Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

November elections

The JDP has a new majority in the Turkish parliament, but it does not have the super majority that Erdogan needs to impose his dream of becoming emperor, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

Dozens of opinion polls were conducted in the run-up to the Turkish elections. The results varied considerably. But even the most optimistic surveys, from the perspective of the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) and conducted by pollsters close to JDP inner circles, did not give that party more than 43 per cent of the vote.

On the eve of the elections a pall hung over the JDP leadership. Some felt they were staring at a bleak and hazy future, though of course they put on a bold and confident front for the cameras.

Way up at the top, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the most apprehensive. He feared that his people would not heed his endlessly reiterated warning that terrorism would continue unless they voted for the “stability” he pledged. That was his strategy for giving the JDP a large enough majority to form a government on its own.

Suddenly, as the returns began to come in at 8pm on 1 November, the gloom lifted. There, next to the JDP’s yellow light bulb, stood the figure 53 per cent. This was the first sign of the party’s great recovery from the setback of 7 June, the normal date for parliamentary elections as opposed to the second go.

As JDP elites began to celebrate, opposition parties stared at the screens in disbelief and dismay. In the end, the Republican People’s Party (RPP) fared exactly as it had in June. It suffered no losses, but nor did it make any gains, which in itself is a tragedy to which we will return below.

Of the three main opposition parties, the National Movement Party (NMP) was the biggest loser and, in the opinion of some, rightfully so. In fact, opinion polls had predicted a decline for this ultra-right party, but not so drastic a fall.

With 12 per cent of the vote, the number of NMP seats in parliament fell by nearly a half to 42, or possibly 40 by the time the official tally is announced. By contrast, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which passed the parliamentary threshold by a hair’s breadth this time, won around 60 seats, down from 80 seats in the June parliament.

That the PDP polled lower than the NMP but won more seats has to do with the demographics in the general election law, a law that the JDP constantly criticised during its 13 years in power but never seriously attempted to change. But it hardly had a motive to change it.

It had discovered the advantages of this law at the moment of its meteoric rise in 2002, when it won 36 per cent of the vote in its first general election and found itself rewarded with 367 seats, or two thirds of the legislative assembly.

According to the electoral law, the winner obtains the seats vacated by parties that fail to cross the 10 per cent parliamentary threshold (at that time those parties were the Democratic Left Party, Motherland Party and National Movement Party). This time around, in spite of the fact that it won 49.4 per cent of the vote, the JDP will obtain around 313, or well over half of the parliament’s 550 seats.

Sunday’s electoral earthquake — there is no better description for results that came as a surprise even to the victors — has triggered many questions, all emanating from that central one: what happened exactly?

In the five months between the 7 June elections and 1 November rerun, the JDP managed to gain five million votes. What magic formula did it use to achieve this huge increase in popularity? For surely there must have been something mysterious to account for this success.

The victory follows several terrorist bombings, including an attack in the capital four weeks ago and, several weeks before that, in the distant town of Suruç, near the Syrian border, claiming hundreds of dead and wounded, the vast majority of whom were Kurds.

In addition to the security lapse, there was the spectre of the collapsing economy, a rising dollar gobbling up the purchasing power of the average Turk, which was already low. It was not as though the budget, not to mention social cohesion, needed to be strained further by the early elections that Erdogan was so determined to have.

Meanwhile, with equal if not greater determination, the occupant of that exorbitantly luxurious and illegally built presidential palace, or “Israf Saray” (Profligate Palace) as the famous whistleblower Fuat Avni dubbed it, has pressed ahead with his siege against the press, lashing out against the few remaining recalcitrant outlets and rounding up strays into the “media pool” that heeds his beck and call, fawns on his every word and sings the praises of his legendary “accomplishments”.

In the week just before the 1 November polls, police stormed the premises of Koza Ipek Holding, a prominent conglomerate that owns two satellite television stations and two newspapers. The police interrupted programmes in mid-broadcast, confiscated newspapers and enforced a dubious warrant to place the institutions under guardianship.

It seemed to make no difference to Erdogan that elections were only four days away. Otherwise put, he was confident that his party would pass the electoral test that he had personally engineered, and with flying colours. As we now know, of course, this turned out to be the case. But how could he be so sure?

He had banked on the fear card and it worked. Vast segments of the Turkish public — thanks to the Erdogan-controlled media — were gulled into voting for peace and security and the promise of better standards of living, and into turning a blind eye, if only momentarily, to the nearly daily assaults against democracy.

The RPP put up a strong and determined fight, and made use of every means at its disposal, including the country’s media, of which the JDP controls the lion’s share of outlets. Suffice it to say that the state-owned TRT’s Arabic-language channel did not broadcast a single RPP rally speech, and if it mentioned the party and its leader at all it was to disparage them. After heaping criticism on the RPP, the JDP co-opted nearly all of the party’s electoral pledges and incorporated them into its own platform, to the letter.

There was no free and fair competition in the elections. It was virtually impossible to compete against a ruling party that had at its disposal all the instruments of the state, including local village mayors, or muhtars, deep in rural Anatolia, who posted themselves in front of balloting stations to inspire people to fulfil their duty to unity, stability, and the national flag and language.

The PDP, for its part, was nothing less than courageous. Its success in surpassing the electoral threshold again was a victory in its own right, given the nature of the challenges it had to surmount. It may have lost a million votes and 21 parliamentary seats since 7 June, and it may have strayed a little from the “Turkey first” approach and displayed a slight bias in favour of the PKK separatists, but it was attacked from all directions, literally.

In addition to the obstacles faced by the RPP, the PDP had to struggle against systematic security-related clampdowns, curfews in the predominately Kurdish southeast, and a long string of attacks against its party headquarters and staff, all generally ignored by the police. Such factors were instrumental in the PDP’s loss of three per cent of the vote it won in June.

In all events, the JDP success has entrenched the sharp polarisation in Turkey between conservatives and secularists/liberals. There is no grey area anymore between black and white. Moreover, the victorious party, itself, is treading on a minefield. Not least of the mines is the presidential system of Erdogan’s dreams.

That scheme seems to have met its demise, as the required constitutional amendment would need a majority of 330 votes to pass through parliament without having to be put to a referendum. But that is not the only reason. Certain influential persons will stand in the way.

Foremost among these is Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu who, during his electoral campaign tours, did not mention a word of it so as not to alienate supporters. He will now have some powerful arguments in his favour, such as the fact that it was he — not Erdogan — who led the party to this great victory.

No longer is Davutoglu the president’s “office manager”, as the opposition sometimes referred to him. He has begun to shine as a genuine, elected prime minister and party chief. Analysts maintain that the president’s biased involvement in the electoral campaigns was a major reason why the JDP suffered the sharp decline in support in the 7 June polls.

When Erdogan took a relative backseat in the 1 November campaigns, the party made a strong comeback. This will undoubtedly bolster the prime minister’s morale and strengthen his resolve to come into his own.

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