It is now a year at most until Turkey must go to the polls in a general election. Contrary to the fears of those who believe the current AKP government is engineering an era of undemocratic hegemony, there is every likelihood that the next election will see the party’s grip on power weakened, if not broken, by a return to coalition government. If that is what transpires, it will be a valuable demonstration that the country’s democratic levers still function. But it will come at a price. We should not take for granted the benefits that have flowed from the relative stability of Turkey’s government and economy over the past decade.
The extent of the AKP’s successes in the 2002 and 2007 elections owed much to extraordinary circumstances that will not apply in 2011. In 2002, the collapse of support for the parties of the incumbent coalition was spectacular, leading to an unusually brutal cull at the hands of the 10 per cent threshold. With only two parties in parliament, the AKP’s 34 per cent of votes translated into 66 per cent of seats. In 2007, the distorting effects of the threshold moderated somewhat, but the AKP received a compensatory boost from the military’s badly judged attempt on April 27 to impose its will on the government. In response, the electorate rallied behind the party, giving it a 47 per cent share of the vote which enabled it to retain its parliamentary majority.
In the absence of one-off factors like these, results in the 2011 election are likely to reflect a more conventional electoral calculus. This will favour a less extreme distribution of votes and parliamentary seats. We are not talking about a collapse in the AKP vote—assuming three or four parties make it into parliament, a relatively modest dip in the party’s vote will be enough to erode its majority and require a return to coalition politics. That process of electoral slippage has already begun. In nationwide local elections in 2009, the AKP share of the vote fell to 39 per cent. The unreliability of Turkish opinion polls makes it difficult to gauge with confidence what has happened since. However the polls point to a continuing downward trajectory: in monthly polls conducted by Sonar between January and May this year, support for the AKP averaged 31 per cent.
There are a number of considerations that will hold the governing party back in next year’s election. The first of these is the simple passage of time. In 2002 and 2007, the AKP could present itself as a fresh alternative to the tired and overbearing alternatives. After nine years in power, that strategy is unlikely to gain as much traction as previously. Second, the AKP has less to show for its second term in power than its first, particularly in relation to EU-inspired reforms. This matters because one of the party’s great electoral strengths until now has been its focus on the important block of pragmatic voters in Turkey who have shown themselves willing to vote on bread-and-butter issues such as competent economic management rather than according to the country’s laicism/religion cleavage.
Whether these floating voters drift away from the AKP depends on a third potential risk to the party, the performance of its opponents. Neither of the main opposition parties has yet to present to itself as a credible alternative government, but there is no doubt that they will be less accommodating in 2011 than previously. The CHP has finally caught up with the electorate by jettisoning Deniz Baykal and replacing him with Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, a politician whose instincts seem to tend towards a pragmatic approach that could play well with the non-ideological voters mentioned above. (It remains to be seen just how much resistance there will be within the CHP to this kind of pragmatism. A series of flip-flops on important issues suggest that Mr Kılıçdaroğlu is struggling to bring senior members of his party with him.)
For its part, the MHP has already seen its poll ratings rise over the past few years and the recent spike in PKK violence moves the political debate onto their favoured ground. (If prime minister Erdoğan and Mr Kılıçdaroğlu are smart they will co-operate on the Kurdish question and position it as being above party politics.) The collapse of the government’s ‘Kurdish opening’ is a political gift for the MHP and it will continue to hurt the government into 2011—the AKP can expect to lose votes both to Kurdish candidates (for having turned their back on the opening process) and to nationalists (for having pursued it in the first place).
Take all of these factors together and the AKP looks decidedly vulnerable to the kind of unspectacular slide in support that would leave it without a parliamentary majority. Where would that leave Turkey? Assuming that the same three parties are returned to parliament, then we would either have a coalition between the AKP and one of its rivals, or a coalition between the CHP and MHP. None of these options inspires great confidence in terms of political stability or effectiveness.