Turkey's June 12 Elections

  • photo courtesy of openDemocracy http://www.flickr.com/photos/14071207@N00/875760625
    Jun 14, 2011

    As expected, the Justice and Development Party (JDP) led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan easily retained power in the June 12 parliamentary elections. Empowered by a strong new mandate, Erdogan’s immediate priority is the adoption of a new constitution that would enhance the powers of the president.

    Q1: How significant was the victory of Erdogan and the JDP?

    A1: By winning the elections with almost half of the votes cast, the JDP consolidated its nearly decade long domination of the Turkish political system. Normally, governing parties tend to lose votes the longer they stay in office. Erdogan and his party demonstrated an impressive ability to defy the laws of political gravity by winning a third successive election and emulating the feat of Adnan Menderes and his Democrat Party in the 1950s. However, it is interesting to note that the JDP has seen its share of seats in the 550-member Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA) shrink from 363 in 2002 to 341 in 2007 to 326 in 2011, even as its vote has increased dramatically from 34.28 percent to 46.58 to 49.95.

    Q2: What are Erdogan’s plans for the future?

    A2: The continuing success of the JDP is due, to a great extent, to the leadership, charisma, and electoral talents of Erdogan. Having shed his past concerns relating to challenges from outside the political realm—namely the military, the judiciary, and the media—Erdogan focused on proving himself yet again as the dominant figure in the campaign, by combining his direct personal appeal to voters very effectively with the superb organizational capacity of the JDP and the advantages of incumbency. Erdogan constantly stressed economic recovery under the JDP and contrasted it with the crisis under its immediate predecessors. He was thus able to persuade many voters to choose to maintain stability by keeping the JDP in power instead of risking a switch to its untried opponents.

    Even as he was campaigning, however, Erdogan confirmed that this would be his last parliamentary election. This was not an indication of a desire to leave politics while at the top. As Erdogan stated in his postelection speech, his main focus will now be on replacing the current constitution drawn up in the aftermath of the 1980 coup. The new constitution seems certain to usher in a presidential system, and it is clear that Erdogan intends to run for the presidency, either in 2012 or more likely in 2014. If he were to choose the latter date, he would then be in a position to implement his “Target 2023” election manifesto through the centennial of the Turkish Republic as president. However, the inability of the JDP to obtain 330 seats, which would have enabled Erdogan to get public approval for a new constitution in a referendum, presents an obstacle that needs to be overcome.

    Q3: How strong is the opposition after the elections?

    A3: Erdogan has further consolidated his hold on the conservative majority, which has sustained center-right governments since the advent of multiparty democracy in 1950. Consequently, his opponents seem unlikely to get a serious shot at weakening his grip on power until and unless there is a change in the currently favorable economic indicators.

    To be sure, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (RPP) managed to improve its vote by 5 percent to 25.94 under its new leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu while also increasing its number of seats from 112 to 135. However, the RPP vote was below its expectations and is still only just over half the percentage of the JDP. Nevertheless, the RPP has emerged from the elections as a potentially more credible rival to the JDP as it begins the next stage of its very difficult effort to counter the governing party’s seemingly irresistible formula to win elections.

    The National Action Party (NAP) lost both votes and seats while managing to retain parliamentary representation. This was an achievement in view of the massive convulsions caused by the release during the campaign of compromising tapes of leading party members. The NAP thus frustrated what was apparently the central component of Erdogan’s strategy to reach 330 seats by keeping the NAP below the 10 percent national threshold for parliamentary representation. However, NAP leader Devlet Bahceli’s failure to prevent Erdogan from taking advantage of the patriotic surge in Turkey through his rhetoric while poaching a significant portion of the nationalist vote will continue to impede the party’s ability to mount any kind of meaningful challenge to the JDP from the right.

    The Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (PDP) may have more reason to celebrate than either of the two other opposition parties. It succeeded in skirting the threshold for parliamentary representation by getting 36 of its candidates into the TGNA as independents and almost doubling its number of seats. It seems inevitable that existing tensions will grow as increasingly assertive and impatient Kurdish politicians, who have received a regional mandate from their supporters in the southeast, confront Erdogan, who will look to his own national mandate, as he defends his harder line against Kurdish demands.

    Q4: Greater assertiveness in foreign policy?

    A4: As Erdogan hinted in his victory speech, he is likely to play an even more active role in international affairs, particularly in the Middle East. After having boasted throughout the campaign about Turkey’s growing influence in its region and beyond, Erdogan cited Damascus, Beirut, and Baghdad, along with the West Bank, Gaza, and no less than four Palestinian cities, as having “won the elections as much as Turkish cities.” While he chose not to refer either to the current turmoil in the Arab world or Turkish-Israeli tensions, it seems certain that events across Turkey’s southern border will consume an even greater portion of Erdogan’s time and attention. While Erdogan will seek to maintain his ongoing and close dialogue with President Barack Obama, along with U.S.-Turkish cooperation in the Middle East and elsewhere, his unwillingness to focus on the stalled EU accession negotiations either in his speech or the campaign may have provided implicit confirmation of his current loss of interest in this particular goal, which had previously been so important to the JDP.

    Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.