Friday, June 21, 2013

Political Parties in Turkey: Speculating on the Effects of Gezi Protests

Let me first start with what the political arena looked like in Turkey, after the general elections in 2011. These were the election results for the major parties:

AKP (Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party): %50
CHP (Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu's Republican People's Party): %26
MHP (Devlet Bahçeli's Nationalist Action Party): %13
Independents: %6.5

The Turkish election system has a very high %10 national barrier, i.e. if a party cannot collect more than %10 of the votes nationally, they cannot send any members into the parliament. The Members of the Parliament are allocated among those parties that have passed the %10 threshold, according to the D'hondt system. This barrier, which is the highest in the world if I am not wrong, is in place to prevent Kurdish candidates from getting elected. However, the Kurdish candidates have traditionally ran for elections as independents, and formed a Kurdish group in the parliament after getting elected. Consequently, the Kurdish BDP (Peace and Democracy Party, co-chaired by Gülten Kışanak and Selahattin Demirtaş) is currently represented with 36 members in the parliament (approximately %6.5 of 550 total seats).

AKP was formed in 2001 and won a landslide victory in 2002. It has been the successful coalition of a conservative worldview, Islamist politics, and free-market ideology with a very pragmatist leadership. AKP spearheaded the EU membership process and fought valiantly against the military authorities throughout the 2000s. Combining these struggles with economic stability, AKP has received praise both domestically and internationally. Liberal democrats, who have traditionally oscillated between CHP and center-right parties, have supported AKP throughout the 2000s for these reasons. (I would recommend Yüksel Taşkın's recent article on this issue if you can read in Turkish.)  As a result of its large internal coalition, AKP has won every single election since 2002 with increasing rates, culminating with half of the votes in 2011.

CHP is the party of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. It was the single party that ruled the Republic since its inception in 1923 until 1950, when Democrat Party (a splinter group from CHP) won the second multi-party elections. CHP has traditionally been the party of the Republican elites (soldiers, judges, lawyers, teachers, doctors, etc.) and the Republican mentality (secularism, modernization, westernization, progress, nationalism). CHP has been one of the main institutions whose aim was to forcefully  modernize those parts of the society that were perceived as uneducated and backwards. CHP was the urban, educated, and secular in charge of modernizing the rural, uneducated, and religious. Under Bülent Ecevit's leadership in the 1970s, CHP started to identify itself as left-of-center and assumed a more social-democratic agenda. In many parts of the country, CHP is still identified as the main leftist party although it had taken a sharp nationalistic turn since the late 1990s. Currently, CHP has two strong currents: 1) The Kemalist, secular, nationalist elite that is still based on the old dichotomies between modern/traditional, educated/uneducated, urban/rural, secular/religious. 2) The social democrats who focus on civil liberties, and equality.

MHP was named in 1969 by Alpaslan Türkeş. It has traditionally been ultra-nationalist and anti-communist. Its members were involved in militant activism in 1970s. It regained momentum since the 1980s through its strong position against the Kurdish movements.We can also argue that MHP has successfully enmeshed ultra-nationalism with conservative Islamist values. Consequently, they have secured a vote-base around %10 for the past two decades.

The Kurdish parties had to change their names many times over the past decades because they have been subject to hostile Constitutional Court actions that shut down their parties. BDP was formed in 2009, as a replacement to DTP (Democratic Society Party), which was banned by the Constitutional Court. BDP, and its earlier versions, represent the insistence of Kurdish citizens to join parliamentary politics. Many veteran Kurdish politicians such as Leyla Zana and Ahmet Türk suffered imprisonment and many other insults throughout their political careers. Kurdish politicians have traditionally been accused of being in league with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party); and they have traditionally rejected these accusations to avoid imprisonment. However, BDP ties with PKK have become invaluable in recent years when the state has been trying to negotiate with PKK for peace. In my view, the BDP movement consists of two strong currents (very similar to CHP): 1) A secular, nationalist, and militant group that pursues a hard-liner stance, due to decades of armed struggle with the state. 2) Social democrats that perceive a democratic and parliamentarian solution to the Turkish/Kurdish problem.

The recent Gezi protests have the potential to significantly alter this political spectrum in the long run. In my opinion, the protests will have three main consequences:

1) Socialization and politicization of a new generation. Many young people have learnt about resistance, collective movement, and political activities through these protests. Especially the democratic, pluralist, peaceful, and anti-capitalist nature of the protests (as I have mentioned in my previous post), is likely to influence and shape future political actors, actions and movements. A brand new language of politics (that strongly resonates globally) was collectively created and maintained. This is, by far the most important consequence of Gezi protests.

2) Socialization and politicization of older generations who have identified themselves as liberals, social democrats, Kemalists/nationalists, or socialists. The consistent failure of any method of resistance against the heavy-handed Turkish state had simply demoralized many generations of citizens in Turkey since the 1980s. The new political language that was formulated at Gezi shook these older generations as well. When Erdoğan and his AKP seemed most powerful, a peaceful protest movement managed to challenge it to its very core. This did not only meet with increased political enthusiasm, but (hopefully) it also came with some self-questioning and self-criticism.

After the police took over Gezi Park late Saturday night last week, many people across the country hit the streets in protest. People tried to march to Taksim from different neighborhoods in Istanbul. My friend Yalçın and I were out there on the highway, on our way to the bridge, when we were gassed and pushed back with approximately 5,000 fellow peaceful protesters. These protests continued on Sunday too, however "disproportional intelligence" appeared on Monday evening again with #duranadam (#standingman) when a protester stood without moving at Taksim Square for hours. The news on #duranadam spread very fast that night and the following days. The protest movement was channeled back into peaceful resistance, further ridiculing the government's heavy iron fist.

#duranadam (#standingman)
The peaceful character of this new chapter in the resistance movement was reinforced with the call for neighborhood forums across various parks in Istanbul on Tuesday. Since then, these forums have been taking place every night. I have joined two of them at my neighborhood park (Özgürlük Parkı) and was startled with the participants' frankness and eagerness. Particularly at my neighborhood park, the majority of the 100+ participants were above 30 years old. On Wednesday night, one of the participants, (who was in his 50s), told us that he was going to the park to clear the cobwebs in his head. This sort of self-reflection and self-criticism is very exciting and promising.

A neighborhood forum in Istanbul

3) Abandonment of AKP by liberal democrats. As I have mentioned earlier, liberal democrat intelligentsia, who play a strong political role in shaping political discussions even though they are not a big group, have supported AKP directly or indirectly throughout the 2000s. However, the change in Erdoğan's discourse since 2011, and the police brutalities against Gezi protesters, are likely to open an irreparable rift between AKP and the liberals.

Well, if you have been patient enough to read the pre-Gezi political situation, and the implications of Gezi protests as I read them, let's move on to how Gezi can affect the political spectrum.

1) After losing liberal support, and moving towards a more authoritarian/majoritarian stance, I think AKP will battle with MHP for nationalist/Islamist votes. If AKP can manage to push MHP below the %10 threshold, they would emerge as the only major right-wing party and would benefit immensely from it. This would also mean an increasingly authoritarian and conservative AKP. Such a development is very likely to further polarize the existing rift between AKP supporters and the newly-consolidating anti-Erdoğan camp.

2) The real litmus test to whether AKP would choose such a direction would be how the peace process with the Kurds fare. According to the understanding between PKK and the state, (based on what we can gather from BDP and PKK, as the officials would not openly talk about this process at all...) the first phase will be over soon, with the departure of PKK guerillas for northern Iraq. The second phase will include major legal changes that would identify legal rights to Kurdish citizens and introduce some sort of local autonomy. Will AKP continue with the vague peace process as planned, after the Gezi protests? The failure of the peace process, besides bigger problems, would lock AKP to the far right. However, continuing with the peace process could polish AKP's liberal and European credentials which were tarnished with the brutal suppression of the Gezi protests.

The Kurdish movement's stance is also important for how AKP moves with the peace process. Even though Kurdish activists were involved in Gezi protests, institutional representation of Kurdish politics was very limited. Did they fear breaking the peace process? Yes, very likely. How far would the Kurdish movement go in appeasing an increasingly authoritarian AKP regime? Would BDP cooperate with AKP on a new constitution that would recognize certain Kurdish rights in exchange for a presidential system that would make Erdoğan even a stronger force in Turkish politics? The issue of the Kurdish peace process will indeed prove to be the real litmus test for AKP's future.

3) After abandoning AKP, it is highly likely that liberal democrats may seek union with their fellow social democrats in CHP. I strongly doubt that current CHP could accommodate such coexistence. However, could the common experiences of Gezi protests, the common grounds shared in some neighborhood forums, and the common goal in opposing Erdoğan's increasingly authoritarian policies bring Kemalists, social democrats, and liberal democrats together in a movement? I have serious doubts on the likelihood of such a coalition. However, I perceive such a movement as the only viable alternative to AKP rule in the near future.

I believe all political energy should be spent not only on cultivating more civic participation and peaceful resistance as seen in neighborhood forums, but also on supporting the ongoing peace process with the Kurdish movement.


  1. Arda, Well-explained. But I see a liberal-leftist bias in your analysis. Apart from liberals, you assume AKP supporters as a monolith and unlikely to depart from the party even if AKP embraces a nationalist-islamist discourse to attract voters from MHP. Such move is likely to reduce AKP's Kurdish-conservative base (AKP is a close second to BDP in attracting Kurdish votes), likely to further alienate groups such as Gulen Movement from AKP, and push moderates of AKP in the Parliament to align themselves with Gul (thus weakens Erdogan's hopes for presidency.) I think more than what would liberals do, Erdogan will be more concerned what would these groups (Kurdish-conservatives, Gulen movement, and the supporters of Gul). Any thoughts? (Turan K).

  2. Turan, I guess such bias is quite inevitable, given where I stand. Even though I doubt that there would be a complete fallout between the Gülen movement and AKP, I completely agree with you that a right-wing move from AKP would alienate some voters from its own base, including moderate-conservatives (for lack of a better term) and some Kurdish voters. That would probably mean an overall drop in AKP votes, even if MHP fails to meet the %10 barrier. But if MHP does indeed stay below %10, I strongly believe they would very comfortably form a majority government once again.

    I hope you are right overall. I would prefer the liberal Erdoğan back. However Erdoğan's discourse significantly moved towards the right since the election campaigns in 2011.

    Thanks for the thoughtful analysis and question.

  3. Arda,

    Thank you for your reply.

    I agree with you that Gulen movement is unlikely to vote other parties (unless a new party emerges, which is not unlikely). But still, AKP elites should consider the movement's level of mobilization in support of AKP during the elections--similar to that GOP should care the level of mobilization among its evangelical base even if this base is unlikely to vote Democrats.

    Trying to push MHP below 10% did not work in the last election (remember the hidden recordings of sexually explicit videos of its candidates). It seems MHP has a loyal base. I agree with you that, if works, such a strategy can yield big payoffs to AKP (but its success is questionable and risks are clear).

    I also very much share your concerns and hope to have moderate (liberal) Erdogan back.(Turan)

  4. Turan,

    "Liberal Erdoğan" sounds funny, if not awkward. "Moderate" is indeed better.

    Maybe this is my liberal and/or leftist bias here, but I am having a hard time Erdoğan worrying too much on his own base. You might be really correct in accusing me of seeing AKP as a monolithic entity. However, I think I am following Erdoğan's example here. For any dovish remark he has made in the past years, he has followed it with three hawkish ones. He has literally gone berserk last month. I observe that discourse, and I don't see any concerns about losing what he identifies as his %50. I think you are right and there are groups that would stop voting for him, but does he care? I don't see that in anyway...