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Turkey’s election fatigue

Polls on 1 November will either install an AK Party-led single party government or necessitate a new culture of compromise

Turkey emerged from the 7 June 2015 election with a hung parliament. As this election terminated Turkey's governing AK Party's uninterrupted 13-year rule, the business of forming a coalition government was once again in play.

Anti-AKP players were sanguine at first that a government excluding the AKP could be formed. The logic went as follows: a government would be formed excluding the AKP to settle scores with the party for its wrongdoings and hold officials accountable for their deeds. Those that shared this logic never considered what such a coalition would have in common – and on what grounds a coalition government could be formed.

Putting aside opposition to the AKP's continuing mandate, it has not offered any compelling and credible argument for the formation of a coalition with such politically different parties as its components. This logic immaturely overlooked the wide political differences between these parties. It did not take into account the conflicting demands and aspirations of their social bases. It assumed that opposition to the AKP would overcome the political differences between Turkish and Kurdish nationalists for the sake of not letting the AKP be the senior partner in any government. This was an elite projection and flawed from the start.

Short of a coalition government constituted from all three opposition parties - the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP - all other coalition government scenarios necessitated the inclusion of the AKP as the senior partner.

Given the pre and post-election tension and ensuing conflict between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkey, an AKP and HDP coalition was out of the question. The remaining options were either an AKP and secularist CHP or an AKP-nationalist MHP coalition government scenario. Starting from day one, the MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli ruled out any coalition options with the AKP.

Besides his rejection, the MHP's demand for the termination of the Kurdish peace process altogether, its rejection of the granting of any cultural-democratic rights to the Kurds, its problem with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s place in the political system, and request that Erdogan evacuate the new palace that he is currently occupying to return to the previous presidential palace, everything made it unfit for the AKP to form a coalition government with.

On the other hand, the AKP and CHP engaged in a relatively extensive closed-door discussion on the formation of a government, but to no avail. Whereas the CHP's account cited the opposition of President Erdogan as the main failure for these coalition talks, the AKP account focused on differences of opinion and stance on major political issues as the main reason for the failure. This account further stresses that the talks proved the parties’ foreign and education policy visions were particularly irreconcilable. Moreover, the AKP referred to the wide opposition of its social base to an AKP-CHP coalition government as another factor for the failure of talks.

In the end, the AKP and CHP have historically been each other's political antithesis. The AKP is the main representative of the conservative/Islamic social base whereas the CHP speaks for the secularist/Kemalist segment of society. This cleavage along secularist-Islamist lines has been one of the main fault lines of Turkey's politics and socio-political polarisation.

Forming a coalition government between representatives of such starkly different political poles was an uphill battle. Nevertheless, it was exactly this wide difference of political philosophy between the two parties that made the formation of a coalition government between them precious. In recent years, while the social space between the different identity groups - Kurds and Turks, Alevis and Sunnis, secularists and Islamists - has shrunk, political polarisation has considerably increased.

This political polarisation did not primarily stem from the societal level; rather it was the result of top-down developments. It was largely political in nature and caused by the decisions and deeds of the political elite. And it mostly took place between the Islamist and secularist political camps. A coalition government made up of the representatives of the Islamist and secularist camps would have significantly decreased the level of polarisation, hence eliminating a major stumbling block of contemporary Turkish politics.

Forming an election government

In this respect, it is a missed opportunity. Nevertheless, politics has its own logic beyond normative assumptions. And winning an election can have precedence over the realisation of some lofty goals. All in all, the opposition of the social constituency to an AKP-CHP coalition, the contending visions of the parties on domestic and foreign policy, and the allure to the AKP of the prospect of regaining a parliamentary majority through a new election served to close the door to a coalition government between the AKP and one of the opposition parties.

At this stage, Turkey had only one option left: a new election, which became definite after Erdogan, using his constitutional power, consulted with and received the consent of the speaker of the Parliament on 24 August. Unprecedented in Turkey’s political history, Erdogan said this repeat election will take place on 1 November and that he will ask Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to form a caretaker election government within five days on 25 August.

Normally, all parties represented in parliament have the right to be represented in this government - a constitutional requirement. Yet, as of now, only the pro-Kurdish HDP has agreed to take part in such a caretaker government. Both the CHP and MHP have rejected taking part in such a government.  Two valid questions, at this point, are how a different electoral outcome might come about in the 1 November elections and what a taste of government for the HDP would mean for Kurdish politics.

What to expect from this government?

First, Turkey's political class is gambling with going for another election, which is unlikely to introduce a dramatically different political picture. Nevertheless, the AKP is only 18 MPs short of forming a single-party government; hence it doesn’t need a major jump in its vote in order to attain this goal. To achieve this, it is likely that it will focus on the need to continue down the path of stability and economic prosperity that Turkey has experienced under the AKP’s single-party government over the last 13 years.

As a corollary, it will emphasise the spectre of the unstable and dysfunctional coalition government that caused Turkey its lost decade of the 1990s. In contrast, the opposition is likely to blame the failure of coalition-building on the AKP. It will contend that the AKP is no longer the source of stability, and that rather it is the cause of instability and economic slow-down.

As things currently stand, people don’t have a novel and convincing argument to convince them to switch the colour of their votes. Hence, the probability is that the 1 November election will bring in a similar picture to that which was ushered in by the 7 June election. If this proves correct, the AKP will enter the coalition talks with a weakened position after the election. Even if it gains enough seats to form the single-party government, this will be a fragile government, barely above the threshold; 276 MPs to form the simple majority government.

In addition, despite the fact that the AKP was in power with a sound majority after the 2011 general election, the task of governance proved to be highly difficult due to the socio-political tension and polarisation in the country. This tension is unlikely to decrease after the election, hence the question of governance is likely to grow more acute.

Second, putting this aside, the inclusion of a pro-Kurdish party in a government structure for the first time is a welcome development; granted it is a caretaker government which will last for less than two months; granted it is the result of special circumstances.

Yet, this is still an important development. The political settlement of the Kurdish issue would mean that the Kurds or the pro-Kurdish political parties will be seen as natural contenders to be a part of any future government. Therefore, the HDP joining such a transitional government is important for the normalisation of Kurdish politics in Turkey. One of the ultimate signs of the settlement of the Kurdish issue in Turkey will be the representation of the Kurds in the political centre with their own identity and demands. This may be the harbinger of such an eventuality.

The odd thing is that while the political wing of the Kurdish movement will be part of a caretaker government, the armed wing, the PKK, will be waging a war against this government. This alone shows why the armed phase of the Kurdish issue needs to come to a conclusion in Turkey. As one of the most formidable political and social forces in the country, the Kurds are capable of advancing the Kurdish cause through political means and of joining forces with other groups within Turkey.

In this respect, if the PKK is honest in its discourse that it strives for a peaceful settlement of the Kurdish issue within Turkey, it should pay heed to the words of the HDP’s co-chairman Selahattin Demirtaş, who said that the PKK should lay down arms without using "ifs and buts".

There is election fatigue as Turkey goes to vote for the fourth time in less than two years. This upcoming election will either install an AKP-led single party government or necessitate a new culture of compromise and accommodation.

Sorting out the question of the government through the election might not mean sorting out the question of governance.

Galip Dalay works as a research director at al-Sharq Forum and senior associate fellow on Turkey and Kurdish Affairs at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Erdogan and Davutoglu 24 Aug, 2015 (AFP)

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