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Will the presidential system shift Turkey's political discourse?

  • Talha Kose
  • 20 Jun 2018

Turkey's political discourse has markedly changed from previous elections. The need to gather a popular majority for a presidential candidate is forcing parties to broaden their appeal with more inclusive messaging.

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The upcoming election on June 24 will be a historical and a crucial turning point for Turkish politics. The first elections after the constitutional referendum of 2017 are expected to usher in the presidential system.

Opposition parties have promised to return the current system into a parliamentary system, but that may be easier said than done and will largely depend on whether opposition parties manage to gather enough popular support in the elections.

Seat distribution in the parliament is also critical because the legislation required to switch to the new system will require parliamentary approval. If the new president cannot get sufficient support from the parliament, they may face difficulties to institutionalise the new administrative system required for a presidential system.

The presidential system has already had one significant impact on Turkey's politics: it has shifted the nature of identity politics. 

So to what extent do identity politics play in Turkey’s election this year and how do various identity groups in Turkey manifest their political ideologies? Do competing political parties use identity in their political discourse? More specifically how do Kurds, Alevis, various manifestations of Turkish nationalists, religious conservatives, create their political leanings?

Intersectional identities

Ethnic, sectarian and identity-related divisions have always been an important dynamic in Turkish elections. While Alevi votes were dominated by the Republican People's Party (CHP)—and to a certain extent the People's Democratic Party (HDP)—in the last two elections, Kurdish votes were shared predominantly by the HDP and the AK Party in the last several elections. Other parties have had had a hard time courting the Kurdish vote.

Conservative Turkish nationalists are traditionally divided between the AK Party and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), whereas secular nationalists and Kemalists (followers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's ideals) predominantly support the CHP.

In this election, the new political actor, Iyi (Good) Party, has to be taken included in the nationalist equation.

Conservatives have mostly endorsed the AK Party since its establishment in 2002, but the Felicity (Saadet) Party is trying to cut into the conservative vote in the upcoming elections. 

The Saadet Party's presidential candidate Temel Karamollaoglu has tried to regain the support of some conservatives that feel excluded or resentful during the 16 years of the AK Party government.

Saadet's alliance with CHP might be seen as a slight to conservative voters in Turkey. CHP's presidential candidate Muharrem Ince has tried to broaden his appeal to attract a conservative audience, but so far he’s fallen short of persuading them due to his party's track record.

Tracking the party shift  

In comparison to other general elections, identity politics are not driving the campaigns in the ways that they have in the past. The need for a popular majority to get a president elected, has forced all parties to try and form broader alliances and attempt to formulate a more inclusive political discourse. That does not mean that voting patterns along ethnic or other identity lines will be insignificant. However, the political messaging and election promises will cut across a broader constituent base.

The AK Party has formed a political alliance with the MHP - which is clearly an alliance aimed at gathering support from Turkish nationalists. While that is the case, the election campaigns of both parties carry inclusive messaging. The AK Party spoke to Kurds in eastern and southeastern Turkey but refrained from resorting to the discourse of Kurdish identity politics.

The AK Party promised Kurds equal citizenship rights under universal democratic standards and pledged to fight against the terrorist PKK group. Rather than competing with the HDP along the lines of Kurdish identity politics, the AK Party has preferred to promote the idea of normalisation, integration, prosperity, and safety for the Kurdish people.

The MHP, the second actor under the People's Alliance also tried to promote political messages that are more inclusive, while highlighting “national unity” and shared national interests and long-term national objectives.

The MHP has tried not to exclude any segments of Turkish society. Keeping an alliance between the AK Party and MHP while not alienating Kurdish constituents is going to be a tricky line to walk as the AK Party has already lost some Kurdish support over the last two elections.

Overall political messaging of the People's Alliance towards the Kurds has been constructive and inclusive. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denied the "Kurdish issue" and highlighted the problem of PKK while promising broader freedoms; a more inclusive political system; stronger investment, development and infrastructure and better education opportunities for the Kurds.

The HDP, on the other hand, has had to focus its campaign on meeting the 10 percent threshold required to join Turkey’s parliament. 

The status of its jailed presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, as well as strengthening local government including political autonomy for the Kurds have featured heavily in their campaign. The HDP has substantial potential to mobilise its constituents, and the nationalistic sentiments among many Kurds are an essential element of the HDP's mobilisation strategy.

In the western cities and among educated youth, the HDP promotes left-wing, socialist messages. So far this dual strategy of promoting Kurdish identity politics and ethnic nationalism among the Kurds, while promoting socialist ideas among young urban Turks and Kurds has been a successful campaign strategy for the HDP.

The HDP's primary challenge as a political party is its inability to differentiate itself from the terrorist organisation, the PKK. The PKK's Syria branch, the YPG's, atrocities against Arabs, Turkmen, and Kurds who are oppose the group in the last two years undercut the victimisation discourse promoted by the HDP. YPG's alliance with the US security forces in Syria also dilutes the socialist messaging of the HDP. HDP's organic ties with the PKK will constitute an obstacle for the party's political campaign in this election.

The Iyi Party could affect the numbers of both the CHP and the MHP. The Iyi Party has not crafted a constructive message for the Kurds in its election declaration document. Meral Aksener, the leader of the party, has little hope of attracting any Kurds to her party. On the other hand, the Iyi Party has some potential to swing both secular and conservative nationalists their way.

While Aksener's party initially looked to gain political support from the AK Party and the MHP, so far Iyi Party's candidates and messaging has been more appealing to secular nationalists and the MHP supporters who are disappointed by the party leader Devlet Bahceli's political manoeuvring. 

There will also be a competition between the CHP and the Iyi Party for the secular nationalists. CHP's presidential candidate Muharrem Ince's campaign may keep secular nationalists' support within the CHP.

Another vital element of Turkey's political cleavage is the Alevi community's voting patterns. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, secretary general of the CHP, managed to consolidate the Alevi vote in the last several elections. While there are some shifts towards the HDP among Kurdish Alevis, the CHP is the dominant player in the Alevi vote.

All competing parties have made promises and approaches to the Alevi community, especially about the legalisation of their places of worship (Cemevis).

A new era?

Identity politics and ethnic, sectarian and religious divisions have so far not dominated the Turkish political campaigns. All parties have tried to broaden their support base by forming broader alliances for the polls. Projects, performance and leader profiles have been the dominant themes so far.

To what extent will election alliances turn into sustainable political partnerships is not yet clear. The only party that preferred traditional identity politics as its election strategy is the HDP, but even the HDP has attempted to broaden its support base by trying to appeal to socialists.

The presidential system and the need for a majority to be elected as president has already had a moderating effect on Turkish parties. We might see this dynamic change if the presidential election goes to a second round.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to opinion.editorial@trtworld.com

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