Election season in Turkey

I think it’s bad form to pretend to know more about something than you actually know, whether you’re talking about something incredibly serious or something fairly mundane. I’m sometimes amazed at how many people make it to adulthood without having learned this crucially important lesson.

There is plenty I don’t understand about Turkey.

My job lately has been to comb through news articles and ensure that they make sense. This certainly gives me a better window into the life of the country than I would have in most other situations but I still operate with a serious handicap here, especially because I’m not in great contact with the kind of activist circles I know in the other countries I’ve been to.

Turkey is holding its general election exactly a week from today. Party banners and posters are everywhere. Vans adorened with political slogans blare music so loud it competes with the müezzin’s calls to prayer.

The Ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) — a conservative and heavily pro-business party that uses the rhetoric of religion to attract a diverse social base — is nearly certain to again win a majority of seats in parliament. That’s not particularly significant. In a country founded less than 100 years ago, which saw an intense period of one-party rule, followed by decades of serious instability — riots, revolts, coups, and guerilla warfare — the years of AKP rule under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have been fairly stable.

Stability is relative though.

Today is also the anniversary of the massive Gezi Park protests which made international news a few years ago as Turkey joined the ranks of nations shaken to the core by a youthful population demanding a stake in the future. The peace negotiations between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — a Kurdish separatist militia with a Communist background — appear to be fairly fragile. A recent wildcat strike in the auto-industry has taken the owners of several plants, the official leaders of the trade unions, and the Turkish government (who suspects “ideological influences” in the strike) completely by surprise. As we saw on May Day, the government will spare no expense to keep a large protest from taking place at all.

The AKP intends, if they can win a big enough majority, to change the constitution and create a vaguely defined “Turkish-style executive presidency.” The people running the country are very clear about the fact that they are terrified of internal enemies within the state bureaucracy and military apparatus, deeply mistrustful of the population at large, and viciously opposed to their political opponents in the opposition parties. They want to create a political system with a stronger executive office, that has the authority to do more things, more quickly, with fewer obstacles — where, in the words of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, “No president will ever stand trial for anything.”

Never? For any reason?

People tell me this is all because of a corruption investigation that went public at the end of 2013 which implicated several people connected to the president, prime minister, ruling party, their families, and some incredibly wealthy businessmen. The president recently had a new palace built, in defiance of environmental laws protecting the land on which it sits. The place has more than 1,100 rooms and costs tens of millions in monthly upkeep. I regularly hear it said that,  “Of course corruption is rampant in a state where this is what’s done out in the open…”

Now, I’m a foreigner and I only know what I read and what people say.

The primary opposition parties; the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) are both set to fair well in the election, despite the mobilization state resources to promote the AKP (seriously, we all get text messages reminding us of upcoming AKP rallies) and despite some fierce campaigning to demonize and disrupt the opposition. The CHP and MHP are not the most likely of political allies but they have joined up in an attempt to undermine the AKP. It’s probably a testament to the AKP’s strength in the past, and the relative weakness of their opponents, that such a pairing was deemed necessary.

The ruling party pulls few punches in its vitriolic denunciations of its opponents. The same is true in the reverse. There’s a lot of enmity in Turkish politics and Americans who lament how divided and partisan their own country is would be taken aback. In the case of one party, the Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP) there have been a number of reports of attacks — for which the AKP is blamed — on both individuals and on party offices, some of which have even been bombed. I recently saw an HDP van driving around, blaring their election music, with its front windshield smashed in.

Why such hostility for the HDP?

Well, they’re “pro-Kurdish” for one. That’s a huge issue in Turkey. The “Kurdish Question” has been the cause of a long and brutal war in the eastern provinces and harsh state repression around the country that goes back to the founding of the republic. The HDP is more than just “pro-Kurdish though.” They aim to be the “Turkish SYRIZA,” a socialist, feminist, environmentalist party with popular appeal across big sections of society. They have become fairly popular too, especially for a party that was on fringes not long ago.

They also dance in groups at their campaign booths.

They’re very likely to pass the enormously high 10% threshold and win seats in parliament for the first time. Turkey has a peculiar (and highly undemocratic) rule that if a party wins less than 10%, not only do they not get any seats, their votes also are counted for the party with the largest share. If the HDP was to win, say 8%, all of their votes would officially be counted as votes for the AKP.

If they do pass the mark, and most everyone thinks they will, they will, along with the CHP and MHP (which also both oppose the HDP) deny the AKP the majority they desire to refashion the country’s political system in the image of the current president. The ruling party might even need coalition partners in order to form a government. What’s more, the returns by these four parties will likely herald a major shift in the mentality of the country full of people who are struggling with staggering debts, rising costs of living, low wages, and a fairly obvious source of blame in the form of a government who actually called on business owners to give it support, lest the opposition wins and raises the minimum wage.

Enough people are so sure of the decline in the AKP’s support, for a myriad of reasons, and so sure that the government will tamper with the ballot boxes to reduce their losses, that the CHP and MHP have together declared they will have 700,000 of their own volunteers to assist in election monitoring, in addition to the agencies already called upon to ensure a fair contest. If things go too well for the AKP, the legitimacy of the whole election will be called into question. If they don’t, it’s not quite certain what will happen since they may not be able to hold onto power without forming a coalition with another party, and a willing partner will be hard to find.

It’s worth watching what happens in this country between now and June 8. No matter how things go, it will be intense.

– Jason

PS: I chose an photo of Nathan walking by an MHP booth because of all the parties, it’s the one I understand the least. I asked an MHP member if she could tell me what it means to be a Turkish-Nationalist and she said, “It means we’re nationalists.”