By Afro-Middle East Centre
The outcome of Turkey’s 1 November snap election was an unexpected surge in support for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) which will comfortably dominate parliament with 49 per cent of the vote (up from 41 per cent in the June election) and 57 per cent of parliamentary seats. This is in stark contrast to the results of the June election that had produced a hung parliament and led to five months of political and economic instability. This latest outcome sets a different scene for the country’s future social, political and economic agendas as the AKP takes 317 of the 550 parliamentary seats.
With large numbers of refugees arriving in Turkey daily, the Syrian crisis certainly influenced the the socio-economic environment and the election, but there is little doubt that the resumption of violence between the state and the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) was extremely crucial in how votes would be cast. While opposition media, particularly those aligned to the Gulen/Hizmet movement, portray the outcome as a personal victory for the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the results highlight the collective weakness of the three main opposition parties, underlined by the spectacular losses suffered by the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – which shed 40 parliamentary seats – and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) – with a decrease of 21 seats. Both parties could have been king-makers in a coalition government after June but, like the AKP, they gambled on securing more seats in the second election. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) maintained its position, losing only two seats.
The AKP’s revival as majority party with four million votes more votes than in June can be attributed mainly to a popular desire for ‘stability’ which, many voters believed, can be delivered only by the ruling party. Further, the Kurdish issue and related violence loomed large, and coalition governments in Turkey have historically failed to help in resolving the Kurdish question. Turks became instinctively distrustful of coalition governments after the turbulent 1990s when frequent military interventions into politics became the norm. This week’s outcome can, thus, also be read as an attempt by voters to prevent a situation where Turkey can only be governed by a coalition. Five months ago analysts and exit polls predicted the AKP’s decline as a result of internal and external pressures, particularly because of contestation between the party and its former ally, the Fethullah Gulen movement. The Gulenists’ withdrawing support from the AKP in June strongly influenced the party’s poor showing.
In five months the HDP, which celebrated in June for the 13 per cent of the vote it had received, lost three per cent, while its leadership aimed for 20 per cent. To voters for whom stability was a priority – especially conservative Kurdish voters, the HDP’s unwillingness to distance itself from and condemn the PKK was a major factor for its losses. Votes that the HDP received in June from those who viewed a strong HDP as a check on the AKP’s exercise of power, especially in light of corruption allegations against AKP officials, now switched to the AKP. Some observers suggest that the shock decline in AKP votes in June was a result of punitive voting because of a stagnant economy and rising instability brought on by the Syrian crisis. And nationalists wanted to punish the AKP for its seemingly-dovish approach to the PKK. Images of armed PKK members at check points in Kurdish areas such as Cizre stirred anti-AKP sentiment even within its traditional support base.
But the return of violence on a daily basis – with bombings in Turkey’s major cities, and the Turkish army at war with both the PKK and Islamic State group and with deaths on both sides of the state-Kurdish conflict – turned a large number of voters away from the HDP back to the AKP. Most HDP votes this week came from Turkey’s east, suggesting that Kurds in other areas switched their votes back to the AKP. The ruling party seems to be considered by many as a safe bet during tumultuous times. Some critics argue that the AKP manufactured ‘instability’ in the past five months in order to return precisely the result that this election did, that while the government has not been responsible for all the violence, it created the conditions for it and helped paint the PKK (and politicised Kurds more generally) as Turkey’s enemy – in order to win back the parliament.
If this criticism is correct, it is possible the AKP might consider reviving talks with the PKK now that it is again politically secure. Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s imprisoned leader, will likely face increased pressure from Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT), which will want him to support a political solution to the conflict. If he is unwilling or unable to do so, the assumption would be that the PKK strategic leadership centre had shifted to the commanders in the Qandil Mountains, and that Ocalan had become irrelevant.
HDP leaders will face similar pressures. To continue to be recognised as the political voice of Turkish Kurds (at least by the state), they will be expected to distance themselves from the PKK. It will also have to consider how it might strengthen its appeal both to Kurds and to Turkish leftists who supported it in June, but might have deserted it in November. As with all parties, the HDP’s survival partly depends on the Turkish economy. This will be a critical factor for the HDP which won most seats through votes obtained in the east where the economy has been particularly hard hit as a result of the government-PKK battles. To complicate matters further for the HDP, it will have to navigate its ‘debt’ to the Gulen movement whose members voted for the HDP as a way of blocking the AKP and opposing Erdogan.
But with the Kurdish question again becoming the most pressing domestic issue – especially with the renewed war between the state and the PKK, the government will want a strong Kurdish political partner that can be an interlocutor with the PKK and encourage it back to the negotiations table. The AKP will likely see the HDP as such a partner and will want to change that adversarial relationship into one of cooperation.
Paradoxically, the AKP also retained votes from supporters who had been critical of the party’s negotiations with the PKK, but who did not shift their votes to the hardline Turkish nationalist MHP; and it won the votes of MHP nationalists who were encouraged by the government’s recent (deadly) confrontations with the PKK. The MHP’s identity-based policies are viewed by many as incapable of dealing with the new reality, including that of Kurdish parliamentarians, and is losing even leaders because of this. The AKP, then, succeeded in winning the votes of both conservative Kurds (from the HDP), and nationalist Turks (from the MHP) – even though that seems counter-intuitive.
Another factor contributing to the AKP’s success was the revision of its candidate lists since the June election. Many well-known leaders who had reached their three-term limit were unable to stand in June, but, having ‘missed’ an election, became eligible again. In a period of uncertainty the electorate seems to have taken comfort in personalities from the past who are tried and trusted.
While in most elections a weak economy results in the incumbent ruling party losing support, in Turkey it has meant that voters supported the incumbent because they believed it could rescue the economy – as it did over a decade ago.
While the Syrian war is ever-present for all Turks – especially since Turkey hosts two million Syrian refugees who have been partly blamed for the country’s economic woes – it and other foreign policy issues were less important in this election than the PKK issue.
With the question of parliament’s make-up settled for another term, there have been two broad perspectives on a future under the AKP. The optimistic view is that the government, with a secure majority, will be able to deal with the economic, foreign policy and Kurdish issues. The other is that the vote was unfair because of repression, and that the AKP will become more authoritarian, further restrict free expression and increase polarisation.
Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s prime minister and AKP’s chief, acknowledged in his victory speech that polarisation was a problem, and he pledged to form a government that will embrace all Turks. Will he seriously address the problem? Will he reflect that pledge in a new cabinet that includes members of other parties? For many critics of the AKP, the big concern is what they see as Erdogan’s authoritarian tendency and his desire to change Turkey’s political system into a presidential one. Whether this desire or Davutoglu’s pledge will trump will have long-term implications for Turkey.
By Al Jazeera Centre for Studies
On Thursday, 13 August, after a short meeting between Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkish Prime Minister and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Davutoglu announced the collapse of talks between the parties to form a coalition government. Following several weeks of marathon negotiations, last week’s meeting was expected to be decisive. Three days earlier, Davutoglu had met Kilicdaroglu for more than four hours to attempt to bridge the earlier gap. The leaders had agreed to meet again after briefing their respective leadership councils. It is now clear that it was impossible to bridge the gap.
Within hours of the announcement, the Turkish Lira fell to its lowest level against the US dollar in more than a decade, and the Turkish stock index fell significantly. This week, after a meeting between Davutoglu and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli, the MHP also rejected a coalition with the AKP. Clearly, Turkey faces a political crisis. Why did the negotiations for a coalition government with the CHP fail, despite the climate of optimism? And where is Turkey headed politically, considering that the only certainty now seems to be another parliamentary election?
Possibility of coalition government
Between 1960 and 2002 Turkey experienced twenty coalition governments, with the longest lasting three-and-half years. The last was from 1999 to 2002 when the Democratic Left Party, led by Bulent Ecevit, failed to obtain the majority that would qualify it to rule independently; it therefore formed a coalition with the MHP and the Motherland Party. The legacy of coalition governments has, however, not always been positive or reassuring. On the contrary, they have been overwhelmingly unstable and not reflective of good governance. Some dragged the country into complex economic and political crises, while others led to military intervention.
After nearly thirteen years of political stability under the AKP, the current need for a coalition government resulted from the AKP failing to achieve a sufficient majority in the June parliamentary election, which could have allowed it to govern on its own. The ruling party won 41 per cent of the vote, giving it 258 seats in the new parliament – 18 seats less than a parliamentary majority. The CHP won 25 per cent of the vote (132 seats), the MHP received 17 per cent (80 seats), and the HDP 13 per cent (80 seats). Clearly, the Turkish people wanted to send a message of protest to the AKP, which had appeared confident of victory, and whose leaders and cadres had become accustomed to winning at low cost.
The main change (and surprise) in the election was the success of the pro-Kurdish HDP – which contested elections for the first time – after it crossed the critical ten per cent threshold necessary to enter parliament. With the HDP getting 80 seats it is more difficult for the AKP to obtain half of the seats in the Turkish parliament, the Grand National Assembly. The HDP’s resounding success was not only because of Kurdish voters, but also because of the votes of many non-Kurds who sought to prevent the AKP from obtaining a parliamentary majority. Without this majority the AKP cannot govern alone, nor is it allowed to draft a new constitution – one of the objectives of the AKP in its attempt to change the political system to a presidential one.
On 9 July, after new members of parliament were sworn in and after the election of the parliamentary speaker, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan requested Davutoglu, as leader of the largest parliamentary bloc, to form a government. Constitutionally, a government must be formed within forty-five days. If the party requested by the president to do so fails to form a government comprising a sufficient parliamentary majority, the president must declare new parliamentary elections within ninety days thereafter. The deadline to form a new government is, thus, 23 August.
Why coalition-building attempts failed
Davutoglu’s efforts to form a coalition government included meeting with leaders of the other three parties. Given links between the HDP and the PKK, which the Turkish state regards as a terrorist group, and that the HDP’s position on the Kurdish peace process and disarmament of the PKK is unclear, the option of forming a coalition government with the HDP was not initially on the table for the AKP, and the HDP had also indicated that it would not entertain such an option.
On the other hand, the MHP was unwilling to join a coalition government and preferred new parliamentary elections, hoping that new elections will result in the exit of the HDP from parliament. The Kurdish question occupies a central place in the MHP’s platform. It opposes the Kurdish peace process and negotiations conducted by the AKP government with Kurdish leaders, especially PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. The MHP demands an end to the process and seeks, instead, to crush the ‘terrorists and Kurdish separatists’. This issue thus prevented the MHP and AKP coming together because of the AKP government’s engagement in the peace process.
The AKP’s only choice, therefore, was a coalition with the CHP. However, there are substantial differences between the two parties, in terms of both domestic and foreign policies. The parties formed delegations for detailed policy discussions. Although their meetings took place in an atmosphere of optimism and were marked by a desire for convergence, their views on education and foreign policy were too divergent. The CHP wanted the education portfolio in a future government, and expressed its intention to make radical changes in the structure of the educational process and in the curricula. It also wants radical change in Turkish policy towards Syria, Egypt and Israel – seeking Turkey’s withdrawal from the Middle East in favour of a greater involvement in Europe.
For the AKP, the divergence between the parties’ positions widened to the extent that it believed a stable coalition government to be unachievable. Davutoglu thus proposed a short-term coalition government to the CHP leader, who rejected the proposal, leading ultimately to the collapse of the talks, with no hope for a new round.
The Erdogan factor
The CHP’s explanation for the failure of the talks differed significantly from the AKP’s, however. Kilicdaroglu and other party leaders placed the greatest responsibility for the collapse of negotiations on Erdogan. The CHP argues that Erdogan continues to exercise considerable influence in the AKP, and that he does not want a coalition government because such a government would end his exercising an extra-constitutional role. Erdogan’s only opportunity to continue doing so, or to revive the project for a new constitution, is early elections. The president hopes new elections would give AKP the majority it lost in June, and thus allow it to govern alone. The CHP, supported by the liberal-secular media, claims that Erdogan encouraged the recent sudden escalation in the confrontation with the PKK – inside Turkey and in Iraq – as a means of restoring the popular support lost by the AKP.
Erdogan was open, especially in his own circles, about his desire for new elections. His close associates have said that the June results convinced him of the need for a presidential system. Erdogan believes the presidential system is most suitable for this phase in Turkey’s history, and that it would protect the country from a descent to instability or uncertainty, as created by the June election. He referred to the presidential system in a speech on 14 August, after the collapse of AKP-CHP talks.
However, even before the announcement that AKP-CHP talks had failed, it seemed negotiations were on track to certain failure, irrespective of Erdogan’s influence within the AKP or his desire for early elections. The problem was not only related to the parties’ diverse ideological and cultural backgrounds, but also to the strategic nature of the issues in dispute. The AKP regards the educational system founded in 2011 as a huge legislative achievement of its administration. Accepting structural changes to the educational system would mean abandoning one of the party’s most important visions for Turkey’s future. Further, no AKP leader will accept CHP demands for strategic change in Turkish foreign policy, particularly regarding Syria, and in the Middle East as a whole.
Future of the crisis
In his media conference, Davutoglu did not refer to early elections unequivocally or decisively, but as only a possibility. The Turkish media were quick to point out that elections were inevitable after the talks had failed. In reality, Turkey still faces two paths: another attempt to form a government – regardless of whether it is a coalition or a minority government, and early elections.
Immediately after his announcement of failed talks with the CHP, Davutoglu requested a meeting with MHP chairperson Devlet Bahceli, who agreed. The meeting, a last-ditch attempt by the prime minister to form a coalition government, took place on Monday, 17 August, and Davutoglu proposed an AKP-MHP coalition. Bahceli refused. He insisted on various MHP positions: that talks with the PKK must end (though in reality they have, after Turkish attacks on the PKK in the middle of August); that Erdogan and his family must be investigated for corruption; and that Erdogan’s aspirations for a presidential system must be curbed. He also said his party opposed any amendment to the first four articles of the constitution – which include clauses about Turkey as a secular state, and states that Turkey’s language is Turkish (thus denying language rights to Kurds and other linguistic minorities).
Davutoglu indicated that he would consult with the president before resigning his position as prime minister. Erdogan will have to call new elections, to take place within ninety days from his announcement, and will have to agree with the parliamentary speaker on the establishment of a caretaker government, in which all parties in parliament will be represented proportionally. The HDP’s participation in such a government will cause great dissatisfaction to the MHP, which has rejected the participation of Kurdish nationalists in any government. How the two parties will cooperate in a caretaker government remains to be seen. It is possible that the MHP will refuse to exercise its right to join the interim structure.
The question now is whether the election will significantly change the proportions of seats in parliament, and whether it will open the way for the AKP to attain a parliamentary majority. Some recent polls indicate that the AKP will receive just over forty-four per cent of the vote – up from forty-one in June, giving it a small parliamentary majority, but insufficient for it to form a government. Opinion polls, of course, do not always provide a definite indication of trends in public opinion in democratic systems. Also, opinions can easily change in ninety days.
Those who argue that the new election will benefit the AKP suggest that Turkish voters wanted to send a warning to the AKP, but that the message was too strong. Thus, a large number of those voters, concerned about instability and a resurgence of violence in the conflict with the PKK will return to vote for the AKP. A number of AKP voters switched to the HDP and MHP, some because they believed the AKP had not gone far enough in negotiations with the PKK; others because they opposed those negotiations.
The other view argues that even if the election does not provide an adequate parliamentary majority for the AKP, it will emphasise to all parties that future governance in the country will require coalitions, and that parties must abandon political manoeuvring in their negotiations with each other, and seriously work to form coalitions. The problem with the AKP not receiving a clear majority, however, is that the current stalemate will likely be repeated after another election, laying the ground for a serious political crisis.
By Ashwin Pienaar
On Thursday 3 June 2010, South Africa announced it would be recalling its ambassador to Israel, following the latter's raid on a flotilla of ships carrying aid to Gaza. The incident, which took place in international waters early on Monday, 31 May 2010, left nine activists dead and over 30 wounded.
In a media conference held in Pretoria on Thursday 3 June, South Africa's Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Ebrahim Ebrahim, announced that, "the recall of Ambassador Ismail Coovadia is to show our strongest condemnation of the attack. This recent Israeli aggression of attacking the aid flotilla severely impacts on finding a lasting solution to the problems of the region. The South African government also joins the international community in its call for the siege of Gaza to be immediately lifted." Ebrahim added that the siege had brought "untold hardships" to the ordinary people of Gaza, making their lives "nightmarish".
By Afro-Middle East Centre
On Tuesday, 1 June 2010, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a ferocious speech in Turkey's parliament, condemning Israel for its attack on a flotilla of aid ships bound for Gaza, early on Monday 31 May 2010. Between 9 and 16 activists and aid workers - mostly Turkish - were killed in the raid in an act that has seen widespread international criticism for Israel's excessive use of force. South Africa's Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) added its voice to a chorus of international condemnation for the acts leading to the deaths of civilians, issuing a demarche to the Israeli ambassador in South Africa.
Erdogan called Israel's raid on the ships carrying civilians and humanitarian aid "a bloody massacre which deserved every kind of curse". Speaking at a parliamentary group meeting of his Justice & Development (AK) Party, Erdogan said the "predawn attack in the Mediterranean Sea was one of the heaviest blows on the conscience of the humanity." The ship that bore the brunt of the Israeli attack, and on which the killings took place, was flying a Turkish flag and belonged to a Turkish relief organisation.
"Aid ships were intercepted by force and brutality. The ships loaded with mercy and affection were prevented from reaching their destination. Israeli armed forces illegally attacked the flotilla carrying 600 people from 32 countries and humanitarian aid to Gazan people, and killed innocent people," he said. Erdogan harshly condemned the "inhuman attack on ships carrying civilians including women, children and religious officials from different faiths" emphasising that the raid amounted to an "attack is on international law, the conscience of humanity and world peace".
"The ships declared their cargo and their intention to the whole world before setting sail to Gaza. 60 journalists from Turkey and the other countries were also on board the ships to witness the campaign. It is evident that this attack on 600 people and 6 ships carrying aid to poor Palestinian people who were left destitute, is on the basic philosophy of the United Nations. The ships were loaded with humanitarian aid and they were strictly controlled under the international traffic rules. They were carrying volunteers. But they were subject to such an armed attack," he said.
"We refused Israel's offer to send the injured passengers. We have the will and power to take our own injured people. Two military ambulances left to bring back the injured passengers. Civilians planes of the Ministry of Health are about to arrive there," he said.
Erdogan emphasised the severity of the raid, within the context of global discontent towards Israel, saying, "Israel must inform the world public opinion correctly. It should not refrain from international cooperation. Israel should acknowledge the importance of the situation and correct its mistake."
"No one should test Turkey's patience," he added. "Turkey's hostility is as strong as its friendship is valuable." Turkey has, for decades, been an ally of Israel, cooperating with the latter even on military matters.
Erdogan urged Israelis to question the actions of their government.
"It is damaging your country's image by conducting banditry and piracy," Erdogan said. "It is damaging the interests of Israel and your peace and safety. It is the Israeli people who must stop the Israeli government."
He said that "staging an armed attack on aid ships, killing innocent people and treating civilians as if they were terrorists are nothing but degradation of humanity and vile recklessness. This insolent, irresponsible, reckless and unfair attack by the Israeli government which trampled on every kind of human value must be punished by all means."
The prime minister also called on Israel immediately to end its blockade of Gaza.
Erdogan will meet Chief of General Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug and ministers who are the members of the National Security Council (MGK) from Tuesday to Wednesday this week, to discuss the Israeli attack on the aid convoy, Anadolu news agency said.
Earlier on Tuesday Erdogan said, "I wish our final decisions will be good for everyone." Turkish media now questions what "final decisions" may be. Will Turkey and Israel sever ties over the flotilla raid?
The flotilla incident is undoubtedly the most serious rift in Turkish-Israeli relations since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, mostly because all states covet the safety of their nationals. For example, the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, in which US diplomatic staff were kidnapped in Tehran, led to the severing of US-Iran ties. The flotilla incident is no less serious because unarmed civilians have been killed by foreign military personnel in international waters. And Israel and Turkey already have strained relations. Earlier this year, a Turkish diplomat was humiliated in a meeting with his Israeli counterpart - the so-called 'sofagate' incident - leading to a diplomatic row between the two countries. Turkey is also likely to get much international support for its condemnation of Israel, as many countries are growing tired of the latter's continued provocative behaviour in the international arena. Israel is assumed to be behind the January assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al Mabhouh - an activity which involved the illegal use of multiple foreign passports. That incident led to the expulsion of Israeli diplomats from Australia and the UK. Additionally, US Vice-President Joe Biden's attempts to re-launch the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were snubbed by Israel earlier this year.
Ironically, then, it is the US that has come to Israel's aid, in the midst of the flotilla row. The US has refused to call for an independent (UN) investigation into the flotilla raid, saying that an internal Israeli investigation would suffice. Turkey will be unhappy if it cannot convince the US, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, to appoint a UN investigation into the flotilla raid. Israel, on the other hand, will be relieved if it can avoid international legal scrutiny over the raid. Further undermining Turkey's ability to put pressure on Israel is a $185 million deal for the delivery of 10 Heron unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) from Israel to Turkey, which the Turkish military says will still go ahead.
Whether or not ties are severed between Israel and Turkey, in the coming weeks the latter will try to lobby members of the UN Security Council to pressurise Israel, probably calling for an end to its blockade of Gaza, compliance with UN resolutions over its occupation of the West Bank and an independent investigation into the flotilla deaths. What is certain is that Israel will do its own lobbying to try and clear its name. Already Israel has delayed the release of many of the flotilla activists (thereby preventing many of them media access) in an attempt to manage its public relations campaign. Israel will present its case, show footage to prove that activists attacked its commandos, but all that will have little effect on the end result. The world will judge the flotilla incident as an excessive use of naval force with no clear justification.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
As Turkish troops amass on the Turkey-Syria border, and artillery exchange between the two countries threatens to enter its second week, there has been some speculation that Turkey might declare war on Syria. Yet, despite mounting tensions between the two countries, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan asserted that Turkey, which has unambiguously aligned itself with the Syrian opposition, has no intention of going to war with its beleaguered neighbour. In turn, Syria’s President Bashar al Asad is well aware that even unintentional provocation that could open up a front with Turkey would be suicidal. The Syrian government is clinging tenaciously to power, and Asad will not want to put further pressure on an already fatigued and over-stretched military.