Today, there are another set of elections that are of extreme importance, not only for Europe itself, but also for its neighborhood. Today, Turkey will go to the polls in order to elect a new government. This article will provide you both with an overview of the main political parties in Turkey, as well as the main issues of these elections and the consequences they will have on Turkey’s EU accession process.
Turkey is currently run by The Justice and Development Party (AKP – Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi), since 2002. This is the party of the current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and is currently led by the Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. It is a party that falls within the tradition of Turkey’s historical Democratic Party, which was elected in 1950, and its leader Adnan Menderes, Turkey’s first democratically elected Prime Minister. The AKP is a moderate Islamist party, and is praised for having, in its thirteen years of governance, ushered in a period of stability for the country, for having greatly developed and modernised Turkey’s economy, and for having made some way in ending the long-standing conflict with the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK – Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê), with which a ceasefire was signed in 2013. It has also made some changes to the forced secularism imposed by Turkey’s historic leader Atatürk during the 1920s and 30s. An example of this is that women are once again allowed to wear a headscarf in Parliament, something which had been banned until very recently.
However, the ruling party has been widely criticized both nationally and internationally for its attacks on freedom of speech, in particular with regards to protests and journalists. There are a high number of journalists imprisoned in Turkey, Erdoğan and the AKP are currently involved in a campaign against the Doğan Media Group and its newspaper Hürriyet for a headline, and the images of the crackdown on the Gezi Park protests in 2013 are still fresh in the eyes of the world. The AKP has also been criticized for not taking a tough enough stance on ISIS (images of Kobane being attacked by ISIS and the Turkish troops just standing on the border spread across Western media). They are, despite these criticisms, largely expected to win these elections.
The Republican People’s Party (CHP – Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi), led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, is Turkey’s second biggest party. This party is of great historical significance to Turkey: formed at the Congress of Siva in 1919, it was led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and played a significant role in the Turkish War of Independence and in the formation of the Republic in 1923. It was also this party that ruled the country with an iron fist through a one-party system until 1950. The CHP has not, however, held any role in government since 1999, and it has since 2002 been the main opposition party. It is a centre-left political party, and adheres to social democracy. Some of the proposals put forward by Kılıçdaroğlu for the upcoming elections include the construction of a mega city in central Turkey, as well as tackling the high unemployment and poverty in the country. One of the biggest criticisms of the CHP is of the great amount of internal division that exists within the party, which will most likely represent its greatest obstacle in these elections.
The one party to look out for in these elections is The People’s Democratic Party (HDP – Halkların Demokratik Partisi), led by chairman and chairwoman Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ respectively. While the HDP was formed in 2012, its members have thus far run for elections as independent candidates. This will be the first time HDP will run as a party. Despite its youth, it has given everybody a lot to talk about in Turkey. It is the only party in Turkey which has a 50% quota for women and a 10% quota for LGBT people. It is most known, however, for its staunch emphasis on the Kurdish issue. This party’s main goal in the upcoming elections will be to pass the 10% election threshold, which it will need to do in order to be officially represented in parliament. It has been largely criticised, in particular by the ruling party, for having irresponsibly incited a series of protests in the autumn of 2014 aiming to push the government to intervene to save Kobane, protests which resulted in rioting and around 40 deaths.
The last party of note in the election for the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM – Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi), the country’s parliament, is the third biggest party: The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP – Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi), led by the veteran politician Devlet Bahçeli. The MHP espouses Turkish nationalism and Pan-Turkism, and is a party with an infamous history: its paramilitary and ‘youth’ wing, the Grey Wolves, has throughout the country’s recent history been responsible for the assassination of various left-wing figures as well as several massacres in the 1970s. While Bahçeli has introduced some reforms since rising to the leadership of the party and of the Grey Wolves in 1997, the latter have nonetheless continued to be involved in various attacks, in particular the aforementioned autumn 2014 clashes over Kobane.
With parties of such an intense nature vying for representation in the TBMM, this year’s election season has been equally intense. Below, I will tackle some of the main issues that have arisen in this election. Please note that, due to constraints, I will only mention three of these main issues. There have been many others, such as the rights of women and of refugees, which I will not be able to talk about here, but which I urge readers to keep in mind.
Firstly, the one key issue that everyone who has been following the elections will be looking out for is if the HDP is able to achieve the 10% election threshold necessary for formal representation in the Turkish parliament. Kati Piri, the European Union’s rapporteur on Turkey, has stated that the failure of the HDP (People’s Democratic Party) to meet the aim will be pose a problem for democracy in the country and, like many before her, called on the Turkish government to lower the threshold. The HDP’s campaign has been marred by multiple attacks against it, such as the bombings of the party offices in Mersin and Adana and, more recently, a twin explosion at a HDP rally in the province of Diyarbakır which resulted in two dead and around a hundred wounded.
While the HDP is only a minor party in the grand scheme of things, it is what it stands for, as well as the effect it will have on the balance of power. This fact gives it such significance in the context of these elections. Firmly set within the left of the political spectrum, HDP espouses an anti-capitalist and secular ideology that directly contrasts with the AKP. In addition, and as we have seen, it is very vocal with regards to the rights of minorities, in particular of the Kurds. Should this party acquire formal representation in the TBMM (Grand National Assembly of Turkey), these issues will undoubtedly be given even more emphasis. On the other hand, many are afraid that a failure to acquire formal representation will destabilise the country.
The issue consists in the effect such a development would have on the balance of power which is directly linked to a proposed reform put forward by Turkey’s interim president, Erdoğan. He has stated that he seeks to transform Turkey into a presidential republic. This change, however, will require from AKP (Justice and Development Party), which he himself co-founded, to win a comfortable majority in these upcoming elections. Should the HDP achieve the elections threshold, this will be more difficult to achieve.
The proposed constitutional change has been another hot topic of these elections. Should it go through, Erdogan will succeed in further concentrating power in his own hands. Many have criticised the President’s plans, being afraid that he will become more and more authoritarian. If the President wants a reform to pass without much opposition, he must show that the new constitution will provide an adequate system of checks and balances to limit his own power and ensure the continued democratic development of the country. A presidential system is not in itself the problem; it is what one does with it that determines the course the country will take. Many doubt the new system will have the appropriate checks and balances, and point to these elections as reflective of this. Erdoğan is a very hands-on President, and while he is not up for elections today, he has been very present in the campaign and is seen supporting the AKP (even though the president is not supposed to show affiliation to any party).
The third biggest topic of this election campaign has been that of freedom of expression. The current Turkish administration does not have a brilliant track record when it comes to this, and no attempt has been made by the ruling party during this election campaign to change that. In fact, Erdogan, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and the AKP have launched a fierce campaign against the Doğan Media Group, which owns Hürriyet newspaper, for a headline it used in an article about the sentencing of former Egyptian president Morsi (Erdogan claims that the headline was a veiled insult against him). His campaign has expanded to criticising every media outlet which has shown support for Hürriyet, including the New York Times and the BBC. Under the AKP, Turkey has imprisoned many journalists; there has been a clear interference with media freedom. The Internet hasn’t also escaped the grip of the ruling party, with the Internet law passed in 2007, and further amended in 2014, making it easier to delete content from the Internet.
The EU Accession Process
One thing is clear: whatever the outcome of the elections is, it does not look likely that Turkey’s EU accession process will progress in any meaningful fashion in the near future. This is because the key issues that are preventing the process from progressing do not seem to be improving. Media freedom, and general freedom of speech, an important requisite for EU membership, seems to be worsening rather than improving. One could argue that there is some light at the end of the tunnel: the current efforts made by both sides in the Cyprus dispute, which has recently made some very positive developments, could signify the improvement of the relations between Cyprus and Turkey, and therefore the unblocking of some of the chapters in the accession process. In the long term, however, this may only have limited consequences. The deterioration of the aforementioned issues, coupled with internal EU opposition to Turkish membership, in particular from France and Germany, does not bode well for the accession process.
Whatever happens, these elections are without a doubt extremely important both for Turkey and for us as Europeans. Their results will have long-term consequences for the country and for its relations with Europe.
One thing is beyond doubt: nothing will remain the same after today.