People walk along Istiklal Avenue decorated with Turkish national flags, Istanbul, Türkiye, Nov. 14, 2022. (Reuters Photo)

Türkiye’s political atmosphere as May 14 elections loom

Although the checks and balances mechanisms in modern liberal democracies have increasingly diversified, the most effective means for accountability and controlling leaders is still the ballot box. Of course, free, fair and competitive elections are not the only condition for a regime’s pluralistic and libertarian rule, but it is a prerequisite.

Although the checks and balances mechanisms in modern liberal democracies have increasingly diversified, the most effective means for accountability and controlling leaders is still the ballot box. Of course, free, fair and competitive elections are not the only condition for a regime’s pluralistic and libertarian rule, but it is a prerequisite.

In countries like Türkiye, where Jacobin elites have tried to shape the people around a particular worldview, ballot boxes have played an even more vital function. The masses, who were forcibly and radically Westernized, were not allowed to integrate into the center without abandoning their identities. The center-periphery tensions initiated a confrontational process between the state elites, on the one side, and the public, on the other, with profound implications. Society’s only refuge against the top-down political approach of the one-party administration of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) was made available in 1946.

Contrary to the 1946 elections, which allowed electoral fraud, especially the bizarre “open voting and secret counting of votes” practice, on May 14, 1950, the first competitive elections were held, and Turkish voters put an end to the CHP rule by voting in the Democrat Party (DP). The DP declared, “Enough is enough! The voice belongs to the nation!” and came to power. Indeed, since then, politics in Türkiye has become socialized and has brought the demands of the “periphery” to the “center.” As a result, an impressive sociopolitical transformation has occurred in the country. In addition, the state finally reconciled with the ignored religious and ethnic identities of the masses, restoring social peace and justice.

It was not easy to achieve these gains, and a contentious relationship between bureaucratic elites and civil politicians emerged that lasted for more than 50 years. The most important weapon of the Turkish people in their struggle against these elites was the right to vote. For this reason, an institutionalized “tutelage” was incorporated into the constitutions drafted after coups, such as in 1961 and 1982. However, the Turkish people persistently liquidated power groups at odds with their values and ideals through the ballot box.

In this sense, the DP, the Justice Party (AP), the Motherland Party (ANAP), the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi), and, finally, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) represent the mainstream political line that fights on behalf of the Turkish people of the “periphery” in this struggle for democracy.

Active and prudent participation

At all critical junctures, Turkish voters did not hesitate to put democracy on track. They kept the DP in power from 1950 to 1960, but in the 1957 elections, they reacted against certain harmful practices. In the elections held after a bloody coup in which popular Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, and two ministers, Fatin Rüştü Zorlu and Hasan Polatkan, were executed, most votes were given to the heirs of the DP. Similarly, in the first election held after the 1980 coup, voters preferred reformist politician Turgut Özal’s ANAP instead of proxy parties established by the generals of the military junta.

After the so-called “post-modern coup” of Feb. 28, 1997, which cracked down on the conservative segments of Turkish society, there were massive and systematic human rights violations, and two conservative parties (the Welfare Party and its successor, the Virtue Party) were shut down by the Constitutional Court. In return, Turkish voters brought to power the other conservative party, the AK Party. A similar conflict was experienced by the AK Party government when the armed forces threatened the AK Party in the presidential election crisis of 2007.

The ruling party responded to this threat by calling for a new election. However, the Turkish people protected democracy and increased the vote of the AK Party from 34% to 47% in the 2007 elections. In 2008, a lawsuit on the dissolution of the AK Party, which enjoyed the votes of almost one in every two voters in the 2007 elections, was proposed, but a single vote saved the party at the Constitutional Court.

The AK Party overcame every threat it faced with the democratic support of the national will. The Turkish people provided stable ballot box support in 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018 against coup threats, lawsuits for the dissolution of the party, threats from multiple terrorist organizations like the PKK and Daesh, attacks, and the military coup attempt by the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ).

Meanwhile, Turkish voters have never offered political parties their blind support and have sent strong messages to the ruling party by being sensitive to political and economic developments. This attitude includes the 2009 and 2019 local elections and the June 7, 2015, parliamentary elections. The ruling party substantially lost votes in the 2009 and mid-2015 elections. Nevertheless, the AK Party considered the criticisms and wishes of the voters and managed to regain its popularity in the next elections held in 2011 and 2015. Turkish voters are aware of the ballot box’s importance in political participation and for deciding the country’s direction and have always shown a high turnout in elections.

The dynamics of the election

Particular dynamics apply to almost every Turkish election. For example, although they vary from period to period, ethnic and religious identity or concerns about the way of life are always crucial factors in voting behavior. In the last two decades, the expectation of stability has been added to these factors. A key determinant in recent elections has been the desire for continued strength following the political and economic turmoil of the ’90s – a passion that the AK Party has met. As can be seen from previous election slogans such as “Keep stability, let Türkiye grow,” “Vote for stability,” and “Do not stop, keep going,” the emphasis on continuity had an essential place in the AK Party’s election campaigns.

The opposition’s lack of focus will likely significantly impact the results of the 2023 elections. The opposition, known as the “table for six” (or “Nation Alliance”), consists of six different parties: Republican People’s Party (CHP), Good Party (IP), Felicity Party (SP), Democrat Party, Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), and Future Party (GP). There are fierce debates among the members of this coalition about who should run for joint president and how to share the power that has yet to be won. It is not difficult to predict that this power struggle, played out in front of the public, will create voter concerns. The election polls have shown for a while that the opposition is experiencing a downward trend.

The genie at the ‘table’ is out of the bottle

At the beginning of March, developments in the opposition camp also verify this prediction. The prolonged tension among the members of the six-party coalition resulted in a hard split. The nationalist IP, the second-biggest in the opposition, left the “table” right after the latest meeting, where a joint candidate for the opposition was discussed.

But the split took place with severity far beyond expectations. The leading motive behind IP chair Meral Akşener’s decision to leave was objecting to the proposal of CHP chair Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the main opposition party, as the joint candidate for the presidential election by the other alliance members.

Akşener gave an impassioned speech, including accusations against the rest of the opposition parties. She accused the other five parties of defying the people’s will and preferring personal ambitions instead of the future of Türkiye. On the contrary, Kılıçdaroğlu charged her with acting against political ethics and collecting other opposition parties’ votes.

So, what now?

This bitter split has shaken the confidence of Turkish voters even though Akşener returned to the opposition alliance at the end of the day. First and foremost, the voters realized how genuine their concerns were about the opposition’s ability to co-govern Türkiye. The disagreement, which occurred almost two months before the planned May 14 election, exposed the opposition’s fragile alliance. The aggressive competition among the opposition parties reveals that they may not quickly implement macro policies.

The roadmap announced by the opposition after the last crisis presents a complex management plan. Accordingly, if Kılıçdaroğlu wins the upcoming elections, he will have six vice-presidents, four of whom are the chairpersons of other five parties, and two of whom are the mayors of Ankara and Istanbul. As a result, the “table for six” will become even more crowded. This roadmap also contains many uncertainties, such as when Kılıçdaroğlu will appoint two mayors as vice presidents and when he will resign from the CHP leadership.

The opposition has a significant drawback in the eyes of voters. If they come to power, they would spend their time and effort keeping their fragile coalition intact instead of solving Türkiye’s issues.

Contrary to the opposition’s expectations, Turkish voters may consider Erdoğan’s strong leadership skills and experience when deciding who will overcome the country’s issues. Furthermore, every new development on the opposition front ahead of the election strengthens the tendency of voters to favor Erdoğan.

[Daily Sabah, March 24 2023]

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