Turkish Elections

Story by Audrey Pence | pence.a@husky.neu.edu

Photo by Madlen Gubernick | gubernick.ma@husky.neu.edu

“Hah-day-pey”, I overheard in the midst of an interview being conducted by my Turkish coworker. We were out getting opinions on the street about the Armenian Genocide for a piece for CNN, but we couldn’t help but wrap up the conversation with a twist to the upcoming June 7th elections, a topic that kept both of us enthralled. I knew the conversation had turned to the elections with the mention of the HDP party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party, the final stand between Erdoğan and his vision for a “New Turkey”. The first half of 2015, I spent working with a freelance journalism team in Istanbul, Turkey, and so much of what I learned centered around how societies respond to a government they feel is heading in a direction they fear. The coworker aforementioned spent much of our time telling me about different resistance groups, the occupation of Gezi Park in 2013 and her own hopes for the upcoming elections and for Turkey’s future.

As the U.S. geared up for presidential primaries with its own set of characters and plot twists, I found myself scouring the local Turkish newspapers, both government-run and opposition-run, to follow the twists and turns leading up to the Turkish parliamentary elections, trying to decipher what the real story was. The story didn’t lack in characters either. Not least of which was perhaps the lead character, President Recip Tayip Erdoğan. He is to some, a protagonist, to others the antagonist, but to all a strategic and fascinating leader.

President Erdoğan entered the realm of politics as mayor of Istanbul, where he served from 1994 to 1998, when he was banned from office and sentenced to 10 months of prison for reciting a religiously discriminatory poem. He reentered the political realm in 2001, creating the Justice and Development Party, AKP. The party won almost two-thirds majority of parliamentary seats a year later under his leadership. With the power of his party, his ban from office was annulled, and he took the role of Prime Minister in March 2003. His growing power was one contributing reason for the Gezi Park protests of 2013. In 2014, Erdoğan won in the presidential elections, and Ahmet Davutoglu took over as the prime minister. Some have called into question how much power Davutoglu actually holds. Within the past year, Erdoğan has made clear his ambition to revise the Constitution to put in place a presidential system in Turkey. However, many question whether the system he’s been advocating for is what most would think of as presidential. HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas called the system a “constitutional dictatorship.” Akif Hamzacebi, a senior member of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said in a news conference in Ankara, “The president intends to run the country through presidential decrees. This does not exist in any presidential system. … Erdoğan wants a special kind of presidency for himself. This is called a dictatorship.”

For those unfamiliar with Erdoğan or the power he holds in Turkey, one of the best anecdotes comes from an improv performance. They reenacted the day of one of the audience members. He had been buying a shawarma sandwich, when the vendor asked him, learning that he was American, what he thought of Obama. He replied a simple, unmemorable response to which the vendor followed with a question of what he thought of Erdoğan. The improv troupe  acted this scene out with every member of the troop leaning in to hear his response and the audience burst out in laughter. Because the audience members understood and had felt the power Erdoğan holds. Some would quiet their friends on the subway when they went into a loud discussion on his role; there was a palpable sort of tension in the air. President Erdoğan holds a special power in Turkey. One that, if expanded, could lead to an entirely new Turkey. As Erdoğan himself said to a crowd of supporters in January, “You will lay the foundation of the New Turkey.”

Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman wrote a powerful article, The New Dictators Rule by Velvet Fist, which highlights so well the way illiberal leaders rule today. Mentioning Erdoğan, the authors write, “The new autocrats use propaganda, censorship and other information-based tricks to inflate their ratings and to convince citizens of their superiority over available alternatives.” The threat to Turkey’s democracy in coming decades is one that concerns members of Turkish youth I spoke with. Some talked about learning other languages in case the time came where they felt their country was no longer a place in which they could happily live. Founded in 1923, on democratic, secular ideals, the country continues to evolve. Many are pleased with the way the country has developed. Still, others fear a threat to its democratic foundation.

To revise the Constitution, Erdoğan would need 330 votes out of the 550-seat parliament, the kind of supermajority he was campaigning so intensely for. To avoid creating a coalition government, he would need at least 276 seats. In Turkey, parties put forward a list of their candidates. If the party wins the most votes in a district, it means a seat for one of their candidates. However, each party must earn nationwide, over 10 percent of the votes to pass the threshold to be elected as a party. Otherwise, candidates may run as independent, which many members of HDP had previously done. If a set of candidates run as a party and the party does not pass that threshold, none of the candidates may enter the parliament, and the votes cast for them fall to whoever earned the next greatest number of votes in each district. HDP decided to take a risk running as a party this year for the first time in part because their charismatic leader, Selahattin Demirtas, had earned 9.76 percent of the votes in the August 2014 Presidential elections.

Pacing the streets and neighborhoods of Istanbul, it is not difficult to see what kind of neighborhood you’re walking through. In election season, Istanbullus hang banners from their buildings for the party supported most by people in that neighborhood. In conservative Fatih, AKP’s banners speckled the skies. However, walking through parts of Istiklal Street, near historic Taksim Square, HDP’s symbolic image of a tree stood out against the strip of blue sky peaking through the buildings. Vans blasting speeches and patriotic songs drove through the streets, interrupting lazy Sunday afternoons in the name of the party they were advertising. One Sunday, on a cruise up to the Black Sea, the blarings of an AKP boat even interrupted the peace on the water.

Erdoğan and AKP were once fully expected to win a majority handily with a fair chance of breaching the supermajority needed to change the Constitution. However, a challenger arose in the ethnically-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Garnering support from minorities and liberal, middle-class Turks who had started to wane in faith in the main opposition party CHP, HDP’s base started to grow. I could feel the excitement when I spoke to young, politically active Turks. They had found something to rally around again, a reason to stand up for their own New Turkey, and a way to do so.

On June 7th, HDP won 13% of the votes which resulted in them gaining 80 seats, more than most were expecting. Özge Sebzeci told me after the elections, “These elections were so important for the future of Turkey as people voted if they’re for or against Erdoğan’s absolute authority…it was the last opportunity to say “no” to it and people decided that way.”  Although the country is still in a sort of limbo and there is much to be seen, these elections were a testament to the will of the people and the still beating heart of democracy within Turkey, able to make change when change is demanded by the people.