By Afro-Middle East Centre
The results of Turkey’s 7 June parliamentary election is expected to have lasting consequences for the country’s domestic politics and foreign policy. The performance of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) signals the formal entrance of leftists and leftist agendas into parliamentary politics, and will impact negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Kurdish question, while the Islamist Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) decline will stymie President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s aspiration to convert the country’s political system to a presidential one. The country’s policy on Syria and the rest of the Middle East will likely also be affected by whatever new government takes power.
The election, seen by many as a referendum on Erdogan, saw the AKP’s vote drop from forty-nine per cent (and 327 parliamentary seats) in 2011 to forty-one per cent (and 258 seats), the first time the party has seen a decline since its first election contest in 2002. Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism was a major reason for the AKP’s decline. A graft scandal in 2013, which resulted in the arrests of influential AKP officials, and Erdogan’s increasingly lavish lifestyle also pushed voters away from the party.
The main consequence of the election is an end to Erdogan’s aspiration for a presidential system in which power would be shared between the president and prime minister. The AKP requires two-thirds of parliamentary seats (400) to amend the constitution, or 330 to submit amendments to a referendum. However, its 258 seats are not enough for it even to form a government, forcing it to rely on a coalition if it is to rule.
The HDP’s garnering thirteen per cent of the vote, crossing the ten per cent threshold for parliamentary entry, will change the country’s political landscape. Historically linked to the PKK, the party’s members previously contested elections as independents, and appealed mainly to the Kurdish population. In this election, however, it contested as a party, and appealed to minorities, left-wing Turks, workers, youth, women and disillusioned AKP voters. Along with other reasons, the government’s reluctance to fully support Kurdish fighters in Kobani, when the Kurdish-majority Syrian city was besieged by the Islamic State group (IS), led to over a million Kurds, including religious people who had previously supported the AKP, voting for the HDP instead. Ironically, the HDP’s victory may result in the halting of a sputtering Kurdish peace process, especially if the AKP forms a coalition with the ultra-nationalist and anti-Kurdish Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
In foreign policy terms, the election will have varying impacts, with any new government – even an AKP-led one – focusing more on domestic concerns. Turkey’s overt support for the Syrian Jaish Al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) coalition of Islamist fighters will be toned down, and so too will its role in the Turkish-Qatari-Saudi partnership which can be credited for opposition gains in the north and north east. The HDP and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) – with the second most votes – have opposed the AKP's support for al-Qa'ida affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the CHP has argued that Turkey’s relations with the Syrian president, Bashar Asad, must be improved in order to resolve the conflict. A key issue in the electoral race was a report in the opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper which accused the government of providing arms to al-Nusra, and of transporting IS fighters into Syria in January 2014. Similarly, Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and its opposition to the military coup there will likely be toned down, and depending on which party is in government, relations with Iran, which have been tense in the past few years, might improve. EU accession has also formally been returned to the agenda with the HDP’s manifesto advocating it and the CHP keen on pursuing it.
A week after the election, the main discussion in Turkey is about coalitions. The AKP has expressed willingness to discuss coalition-building with any other party. However, the other three parties have rebuffed AKP approaches for now. A coalition of the opposition HDP, CHP and MHP – required for a large enough bloc against the AKP – is improbable because the HDP and MHP will not partner with each other. An AKP-MHP coalition is more likely; given the MHP’s position on the Kurds, that could reverse any gains made on resolving the Kurdish question. If no government can be formed in the next five weeks, new elections will be called. The AKP remains the largest party in Turkish politics, able to garner votes from across the country, but the blow from this election and strain resulting from another in a few months time could lead to Erdogan’s hold over the party weakening, and tensions within the party increasing. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s position as head of the party might be in question, and the largely untainted former president and AKP co-founder, Abdullah Gul, might be roped in to claw back some losses.