Mon, April 18, 2011 | Turkey Analyst, vol. 4 no. 8 | By M. K. Kaya
The Nominations of Candidates for the June General Election: A Choice Between Status Quo and Renewal
This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) choice of candidates to the general election in June reflect a desire to entrench the power base of Prime Minister Erdoğan. Meanwhile, the leadership of the main oppositon party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) has lived up to its promise of renewal by assembling a candidate list that draws on the center right tradition as well as on the traditional ideological base of the party.
On April 11, Turkey’s political parties submitted their candidates for the June 12 general election to the High Electoral Board. Although eighteen parties are fielding candidates, the ten percent threshold to parliament will bar most of them, save two or three parties, from gaining parliamentary representation. The ruling AKP is the favorite according to the polls. However, the polls also suggest that the trend is upward for the CHP, while the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) seems set to succeed in passing the threshold, although the party, in contrast to the CHP, has not made any attempt to renew itself. Meanwhile, the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), is fielding independent candidates in order to circumvent the the ten percent threshold, and the candidates that are backed by the party are expected to do well in heavily Kurdish regions.
The four years since the last general election has been marked by severe political tensions and unprecendent events. During the period, the ruling AKP narrowly escaped a closure case, hundreds of military personnel and civilians were arrested on charges of having plotted to overthrow the government; the leader of the main opposition CHP, Deniz Baykal, was forced to resign after a sex tape was posted on the Internet. The Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) was closed by the Constitutional court and several hundred Kurdish politicians were incarcerated. Turkey’s political fault lines remain charged with tension, which means that the country is facing elections in what reamins a highly volatile atmosphere.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ambition is to secure support in the vicinity of 50 percent, which would enable the AKP to singlehandedly pass a new constitution in parliament. It is widely assumed that Erdoğan would use such an opportunity to introduce a presidential system. It is also likely that the AKP would then be emboldened to take further steps to solve the Kurdish problem. The party’s election program states that “radical steps to solve the problem can only be taken by an AK Party that has received the support of the people, which holds the majority and which embodies the integration of the state and the nation.”
167 of the current AKP deputies are absent from the candidate list. Most notably, 70 percent of the party’s ethnic Kurdish deputies from the east and southeast have been denied the chance to seek reelection. Among those are such high-profile Kurdish deputies as Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat and İhsan Arslan. These two are known to have exerted pressure on Erdoğan to implement the Kurdish opening, and as such the decision to leave them out has led to several comments in the Turkish media that the AKP may be backpedaling on the Kurdish issue. However, others have pointed out that the AKP inadvertently sends the signal that it is abandoning the southeast to the BDP-supported independents.
The exclusion of most of the other deputies has come about as a result of their lackluster parliamentary performance; surveys conducted in the constituencies have revealed widespread public displeasure with many deputies.
It is noteworthy that none of the AKP deputies who presently hold the chairmanship of the parliamentary committees that address foreign relations — from relations with the NATO, the OSCE, the Organization of the Islamic conference, to the Black sea cooperation council — will be standing for reelection: Murat Mercan, Vahit Erdem, Alaattin Büyükkaya, Irfan Gündüz, Zeynep Dağı and Kemalettin Göktas have been passed over. Of these, Vahit Erdem is known to have fallen out with the party leadership, in particular over the Kurdish opening.
The AKP leadership had initially considered fielding candidates with clearly pronounced Turkish nationalist views, with an eye toward outrivaling the nationalist MHP. If the MHP would fall below the threshold to parliament, the AKP would in all likelihood succeed in obtaining the two-thirds majority in parliament necessary to enact a new constitution. However, as the polls showed that the MHP is likely to pass the ten percent threshold, the strategy to outcompete the MHP as Turkish nationalists was abandoned. In fact, many nationalists were left out of the candidate lists, despite having fared well in prior caucuses. In a symbolic gesture, Ahmet Türkeş, the son of Alparslan Türkeş, the founding leader of the MHP, was nominated by the AKP from the party’s Istanbul list; however, his nomination is not expected to occasion any shift in electoral preferences.
Around forty of the AKP candidates are names who have been close to Erdogan since the time he served as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s. With the exception of Selma Aliye Kavaf, the state minister responsible for gender issues, all cabinet ministers can count on reelection. In an attempt to boost its standing in the western and southern coastal rim, the AKP has nominated cabinet ministers in those areas; Ertuğrul Günay, who has a social democratic background, and Binali Yıldırım will compete in İzmir, while Vecdi Gönül is nominated to represent Antalya and Zafer Çağlayan the city of Mersin. Otherwise however, the candidate lists of the AKP don’t include any fresh, surprising names. The ruling party has rather opted to preserve its internal status quo.
The changes in the candidate lists of the CHP are assuredly more radical. Only 23 of the current 101 CHP deputies have been re-nominated. The entire team of former party leader Deniz Baykal — with the exception of himself — has been purged. Isolationist, die-hard Kemalist nationalists such as Önder Sav, Onur Öymen, Kemal Anadol, Şükrü Elekdağ, Hakkı Süha Okay, Yılmaz Ateş, Mehmet Sevigen , Berhan Şimşek, Canan Arıtman and Mustafa Özyürek have been left out. In an attempt to renew itself, the CHP is reaching out to the old center right, nominating several former members of the True Path Party (DYP), which was headed by Süleyman Demirel and subsequently Tansu Ciller. These include Turan Tayan, a former defense minister; Bülent Kuşoğlu, the former Ankara chairman for DYP; and Muhammed Çakmak, a conservative who was advisor to the DYP leadership. Other names that represent the center-right are Sinan Aygün, the chairman of the Ankara Chamber of Commerce and Mehmet Haberal, the President of Başkent university in Ankara. The latter two are presently imprisoned, charged as suspects in the Ergenekon coup conspiracy case. Another Ergenekon suspect to have been nominated by the CHP is Mustafa Balbay, the former Ankara bureau chief of the Kemalist daily Cumhuriyet. The public prosecutor İlhan Cihaner, who was detained and then removed from his posting in Erzincan after his investigations of the activities of religious brotherhoods, has also been nominated. His nomination is a counterweight to the shift to the right, since Cihaner has a leftist background. Clearly, the CHP hopes to have assembled a coalition that will hold a broad electoral appeal; nonetheless, the CHP has also made it vulnerable to accusations of sheltering the alleged Ergenekon conspiracy. Presently, however, it seems that the CHP is being rewarded with increased support; the polls show the party climbing toward 30 percent. That is probably due to a string of recent policy proposals from the CHP that address areas of public concern such as family insurance and military service.
The candidate list of the MHP does not speak of any radical change. What is notable is that Turkish nationalist defectors from the AKP, who had resigned from that party in protest against its Kurdish opening — namely Yusuf Ziya İrbeç, Zekai Özcan and Murat Başesgioğlu — have been nominated to electable positions on the MHP party lists.
The Kurdish BDP is contesting the election in 39 provinces, supporting 61 independent candidates. The party is entering the fray in western and southern metropolises and cities — İstanbul, İzmir, Ankara, Antalya, Mersin, Konya, Denizli, Kocaeli, Aydın, Bursa and Muğla — where significant Kurdish immigrant communities have grown up as a result of the internal Kurdish exodus since the 1990s. Kurdish independent candidates will also be standing for election in the central Anatolian cities of Konya and Kırşehir, where Kurdish communities have been established since the early decades of the republic. Selahattin Demirtaş, who has resigned as BDP leader in order to be able to stand as an independent, will seek election in Hakkari. Sabahat Tuncel and Sırrı Süraya Önder were nominated from İstanbul, while Ahmet Türk, the former leader of the DTP, Hasip Kaplan, Sırrı Sakık Muş, Leyla Zana, Emine Ayna, Hatip Dicle, Altan Tan and Şerafettin Elçi will seek election in the cities of the Kurdish dominated southeast. Tan represents a religious conservative current, while Elçi personifies a moderate discourse. Taken together, the candidates chosen by the BDP embrace a broad coalition. Assuming that the High electoral board accepts the nominations, the BDP has assembled a remarkably strong candidate list. Taken together with the relative weakness of the AKP candidates in the Kurdish region, at least 30 BDP-supported independents can be expected to enter parliament.
The ruling AKP is expected to secure its third consecutive victory in the June 12 general election. The AKP hopes to reap the benefits of its past performance, and to be rewarded for the good economic fortunes that Turkey has come to enjoy. The personal popularity of Prime Minister Erdoğan is perhaps its strongest asset. The AKP’s choice of candidates reflects a desire to entrench the power base of Erdoğan.
The new leadership of the CHP has lived up to its promise of renewal by assembling a candidate list that draws on the old center-right tradition as well as on the traditional ideological base of the party. The CHP has begun to shed its traditional identity. Yet ultimately, the completion of the renewal of the CHP will depend on a successful election result, that is, around 30 percent.
The candidate list of the MHP reflects the assumption that a traditional Turkish nationalist discourse will play out well, tapping into the assumed widespread popular discontent with the Kurdish opening of the AKP; the party expects an election result around 15 percent. Meanwhile, the showing of the Kurdish BDP-supported independents not least in the western parts of the country will indicate the extent to which Kurdish identity demands are embraced by the Kurdish population of Turkey.
M. K. Kaya is a Contributing Editor of the Turkey Analyst.