How did Turkey’s ruling party regain its grip?

November 4, 2015

Tom Gagné and Alan Maass analyze the outcome of the general election in Turkey.

TURKEY'S PRIME Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) celebrated the outcome of November 1 elections as a "victory for democracy."

It is anything but. The AKP increased its vote over elections held in June by enough to win a majority of seats in parliament, which will allow the conservative Islamist party to continue to implement the neoliberal and increasingly authoritarian agenda it has pursued since coming to power in 2002.

The AKP scored this success by waging a battle against democracy--in particular, with an intensified crackdown on the oppressed Kurdish population that effectively wrecked peace negotiations to end the deadly civil war between the government and rebels forces.

The ruling party's aims were twofold: terrorize the millions of people who backed the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HDP) in the June election, putting its representatives in parliament for the first time; and win over right-wing voters on the strength of its appeal to Turkish nationalism.

Turkey's Presient Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Turkey's Presient Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

The second aim is the reason for the AKP's success. The party increased its percentage of the vote from 40.9 percent to 49.5 percent--enough to get a clear majority of seats in parliament, though not the super-majority that would have allowed the AKP to fulfill its plan to unilaterally rewrite the constitution and give new authoritarian powers to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Meanwhile, the far right Nationalist Movement Party lost over one-quarter of its electoral support since June, and just over half its seats in parliament.

As for the first aim, the percentage of the vote for the left-wing HDP fell from 13.1 percent to 10.7 percent, but that wasn't enough to push it under the absurdly high 10 percent threshold needed to qualify for seats in parliament. Considering the intensity of the campaign of repression and violence against it--including a horrific bombing directed at the party's contingent at a peace march in Ankara last month--the HDP is the party that should be celebrating a "victory for democracy."

THE HDP's success in June set off a political earthquake in Turkey.

The party's base is among Kurds, an oppressed nationality spread over several countries that accounts for around 20 percent of the population in Turkey. But HDP had unprecedented success in attracting support from the radical left and secular moderates outside Kurdish areas, as well as from other religious and ethnic minorities.

This alliance is the product of a political radicalization in Turkey that came into the spotlight with the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in 2013. What came to be known as the Turkish Spring began with a small occupation to protect one of the city's last green spaces against another AKP "urban renewal" project. The government's harsh crackdown ignited protests across Istanbul, and then around the country.

The awakening around Gezi Park continued following the Soma mine disaster one year later--the government's callous response stirred further anger at the AKP's neoliberal policies that have produced an epidemic of workplace "accidents." Plus, major corruption scandals have rocked the AKP and tarnished its populist image.

All this has contributed to the rise of the HDP, whose 13 percent of the vote put the left-wing party in parliament--overcoming the 10 percent bar written into the constitution during a prior military coup government specifically to keep out the left and pro-Kurdish forces. The AKP lost its ruling majority and was unable to form a coalition government, leading to new elections being called for November 1.

The AKP's attempt to win conservative votes by whipping up an anti-Kurdish frenzy was already underway before June, but the government raised the stakes in the months since--including stepped-up air strikes against Kurdish militants in northern Syria and Iraq. Military forces deployed to Kurdish areas in the Southeast imposed curfews and provoked deadly clashes.

The air campaign against the forces of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has come along with Turkey's participation in the U.S.-led war on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Obama administration has been pressing Erdoğan on this for some time and is clearly willing to tolerate the renewed war on the Kurds.

After the Ankara bombing, Obama contacted not any representative of the bombing victims, but Erdoğan himself, and promised that Washington would "stand with Turkey and its people in the fight against terrorism and other security challenges in the region."

This is precisely the rhetoric that the AKP has used in attempting to paint the HDP as terrorists." Despite the horrific loss of life in Ankara, Prime Minister Davutoğlu directed suspicion not only on ISIS, but Kurdish activists or "left-wing militants"--obscenely suggesting that these forces would kill their own.

ERDOGAN WAS the first head of state to begin peace negotiations with the PKK after a civil war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. He and the PKK were rewarded with a wave of support from a war-weary population--including votes from Kurdish areas that added to the AKP totals in 2007 and 2011.

Now, he is using peace negotiations as a wedge against the Kurdish population for daring to vote in their own political and cultural interests.

The campaign against the Kurds won't end now that Erdoğan has won back a parliamentary majority. The day after the election, government officials suggested that they would be investigating "irregularities" in the vote count in Kurdish areas.

There will be demoralization among radicals and progressives in Turkey because of the AKP's success in regaining one-party control over the government. But the fact that the HDP not only survived the onslaught that followed the first election, but stayed above the 10 percent threshold to be represented in parliament, is a testament to the party's popularity, the courage of those who organized for it, and the political determination that points a way forward in Turkey.

The HDP's election successes this year, against the odds and despite heavy repression, are a step forward for democracy in Turkey and the Kurdish resistance--two causes that are bound together.

The AKP has been strengthened by this election. But it wasn't strong enough to gain the opportunity to drive through a new authoritarian constitution unhindered--and, above all, it wasn't strong enough to crush the pro-Kurd, pro-democracy resistance embodied in the HDP.

Further Reading

From the archives