6 May 2015

Turkish democracy on the brink


The emergence of the Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 has been a mould-breaker for both the Turkish political system and wider society. The AKP’s three consecutive electoral victories in 2002, 2007 and 2011 brought an end to the short-term coalition periods of the 1990s and established the party as the dominant force in Turkish politics. The AKP has achieved success not only in legislative elections but has also won the majority at three local elections: 2004, 2009 and 2014. However, the AKP’s uninterrupted electoral success may be in danger. The forthcoming legislative elections of June 2015 could define a new direction for the Turkish political system, with further consequences for the nation’s economic and democratic progress.

The key issue at stake in the forthcoming elections is the desire of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to enact a constitutional amendment that will radically shift the Turkish political system from the current parliamentary (equivalent to that in the UK) to a semi-presidential one (such as the one in France) where the executive power lies in the hands of the President. If successful Erdoğan would then be able to remain in power and shape Turkey according to his own vision until 2023.

As current polls suggest, it appears that Erdoğan’s only obstacle to fulfilling his aspirations of an executive presidency is the Kurdish bloc, represented by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). In a surprise – and largely unanticipated move – the HDP has decided to enter the upcoming elections as a political party. The Kurdish bloc have previously participated in legislative elections only with independent candidates in order to overcome the national electoral threshold (10%) – as the total number of votes for the Kurdish bloc has always been lower than this number.  Nonetheless during the 2014 Presidential elections Kurdish candidate Selahattin Demirtaş obtained 9.76% of the votes. Demirtaş and the Kurdish bloc, being encouraged by this result, took the decision to challenge the electoral threshold by winning the support not only of his Kurdish constituency but also of Turkish social-democrats.

Whether or not the HDP can cross the 10% electoral threshold will deeply impact the future of the Turkish party political system. If the HDP passes the 10% electoral threshold it will gain at least 55 MPs, however if it fails the potential seats will be distributed among other parties. While the majority of the seats of the HDP would go to the AKP, the rest would be divided among the opposition parties – the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Thus the HDP’s failure or success in this regard will directly affect the majority necessary – 330 votes – for the AKP to change the constitution post-election.

If HDP crosses the threshold, they will shatter the 13 year dominance of the AKP party. The resulting coalition government would likely bring balance and accountability – slamming on the breaks in a political system that has begun hurtling towards authoritarianism.

Implementing a presidential system in Turkey is President Erdoğan’s long-term aspiration. In recent years Erdoğan has succeeded in seizing control of more and more aspects of Turkish society. However while Turkey is currently governed by this de facto presidential system, it is the desire of the AKP to legitimise their power by moving to a de jure presidential system. Nevertheless, even in the case that AKP succeeds in conquering the majority in parliament, the party would still need to receive support from other parties to enact a constitutional change. While the chance of such cooperation between the CHP and the AKP is highly unlikely, there is hope that a deal may be reached with the MHP – who supported the AKP’s policy to repeal the headscarf ban. In the case of such cooperation, the AKP would have enough votes to call a referendum on constitutional amendments in the political system.

The HDP’s parliamentary absence in the aftermath of the election would greatly alter the forum for coalition negotiations. Not only would this significantly improve AKP’s long term success in amending the constitution, it would also disenfranchise millions of voters from the Kurdish bloc and social-democrats. This lack of representation could ignite anger among HDP’s grassroots and lead to radicalisation – as occurred in the Kobane protests in October last year during the siege of the city by Islamic State. Moreover, social tension in the cities of Turkey where the HDP’s electoral constituency is strong would be inflamed.

In the event of a failure, high-ranking authorities in the HDP would call for reducing the electoral threshold and demand early elections. Furthermore, the military branch of the Kurdish bloc, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – that has since 2013 been withdrawing from Turkey due to the ongoing peace process  – could halt its withdrawal and even escalate its military activity once more. Thus, while the HDP’s parliamentary absence would definitively help Erdoğan’s goal of changing the political system, social turmoil may derail the whole process.

President Erdoğan has already been directing policies in many aspects of social, economic and political life – from birth control to social media censorship to interest rates. Two months ago, Erdoğan attacked the president of the Central Bank and the deputy prime minister for keeping interest rates high. Following Erdoğan’s attack, the Central Bank cut overnight rates by more than expected. The market responded to this interventionist approach severely, the resulting knock in confidence further depreciating the Turkish Lira. Erdoğan’s lurch toward authoritarian interference could only get worse with the constitutional amendment and shift to a presidential system.

Furthermore, while the Central Bank’s independence is under threat, the potential introduction of a de jure presidential system will have negative consequences for the flow of foreign direct investments to Turkey. Political stability directly influences the flow of FDIs into emerging countries. Turkey’s political stability – dependent on Erdoğan’s actions – together with the weak rule of law harms accountability, transparency and the reliability of its main institutions and could alienate foreign funds.

More evidence regarding the strong correlation between political instability and Turkey’s integration into the global economic market can be illustrated by Turkey’s position vis-a-vis the US and EU’s ongoing negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Turkey currently does not participate in the talks – even as an observer – and its isolation from TTIP would have significant implications for Turkish economy. Turkey’s political instability and its authoritarian governance would be a huge obstacle regarding its integration into the new global market. In addition, Turkey may look for new alternatives such as trade agreements with Russia and China, turning its back on the West.

In the aftermath of constitutional amendment, one should also expect to see a decline in the inflow of tourists to Turkey. In the 1990s during the peak of the PKK-Turkish military conflict, the Turkey’s tourism industry stagnated. Similarly, in Spain, the civil conflict due to ETA significantly harmed the economic growth in the Basque country.

The scenario in which the HDP is absent from parliament will have clear implications on Turkish politics, economics and wider society. Erdoğan appears to have forgotten how his political party emerged over a decade ago and how it consolidated itself. In 2002 Erdoğan and his first AKP government (2002-2007) adopted a strong disciplinary economic framework – that was already in the pipeline due to Kemal Derviş’s adopted programme. Academic scholars and business authorities have acknowledged the AKP’s governance and disciplinary attitudes, including independence for the central bank, banking supervision and regulation, on the back of which came strong economic progress.

Now a decade later Erdoğan is repeating the actions of irresponsible technocrats during the governments of the 1990s. His one-man rule could potentially wreck the fragile Turkish economy. In the words of Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” Erdoğan’s ambition to single-handedly rule Turkey will cost more than anyone expects, especially in terms of economic and political stability.

Dr. Sevinc Bermek is Managing Editor at the Centre for Research and Policy on Turkey.