Turkey’s election- why does it matter?

I have just returned to my hometown, London, after a two-week long visit to my homeland, Turkey. Ahead of the vote on 7th June, I have observed the election landscape in four different provinces (admittedly all in the centre and the west of the country, including the capital Ankara), talked to people from all walks of life and listened to a good number of campaign speeches. Here is a brief summary of what I have seen and heard and my own conclusions.

  • This must have been the noisiest, dirtiest election campaign ever, literally and metaphorically speaking. Minibuses, covered in party emblems, cruise the streets, blaring party political songs all day long. Public spaces everywhere are covered in bunting. Just before the President or the Prime Minister arrive, nearby streets are frantically cleaned, only to be littered with discarded brochures and flags a few hours later. It is the unprecedented vitriol in campaign speeches that is impossible to sweep away. Throughout the campaign, the supposedly-impartial president has repeatedly attacked the opposition, using outlandishly aggressive rhetoric. Not only the political opponents but anyone refusing to toe the line, including the domestic and foreign press, ethnic minorities, homosexuals and members of other religions became targets of verbal attacks bordering on hate speech. Pro-government media unashamedly conducted poorly-executed smear campaigns. Most seriously, whole string of attacks against the Kurdish party HDP, ending with casualties, have cast a shadow over Turkey’s upcoming elections.
  • The language of the President and his supporters might have been derogatory, the tricks dirty and the style clumsy but the imagination of protestors was nothing but inspirational. Like the standing man of the Gezi protests of 2013, the humour of back-turning women of 2015 was in direct contrast to uncouth response it generated. “My decency doesn’t permit me to tell you what this means”, retorted Mr Erdogan.
  • The overarching concern of almost everyone I spoke to was whether the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) would gain enough votes to cross the 10% threshold. Regardless of the governing AKP winning enough support to form the next government, a HDP victory would be the end of Mr Erdogan’s ambition to secure a large enough majority to increase his presidential powers. However, throughout the election campaign, the President has amply demonstrated that he was not concerned about breaching the Constitution. If the Justice and Development Party maintains a workable majority in the next Parliament, will the President even bother to try to change the Constitution? He has done well enough without it.
  • In the anti-government camp, blocking a Justice and Development Party government seems to be a pressing priority. A significant number of voters are likely to vote tactically. Even in small towns in the west, I have come across people who would, ordinarily, never contemplate supporting the pro-Kurdish party, telling me that they would vote for the HDP in an attempt to stop another AKP victory. Trust in polls is understandably low. Vote-rigging is seen as a strong possibility. Both the main opposition The Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish HDP have mobilised their members to guard ballot boxes. There is also a growing civil movement known as Vote and Beyond against electoral fraud.
  • Even though the breadth of subjects during the election campaign was depressingly limited, the main opposition CHP has managed to make the economy a core subject. For the first time in a decade, the main parties presented rival economic claims to the electorate. CHP enlisted the advice and commitment of Kemal Dervis, a world-wide respected economist and a former Minister of Economy in Turkey while the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) put forward the former Central Bank governor Durmuş Yılmaz as a candidate.
  • There is much to criticise about the AKP government’s short-termism in the economy and development. However dodgy their construction and non-transparent their tenders may have been, the infrastructure projects, especially social housing are very popular with the electorate. I have come across several low-income people in big and small towns singing the praises of the government because of this. There is much to complain about economic decision making and lack of oversight but the opposition would be unwise to dismiss the popularity of such initiatives with voters.
  • Whoever wins, and with whatever percentage, 12 years of AKP rule has made its indelible mark on Turkey. Extreme polarization has already torn the fabric of society. It will take long time to heal the wounds and to regenerate a culture of compromise in an inclusive political system.

This post is also available in: Turkish

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