were hot topics of the political parties.
The Electoral System
The Electoral Law of June 1983 (Law No. 2839) envisages a proportional representation (D’Hondt) system with a provincial basis of a 10% of nationwide threshold. Accordingly, only political parties that have obtained 10 percent or more of the total national votes may be represented in the Parliament. Law No. 2839 subdivides the more populous provinces for electoral purposes so that no single constituency can elect more than eighteen deputies. Each province is automatically assigned at least one seat, regardless of population. These measures work to the advantage of the larger parties and the rural provinces. Hence, the 2015 parliamentary elections were held in 85 multi-member constituencies with closed political party lists and independent candidates.
In the 2015 parliamentary elections the overall voter turnout was 83.9% (Resolution of the Supreme Electoral Board No. 1415 on final results of the parliamentary elections, Official Gazette, 18 June 2015, No. 29390 (bis)). The AKP obtained 40.8% of the votes and received 258 seats of 550 in the Parliament. In contrast, in the 2011 elections the ruling party had won 49.8% of the vote. Hence, the AKP failed to obtain a parliamentary majority for the first time since 2002 elections. The main opposition party CHP received 24.9% of the vote and received 132 seats. In comparison the CHP lost about 1% of its support compared with the previous general elections.
The MHP increased its votes, from 13% in the 2011 ballot to 16.3 % and won 80 seats in the Parliament. The election’s biggest winner was the pro-Kurdish HDP which comfortably bridged the 10% electoral thereshold. The HDP received 13.1% of the vote and obtained the same amount of seats in the Parliament with the MHP. In 2011 general elections, the HDP’s predecessor BDP did not participate the election because of the 10% threshold. In the previous election BDP contested the election with the independent candidates and obtained 6.7 % of the overall votes.
We may suggest that, the electorate voted for two things in this election. First, President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Davutoğlu ran on the platform that the election was an unofficial referendum for the introduction of a new Presidential System with wide-ranging powers in the executive branch. Thus, the election’s clear looser is President Erdoğan. The results are widely seen as a negative responce by the voters towards an expanded presidency. The total number of the seats that AKP won falls short (367 seats is needed to change the constitution directly, 330 seats to call a referendum) to amend the constitution to change the system.
Second, electorates voted for the formation of the GNAT. Since 1950 the center-right parties have always dominated the elections in Turkey. In fifteen general parliamentary elections from 1950 to 2007, the average vote percentage of the center-right (or right) parties was 63.5, as opposed to 33.8 percent of the left parties. In this period, the percentage for the right-wing parties varied between 55.7 in 1977 and 71.7 in 2007 (Ergun Özbudun, “Turkey’s Search for a New Constitution.”, Insight Turkey, Vol. 14 No. 1, 2012, p. 47). Even though total percentage of the left-wing votes has increased compared with the previous general elections, the 2015 parliamentary elections have not reversed the dominance of right-wing parties. The other outcome of the election results is none of the parties have obtained absolute majority in the Parliament that is 276 seats to form a government. The pro-Kurdish HDP is at the head of the poll in 14 provinces in east and southeast of Turkey. The CHP came in first in 10 provinces. Most of these are placed in western coastal areas and the Thrace peninsula. The MHP was placed first only in one province. In rest of the provinces the AKP headed the poll in almost all of the provenses in the vast Anatolian plateau.
With efforts mostly by HDP and CHP the new parliament is more diverse than previous ones. Indeed different ethnic groups, beliefs and identities such as Armenians, Romas, Yazidies, Assyrians and LGBT community are represented. 96 women were elected. This is the highest number in Turkish parliamentary history. In 2011 elections 79 seats out of 550-member parliament were occupied by women.
To conclude, we may claim that the 2015 general election is not a major turnover in the general Turkish political outlook. But certainly it is a significant warning from electorates regarding the growing authoritarian direction of the ruling party and President Erdoğan. On the other hand the AKP remains the top party from the elections, but lost absolute majority of the seats in the GNAT. Since these results have revealed a deeply divided society, there might be some difficulties to form a coalition or minority government and election result might yield to a snap election soon. Regardless of the possibility of forming a government, it seems that the results have diminished the high tension between political parties during the campaigns.
By Professor Selin Esen, Professor of Constitutional Law in the Faculty of Law at Ankara University, Turkey. Professor Esen is a member of the IACL executive committee.