On June 12 Turkey’s electorate will go to the polls in the country’s 17th general election. In each of the last two elections, in 2002 and 2007, the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) has emerged as a comfortable winner. It is all but certain to do so again this year. There are risks to this forecast, but they have diminished greatly in recent months. It remains the case that the opposition parties would not have to boost their combined performance by that great a margin to rein in the AKP, but it is more or less clear at this stage that they do not have it in them yet to raise their game sufficiently.
This was made abundantly clear in September’s constitutional referendum. What was striking in that poll wasn’t so much the result (the ‘yes’ campaign’s victory was never really in question) as the extent to which the AKP, and the prime minister Mr Erdoğan in particular, dominated every aspect of the campaign. This mastery of the AKP over the political agenda remains the defining characteristic of the Turkish political scene. The AKP broke Turkey’s political mould at the beginning of the last decade, and it has been largely unchallenged since. The other parties have so far signally failed to adapt.
This failure of the other parties has allowed the AKP to consolidate many votes which in the early days it received on loan, as it were, from voters who felt the need to turn to someone new after the political instability of the 1990s and the economic collapse of 2001. The AKP surely could not have expected to hold on to as many of those votes as it has since managed to do. In a normally functioning democracy, peopled by political leaders with a modicum of intelligent self-interest, the process of winning these voters back would have begun immediately. Opposition parties would have dissected the AKP’s victory and developed new policies, as well as new modes of speech and behaviour, that would counter the appeal of the new electoral force.
This fightback did not materialise. The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) opted instead for a strategy of wilful idiocy by retaining the profoundly useless Deniz Baykal as its leader. The result was a vacuum where there should have been an intelligent response to the AKP. And in this void, old habits reasserted themselves. It fell to the army and the judiciary to try to unsettle the AKP. But both overplayed their hands badly, thereby setting the scene not just for the AKP’s comfortable return to power in 2007, but also for the emergence of the strategy that has sustained the AKP ever since—namely the idea that the party is the only force for democratisation in Turkey.
While there is no doubt that Turkey is in need of radical democratisation, by now there is every reason to doubt the AKP’s commitment to delivering it. Electorally, however, this is beside the point. The fecklessness of the opposition parties and other non-AKP actors has allowed the government to wrap itself in the colours of democracy, giving it a potent foundation on which to build its campaigning. The electorally decisive factor isn’t how democratic the AKP really is, it’s how democratic it appears when set beside the worst excesses of the non-AKP forces in recent decades. ‘Quite democratic,’ would appear to be the view of a solid plurality of voters.
Part of the problem here—and this is what’s really dangerous about the opposition’s current weakness—is that democracy has shallow roots in Turkey. It is not a concept that has been teased out over a decades-long process of ideas being freely exchanged. Beyond the rudimentary basics of a free and fair election, democracy is largely a blank page here. The AKP seems to be the only party that has realised the electoral implications of this fact. And so it has worked hard to fill what was a gaping hole in the political market, defining democracy loudly in terms that just happen to align with its own interests.
This point bears repeating. So great has been the ineptitude of the opposition since 2002, they have given the AKP free rein to define the very fundamentals of the democratic understandings that underpin Turkey’s evolving political system. The result has been the emergence of a crude and assertive majoritarianism which sees little to worry about in the sidelining of rights and expectations that are central to the democratic experience in any properly democratic country.
There was something a little distasteful about the fact that it took the recent locking up of some high-profile journalists to waken many in the overseas media to the troubling detours that the AKP’s democratisation bandwagon now regularly seems to take. Nevertheless, those jailings and the police raids associated with them were a shocking illustration of the hypocrisy that characterises democracy in Turkey. To lock up journalists, to destroy unpublished books and then to claim to be doing so in defence of democracy? That takes some neck.
And yet even in the face of developments like these, the opposition still finds it difficult to gain any traction in the polls. Yes, the CHP will do better in 2011 than in 2007. But that is hardly the point. With Mr Baykal having finally departed the scene it could scarcely do otherwise. Two factors more electorally significant than that are, first, that the CHP has failed to register a game-changing increase in its level of support, and, second, that some of the gains the CHP looks likely to secure are almost certain to be offset by losses for the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Polls now suggest that the hardline MHP is perilously close to falling below the 10 per cent threshold which parties must cross in order to enter parliament.
In the medium term, the fate of efforts to rebuild the CHP will be the most crucial determinant on the opposition side of the shape of Turkish politics. But more immediately it’s the fate of the MHP that may have a more dramatic impact. If the party were to fall below the 10 per cent threshold in June, then the arithmetic that will determine the balance of power in the next parliament would alter radically. We would face the prospect of a return to the kind of conditions that followed the 2002 election, when the fact that only two parties made it into parliament allowed the AKP to secure 66 per cent of the seats in parliament on just 34 per cent of the total vote.
Were such an outcome to be repeated in 2011, the potential consequences would be grave. In 2002, there were strong institutional constraints pushing the AKP towards a moderate, centrist and broadly reforming stance. Domestically, the party needed to focus its energies on economic rebuilding, a process that also allowed it to rebuff overblown claims that it was an Islamist wolf in sheep’s clothing. Externally, these were halcyon days when the European Union provided a powerful focus for the otherwise weak reforming instincts of Turkey’s political class. Turkey took significant steps forward during the AKP’s first term in office.
However, the mood music has changed significantly since the poisonous transition to the party’s second term. The European Union is lost in its own crises and increasingly scorned in Turkey. Domestically, the gloves have long since come off in the fight between the AKP and its rivals. And crucially, the governing party now knows that it is strong enough to dictate the terms of the political debate without having to look defensively over its shoulder. Barring some bizarre lapse into catastrophic hubris (this is a possibility that cannot be entirely discounted), Mr Erdoğan knows that on any question he puts before the people, he is likely to secure the backing of a comfortable majority. With a new constitution to be written following the election, this is deeply significant.
Turkey’s political culture is founded on the idea that a strong man can single-handedly direct the destiny of the nation. Like him or loathe him, there is no denying that Mr Erdoğan embodies this founding idea more totally than has any Turkish politician in decades. He has lifted this country up by the scruff of its neck and a majority in the country have thanked him warmly and repeatedly for it. He is now all but certain to win comfortably in June. We shall soon have a clearer idea of where precisely he is planning to set Turkey back down again.