Another Election in Turkey – What’s it all about?

November Election results: Red=CHP, Orange=AKP, Purple=DHP

November Election results: Red=CHP, Orange=AKP, Purple=DHP

Some argue it’s the little things that count most in life – and as I enjoy a leisurely Monday I feel a sense of gratitude towards whoever is responsible. Yesterday was Election Day in Turkey. Voters were getting a chance to reconsider the options five months after an earlier poll had produced an inconclusive result; followed by a day off to catch their breath, lick their wounds or celebrate, depending on how things had gone.

So I went for a bike ride along the Marmara coast, dropped into our local bakery for a couple of simits, and our next-door supermarket for a newspaper. Normally I just grab our paper of choice, pay and go – but today I lingered, letting my eyes run over the headlines screaming from the front pages of the multitude of brightly-coloured rags that daily deplete the nation’s forests, catering to every shade of political opinion and the average guy’s appetite for scantily clad young ladies.

‘Terror increased, our currency lost value, the votes went up . . . the sultanate continues!’ cried Sözcü, the one favoured by the government’s more vociferous opponents. Cumhuriyet, inclining more to the left-leaning intellectual, announced ‘A Victory for Fear.’ The folks at Sözcü, as is their wont, went on to speak of a social media frenzy accusing the AKP government of electoral jiggery-pokery, and quoted Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders as saying ‘any Turks in his country who voted for the dictator Erdoğan should go back and enjoy his Islamofascism’. Well, if that guy ever wins enough votes in Holland he may send them back, whoever they voted for. But were not discussing Dutch politics.

The English language edition of Zaman, generally acknowledged to be the mouthpiece of Fethullah Gülen’s Cemaat, contented itself with polling the opinions of the main opposition parties, whose only point of unanimity is blaming the government rather than their own limited vision. Most bitter, understandably, was Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the extreme nationalist party MHP. He started well, ‘noting that the MHP of course respects the nation’s choice’, before his magnanimity vanished in a declaration ‘that every vote cast for the AK Party will lead to more disasters for Turkey.’ 

President Erdoğan and PM Davutoğlu

President Erdoğan and PM Davutoğlu

A quick glance around foreign media suggested that most observers were ‘shocked’ by AKP’s ‘unexpected’ victory. The BBC echoed unknown informers who fear that ‘the political polarisation stoked by President Erdoğan could deepen and a clampdown on free speech worsen as the AK Party feels emboldened.’ CNN quoted a couple of Turks working for the Brookings Institute[1] as sayng ‘What is certain is that distancing Turkey from the brink of a civil war will be one of the greatest challenges for the country’s next administration.’ The Guardian wrote balefully that ‘Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, tightened his grip on power’, referred ominously to ‘the conservative, Islamic-leaning AKP’ and predicted that ‘the result could exacerbate divisions in a country deeply polarised along both ethnic and sectarian lines’.

I couldn’t find any immediate response from The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Los Angeles Times, usually quick to criticize Turkey and its government. Seems they have more on the minds with their own farcical presidential election, whose candidates haven’t even been selected yet.

Largest picture on the front page of Hürriyet's e-edition, Sunday

Largest picture on the front page of Hürriyet’s e-edition, Sunday

As for my own New Zealand Herald, the folks back home are still too busy rejoicing over the national team’s victory in the final of the rugby union World Cup to care much about what’s going on in the rest of the world, although minor interest was apparently sparked by a naked woman having been spotted on the roof of an arts studio in East London.

So what do I think? I’m sure you’re dying to know. Well, briefly, first of all, no one should have been unduly surprised by the election result – unless they had been paying too much attention to the loud, inharmonious but largely ineffectual choir determined to demonise the AK Party government, and belittle their every achievement. Second, while Turkey’s President, Tayyip Erdoğan, whose position under the constitution is largely ceremonial, will no doubt be very happy with the result, he was not actually a candidate for any office in this election. Third, as the more moderate daily Hürriyet said in its own Monday headline, ‘The Ballot-box decided.’ If Mr Erdoğan is a dictator, he clearly needs to take lessons from more qualified exponents of the art of rigging elections. Allowing his party to lose its parliamentary majority in June, and giving the country a second chance to vote in a free election where his party managed only 49.4% of the vote are unlikely to be recommended in ‘The Dictator’s Guide to Successful Autocracy’ – if such a book exists.

Interestingly, all sources agree that 87.3% of Turkey’s registered voters took the opportunity to express their opinion on Sunday – the highest number so far this century – and almost half of them voted for four more years of AK Party government. Well, admittedly that does leave half who wanted something else. Unfortunately, they couldn’t agree on exactly what they do want. At least Turkey’s proportional representation system allows for smaller parties to gain parliamentary representation, unlike the United States and the United Kingdom. Three other parties have a substantial minority presence in the legislature, including the predominantly Kurdish HDP.

Voting percentages, November election

Voting percentages, November election

For comparison, 58.2% of American voters turned out in the 2012 presidential election, of whom 51.1% voted for Barack Obama. To save you the trouble of reaching for your calculators, that means an approval rating of 29.7% in the only poll that actually counts for anything. The UK had a better turnout in their 2015 election with 66.1%, but only 39.6% voted for David Cameron’s Conservatives. In spite of that his party won 330 seats out of 650 and continued governing the country. So check the state of your own democracy, guys and girls.

Still, I know, you’ll say that doesn’t make the situation in Turkey right. Most Americans know their democracy stinks even if Brits still have some illusions about theirs. To understand why a large block of Turkish voters continue to support the AK party after 13 years, you need to have some knowledge of the country’s recent history and how its electoral system works.

Let’s start with the easier of the two, the electoral system. Turkey operates under a voting system that allocates parliamentary representation proportionally within each of its 81 electoral districts – to parties gaining 10% or more of votes cast. This threshold is arguably too high, but it was fixed under the constitution brought in after the military coup of 1981 with the intention of keeping out left wing parties. In the last three elections, supporters of the latter have got smart and tended to coalesce around the Kurdish cause, allowing the newly formed HDP to gain substantial representation. It is possibly worth noting that it is under AK Party governance that Kurdish ethnicity has gained respectability to the extent that this could happen.

In the 2002 election when the AK Party first swept into power, they actually won only 34% of the vote, but because the remainder were hopelessly divided amongst a host of other groups, only one of which, CHP, passed the threshold, they gained more seats than in any subsequent election. Is it a good system? Of course, that’s matter for debate, but it wasn’t set up by the AK Party – and you have to work within the system you’ve got.

Which brings me to another important point. A major argument put forward by opponents of proportional voting systems is their alleged instability, in that it is difficult for any one party to achieve outright victory. The most common result is coalition governments. Well, one could argue that compromise and cooperation may not be bad things in a democracy, but leave that aside. What we have seen in Turkey is a political party consistently winning, against the odds, enough support to govern alone in four elections.

For the explanation, we need to look at a little history. I can’t do better than quote from Wikipedia (a summary which has been extensively quoted elsewhere). For your convenience I have highlighted some key sentences:

One million Turkish Liras - worth about US 60c in the good old pre-AKP days

One million Turkish Liras – worth about US 60c in the good old pre-AKP days

‘Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Turkey relied heavily on foreign investment for economic growth, with trade above 40% of GNP. The Turkish government and banking systems lacked the financial means to support meaningful economic growth. The government was already running enormous budget deficits, and one of the ways it managed to sustain these was by selling huge quantities of high-interest bonds to Turkish banks. 

In March 1997 a coalition was formed between the Motherland Party’s Mesut Yılmaz and the True Path Party’s Tansu Çiller. The plan was for Yilmaz and Çiller to alternate the Prime Ministry. However, there was much public distraction caused by leader of the Welfare Party Necmettin Erbakan’s threats to investigate Ciller for corruption. Meanwhile, Erbakan, who had been excluded from the coalition, did everything he could to rally support for an Islamic NATO, and an Islamic version of the European Union. 

The Motherland Coalition collapsed in part because of Erbakan’s widespread public support. Additional tensions wreaked havoc on the government. Yilmaz was forced to resign on June 6, 1996, with the government having lasted for only 90 days. Erbakan became Prime Minister on June 29 as the head of a Welfare/True Path coalition. The success of the new Welfare-Path Coalition was viewed with hostility by the military. Erbakan’s explicitly Islamist politicies resulted in a post-modern coup in which the military forced Erbakan to yield power to Demirel who yielded to Yilmaz on June 19, 1997. The political fighting between Yilmaz and Çiller on one side, and Erbakan on the other would continue, making coalitions difficult to create. In addition, corruption was rampant at this time. People were highly disillusioned with their government. This lack of faith and efficacy would cause foreign nations to carefully examine any investment in Turkey. 

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) team in 1996 warned of an impending financial crisis because of the deficit, which soon came into being. Turkey’s unstable political landscape led many foreign investors to divest from the country. As foreign investors observed the political turmoil and the government’s attempts to eliminate the budget deficit, they withdrew $70 billion worth of capital from the country in a matter of months. This left a vacuum of capital that Turkish banks were unable to alleviate because the government was no longer able to pay off its bonds. With no capital to speak of, the Turkish economy slowed dramatically. 

In November 2000, the IMF provided Turkey with $11.4 billion in loans and Turkey sold many of its state-owned industries in an effort to balance the budget. In the case of Turkish Airlines, advertisements were placed in newspapers to attract offers for a 51% stake in the company. By 2000 there was massive unemployment, a lack of medicine, tight credit, slow production to fight inflation and increasing taxes. 

On February 19, 2001, Prime Minister Ecevit emerged from a meeting with President Sezer saying, “This is a serious crisis.” This underscored financial and political instability and led to further panic in the markets. Stocks plummeted and the interest rate reached 3,000%. Large quantities of Turkish lira were exchanged for U.S. dollars or euros, causing the Turkish central bank to lose $5 billion of its reserves. 

The crash triggered even more economic turmoil. In the first eight months of 2001, 14,875 jobs were lost, the dollar rose to 1,500,000 liras, and income inequality had risen from its already high level. 

Andreas Gross from the EU advising Turkey what to do about those 2 million Syrian refugees

Andreas Gross from the EU advising Turkey what to do about those 2 million Syrian refugees

The crash was emblematic of the political and economic problems that had been wearing on Turkey for years. Confidence in the government had been eroded by corruption and the inability to form lasting coalitions. The stock market crash revealed Turkey’s economic situation to be not only extremely fragile but also entirely dependent on foreign investment.’

That’s pretty much how I remember it. In fact, at its lowest point, the Turkish Lira dropped to 1.7 million to the US dollar, making a mockery of claims that it is currently at a record low.

The AK Party was formed in 2001 by a group of people who believed they could do a better job of governing. The level of desperation in the country can be seen in the 2002 election result where a new and untested party was given a mandate to govern alone. AK actually has a double meaning in Turkish. The initials stand for Adalet ve Kalkınma (Justice and development) but together they spell the old Turkish word for ‘white’ – offering hope for relief from the black despair that had previously gripped much of the country. Another significant result of the 2002 poll was that all of the parties that had been in the national assembly were thrown out.

That’s a brief summary of why the AK Party was initially successful, and many still remember the bad old days of military coups, disappearances, political assassinations and police torture. What has happened since is an unprecedented period of political stability without military intervention, sustained economic growth, and increased credibility on the world stage. Not everyone is happy – but America’s own Abe Lincoln had something to say about that as I recall.

______________________________________________

[1] As of 2014 the Brookings Institution had assets of $496 million. Its largest contributors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Hutchins Family Foundation, JPMorgan Chase, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, David Rubenstein, State of Qatar, and John L. Thornton (Wikipedia)

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14 thoughts on “Another Election in Turkey – What’s it all about?

    • Really! Well, I did reblog it, so maybe one of my Turkish readers picked it up. I’ll take a look. I hope they didn’t use Google for the translation. It doesn’t do a very good job of Turkish-English and vice versa 😉

    • PS – In fact it looks like a good translation, and an interesting blog. Pretty revolutionary. Can’t see who’s doing it. They seem to be keeping themselves anonymous. The name is Arabic/Ottoman Turkish – something do do with partnership, sharing.

  1. You may be aware of this, but perhaps some of your future readers may not be aware of the U.S. mass media portrayal of the elections as a power grab by the Erdoğan regime…

    A parliamentary majority by the AKP is stunning, they write.
    I take it that you are not surprised nor stunned by the return of a “single party rule” (parliamentary majority) in Turkey?

    The Washington Post wrote:
    “It marks a considerable political coup for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been at the helm of the country for 13 years and now looks likely to further entrench his rule.” – https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/turkey-votes-in-election-viewed-as-referendum-on-erdogan/2015/11/01/81cc0ab8-8005-11e5-b575-d8dcfedb4ea1_story.html

    Read it if you wish, but be forewarned that the Washington Post portrays a paranoid, irrational dictator, while other major news outlets can be more colorful and dire, as impossible as that seems.
    Perhaps, this is indicative of a emerging policy rift between Washington and Erdoğan?

    • Thanks for the feedback, Ron. Yeh, I know what the mainstream US press has to say about the government here – and I wrote a post a week or so ago along the lines of, ‘What is it to them? Why are they getting so excited about it?’. I don’t think anyone with their finger on the pulse of the Turkish electorate was at all surprised at the result. There’s no effective opposition, that’s the biggest problem here.

      For sure, getting a ruling majority under a PR system is an achievement. That’s why politicians in the USA and the UK don’t want it in their countries. In Turkey the system actually allows new parties to achieve representation, and even become the government, as the AK Party itself did. I would call that a good democracy.

      And, as I keep pointing out, under Turkey’s current constitution, the President is merely a rubber-stamping figurehead. How can he be a dictator? He has far less actual power than the US president.

      On the other hand, the US needs a friendly Muslim ally in this part of the world. I read that they’ve just sent a few more F16 jets to help Turkey in case Putin comes on too strong. Actually, I have some sympathy for Putin too 😉 The interesting emerging rift in my opinion is the one between the US and Israel. Any views on that?

  2. Thanks for sharing your experiences and observations, it is much appreciated!

    Interestingly, you have mentioned this twice recently, so U.S.-NATO-Turkey ties are very strong and you see no emerging rift in Turkey/U.S. relations?
    I heard that Russia was expected to play along with that geopolitical game against Assad/Syria…

    As far as the U.S. and Israel rift:
    Zionist/U.S. (Foundation funded) think-tanks control Washington policy from the documents and firsthand accounts shared in public. The world is a stage and war is a racket. The recent embarrassments between Obama and Netanyahu is merely a side show. Until the institutional monetary system and monetary policies change the political embarrassments mean little.
    Follow The Money

    • Certainly Erdoğan’s outspoken criticism of Israel’s aggression against the Palestinians has put Washington in a difficult situation. Under previous administrations, Turkey and Israel had close ties. Turkey, and earlier, the Ottoman Empire, had a good reputation with the Jewish community. As usual, most of the problems are a result of western interference in Middle east affairs. Interestingly the Israeli government apologised about that ‘Mavi Marmara’ incident – I’m sure after being pressured by Obama; and I’m equally sure they were extremely unhappy about it.

  3. Yeah, political embarrassments and apologies are interesting but what is truly meaningful are the funding control mechanism that are truly institutionalized.
    My comments over the weeks may have only skirted around the endowments, foundations, and central banks’ institutional policy control and I know nothing of the Turkish institutions that interact with them.

    Speaking of monetary system change, governments of the West are not as effective as they wish in their propaganda labeling citizens as “conspiracy theorists” and fringe radical extremists because the popular trend continues as a effective grassroots movement that has company executives disillusioned with the governments joining a few of the talking points:
    Overstock’s Chairman Jonathan Johnson Highlights Holding 3 Months Of Food, $10 Million In Gold For Employees In Preparation For The Next Crisis

    • PS:
      Which is why I have hounded you about this years’ Turkish hosting of the G-20 Summit.
      Any local revelations on connections to the international monetary system from the Turkey/G-20 perspective?
      New Policies/Credit or Funded Projects for Turkey?
      Obama, Putin, Cameron, Xi, and other heads of state will be arriving in Turkey, 15-16 Nov 2015, to sign something…

      Follow The Money

      • The G20 meeting has taken a back seat to all the other stuff going on here, I’m afraid: the refugee crisis, terrorist bombings, conflict with the PKK, not to mention the two elections. It hasn’t had much coverage in local media that I saw. Sorry I don’t have much to report. I imagine they’ll keep pretty close watch on their press releases. But I’ll watch out for it. Thanks for keeping me on my toes.

        And I’m right there with you on monetary reform!

      • On the warm-up to the G20, I read in today’s Hürriyet that the democratically elected leader (LOL) of Saudi Arabia and close friend of corporate America, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, has booked an entire ultra-luxury hotel for 18 days in Antalya at a cost of $18 million.
        http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/mardan-palaceda-18-gun-suudi-krali-salman-ve-mahiyetindekiler-kalacak-40010887
        I have to tell you, I don’t have high hopes for anything positive coming out of that conference – unless it gives this country’s anarchists something to take their minds off President Erdoğan.

    • I hadn’t seen that particular blog, but I had read and heard all those accusations elsewhere, including The Washington Post (see Ron’s link above), and I did try to address most of them in my own analysis.

      Of course there is a place for organs like Freeonline, and sometimes they get it right – eg, environmental issues. I find it hard to sympathise, however, with their general aim, which seems to be the creation of a state of anarchy by whatever means. I can understand the frustration that leads intelligent people to want to smash and burn, having experienced first-hand in New Zealand, electoral gerry-mandering, criminal acts by members of the governing party, and the use of money power to destroy opposition.

      Try as I will, though, I just can’t see the logical connection between violence and destruction and the creation of a brave new world bringing equality for all.

      On the Kurdish issue, I find parallels with the Maori situation in NZ. Not all of them want us pakehas to get on a plane and head back to Scotland whence our invading ancestors came. And I also have a suspicion that, down in the SE of Turkey, there is some pressure and intimidation on villagers to vote for the revolutionary party – but I could be wrong.

    • Thank you Alan for the report about Antalya’s Mardan Palace entire hotel reserved for the Saudi’s 1000 delegation; that was interesting!
      [Though google translation is not very good. It failed to make sense of the sale and purchase of the hotels with a confusion of pounds and dollars it was not clear what investment corp bought what.]

      Over the years my research had convinced me to think that 300 or so summit “staff” was needed to reach a contractual consensus prior to the “heads of state” arrival for a 2 day photo-op and signing ceremony.
      But the Saudi 1000 delegation is interesting, because the bulk of the agreements should already be concluded as the signing ceremonies and heads of state arrival nears.
      Apparently this extremely large Saudi delegation is an anomaly even for Saudi Arabia.
      I ask myself:
      Are they a “Beefed-up” security/intel force for Saudi “delegation”?
      $18 million spent, sounds more like security & intel expense, “IF” a false flag or terror event is expected?

      Antalya must have a logistical challenge hosting this G-20 Summit…
      I feel sad for the local residents 😦

      Let us know if reports discuss where Russia, China, and U.S. will rest.
      Are there any public protests planned?

      Oh how I wish for better translation tools. Some social media and People in Antalya must be talking about all the changes and increased work for the G-20 Summit!

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