On Sunday 24 June, I will be glued to my TV screen to watch two historical events. The first, and by far the most important, is England’s match against Panama for the group stage of the 2018 World Cup. The second, and perhaps the reason why you are reading this post, is the results of the parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey.
I have been commissioned to write a commentary for a leading newspaper and scheduled to make a TV news appearance to analyse the election results, so much of my thoughts will be expressed soon enough. However, I was recently asked by a journalism student whether I consider Turkey a democracy. My answer was negative.
On paper Turkey may look like a democracy, but in practice it is far from it. Every democratic system, whether parliamentary or presidential, contains a flaw or two whether they be the voting system, the constitutional boundaries or the role of institutions or executive branches. However, Turkey’s system (before and especially after the constitutional changes of 2017), is an amalgam of the various deficiencies that can be found in different democratic systems. The end result is a structure that resembles a democracy, but isn’t one and just doesn’t make the grade. Checks and balances? Eroded. Fundamental freedoms? Violated. Freedom of expression? Curtailed. Tyranny of the majority? Institutionalised. Civil society? embattled.
Even the electoral process is unfair, and, at times, unfree.
The elections are taking place under a state of emergency. This is the second election to be held under such restrictive conditions which have been in place for almost two years. How can Turkey be called a democracy when last year’s referendum to fundamentally transform the political system in order to entrench the rule and power of the incumbent president take place under a state of emergency? How can it be a democracy when the leaders of the third largest political party are arrested and imprisoned while still on trial without remand, in what is clearly politically motivated charges? Ahead of Sunday’s polls, the liberal and Kurdish oriented People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is experiencing real difficulties to campaign through violence and intimidation. Meanwhile, The HDP’s Presidential candidate, selahattin demirtas, is behind bars under trumped up charges of terrorism.
In Turkey, the resources of the state are intermeshed with that of the ruling party and are used for campaign purposes. After years of co-option and censorship, the media is overwhelming sympathetic to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP. Some have counted that around 90 per cent of media outlets are now pro-government. Meanwhile the state broadcaster, TRT, has devoted, by some counts, almost ten times more coverage to President Erdogan than to his challengers. Go to any Turkish city and you will see at least three gigantic AKP and Erdogan posters located in key arteries of the population centre for every backstreet opposition billboard.
Turkey’s 10 per cent parliamentary threshold is a stain on its so-called democracy. This restriction was deliberately designed to prevent Kurdish political party representation. Indeed, if the HDP wins less than 10 per cent of the popular vote, the ruling AKP will be the winner of around 80 seats, all but guaranteeing their parliamentary majority. No wonder the HDP is constantly bullied and intimidated.
The OSCE which monitors elections in Turkey releases an interim report during the election process and another after the voting is complete. Over the years each report has been more damning than the next, but yet its criticisms and recommendations go unheeded. Turkey’s election board has been filled with government allies and the safety of ballots is in severe doubt in some parts of the country, mostly in areas where the aforementioned 10 per cent threshold becomes critical. To make matters worse, ballots without an official seal will be considered valid and safeguards against fraud are not strong enough. Many doubt the elections will be free and fair. And if enough of the population doesn’t believe that the process is transparent, then there is a serious problem.
The opposition has to be congratulated for competing in such an environment, let alone giving President Erdogan and the AKP a run for their money. Some commentators have gone so far as to raise the prospect of a governmental defeat. This is unlikely. Erdogan will probably win the presidency in either the first or second round. It would be a bonus for President Erdogan to have an AKP majority in parliament, but not essential. The new constitution was conceived to give the President enough authority to get things done without parliament causing too much trouble. And what it can do – refuse to authorise the budget and reject presidential decrees, Erdogan will overcome through backroom deals and manoeuvres with a handful of key parliamentary deputies whose support will be required to swing a vote.
Still, the opposition parties and candidates have done well in the circumstances, especially in a system designed to keep them in opposition.
It took a hashtag to heat up election season in Turkey. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remarked that if the public want him to step down all they had to do was say “tamam” (in this context meaning enough). Within hours there were over a million tweets with the hashtag #Tamam. The next day Erdogan’s supporters were tweeting “devam”, meaning “continue”.
This brings me to a related issue, one which I had already planned on addressing: branding and brand identity in the Turkish political context.
Perhaps more than anything in this world people are consumers. We make purchasing choices all the time - what food to eat, what clothes to buy, what car to drive. Successful businesses seek to steer our decisions towards their products or services.
The idea of a brand is more than just the name of a product like, say, “Coca-cola” or “Burger King”. The brand is the encapsulation of the attributes of a particular product or service that communicates a strong sense of association, perception, feeling or emotion. Not only does it do so in a way which is brief and concise, but it also has the potential to reach a broad audience.
Central to a successful brand strategy, at least in recent years, is the idea of a narrative or personal story. Often this is described as a “journey”. Go to the website of any new brand. Whether they sell bed linen or blouses, there will probably be a section that details the personal background of the owner and how he or she created the product. The idea is to create an illusion of intimacy between the brand and the consumer. By purchasing the product, you become part of the story.
Branding in politics is not so different. Just as we are consumers, we are also voters. Let me sketch out the brand identities of the leading presidential candidates and political parties in Turkey to illustrate my point. In doing so, I hope you will see who are the frontrunners in the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections on 24 June as well as their chances for success.
The party which has the strongest brand identity is the ruling AKP. Just its name, the Justice and Development Party, hints its political agenda – the quest for justice for those, particularly the pious or traditional, who despite being the majority were marginalised by the secular elite. The Party stands for rectifying this injustice while developing the country into a vibrant, innovative and modern economy. The official name of the AKP is the AK Parti. AK, meaning clean or white, denotes purity. Not only does this speak to the religious or those concerned with family values, but it also implies that the party is transparent. Love or hate the AKP, this is a highly effective brand message. No wonder the AKP has won every election it has contested and remains the frontrunner ahead of next June.
President Erdogan’s personal brand is a rag to riches story, a man of the people who encapsulates the quest for the rectification of past injustices while fighting for the prosperity of the Turkish nation. A religious man with a pious educational background, Erdogan is the man that “they” could not prevent from rising. A man of the people, Erdogan’s success is your success. A vote for Erdogan, the message goes, is a vote for yourself. What is more, his brand is that of being a doer whether that means putting foreign leaders in their place or managing the economy. Erdogan’s brand message continues to be highly effective. However, recently it’s been taking some knocks. Sometimes Erdogan comes across as beleaguered and his flashy expensive suits seem out of kilter. Also…well actually I’ll stop there. Don’t think I really want to give out advice.
Let’s turn to the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The CHP also has a clear and consistent brand which everyone knows. Come on, say it with me, “the CHP is the party of Ataturk”. This clearly implied in the party’s logo, the six arrows of kemalism on a red background mirroring the national flag. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this brand per se. Its failing is that it is old fashioned. It also lacks a narrative beyond that of the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In this day and age the story of Ataturk has been appropriated by many different sectors of society, leaving the CHP’s brand narrative rather dull. It doesn't speak to innovation, the future or the Turkey of the 21st century. As a result, the CHP consistently hovers around the 25 per cent range of the popular vote in recent elections. This is unlikely to change.
Perhaps the biggest mistake of the CHP this election was not putting forward its party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu as its presidential candidate. From a branding perspective, I think this decision will prove catastrophic. When Kilicdaroglu became CHP leader in 2010 he was quite cleverly marketed as Turkey’s Gandhi. But this brand weaned in subsequent years and Kilicdaroglu appeared more like a boring bureaucrat than a toga wearing non-violent revolutionary. However, this Turkish Gandhi image was revitalized after the 2016 attempted coup and the ongoing state of emergency. Justice marches, rallies and civil action campaigns, Kilicdaroglu’s brand was becoming effective. He wasn’t wearing a toga, but he was pictured in a string vest eating a modest meal while breaking bread with ordinary citizens while on his Ankara to Istanbul march. Not bad. Yet, after all this the CHP chose Muharrem Ince as its candidate. Ince, who certainly has some fire in his belly and cross-party respect, might be an ok candidate, but time is not on his side to develop a publically recognizable brand. I think he stands no real chance.
This is in contrast to IYI Party founder and leader Meral Aksener who led a break-away faction from the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). In reality, this split should not have been a big deal – the activities of a renegade faction from a country’s 3rd or 4th largest party normally fades from the news cycle quite quickly. But Aksener was somehow able to brand herself as a political warrior leading a fight against those in the MHP who were succumbed by the allure of power. I guess you could say they were seduced by the dark side of the force. Noble and defiant, Aksener’s stands for the honor of fighting for your principles. The problem with Aksener’s brand is that it completely overshadows her party. I suspect the election results will show poor votes for IYI Party (although part of the opposition coalition), but significant votes for Aksener in the Presidential run-off.
Finally, let us turn to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and its Presidential candidate, the imprisoned Selahattin Demirtas. Both have an effective brand image as the country’s liberal and democratic pro-Kurdish Party. This image does not speak to the entire Turkish population, but doesn’t attempt to; the HDP is not trying to turn atheists into believers, or, in this case, ardent nationalists into progressives. The unfair incarceration of Demirtas who is running for President while in prison only adds to the HDP’s effective brand. It also plays into the image of Demirtas as a man who stands for hope, reason and change (remind you of anyone?). The brother of a PKK fighter but who chose the path of peace with an outstretched arm to his Turkish brothers and sisters of all faiths and backgrounds, Demirtas and the HDP have no problem with their brand, but rather a huge problem with their inability to effectively campaign. Restrictions, incarcerations and physical attacks, it’s an insurmountable obstacle.
So, there it is, an overview of branding in the Turkish political context. I hope this helps explain some of the dynamics of the forthcoming elections. More to come soon.
The electoral schedule in Turkey has been announced, the parties who are running are confirmed, and the election harmonization bill has been signed. Meanwhile, opposition parties are manoeuvring. There have been meetings and discussions about Presidential candidates and possible alliances ahead of the joint Presidential and Parliamentary race.
It seems that as we enter the beautiful spring month of May, the election process is starting to heat up. But there are no darling spring buds blooming in this election. If you are a believer in democracy and a good dose of liberalism to boot, the situation is not looking rosy.
I have read some interesting and well thought out pieces over the past week or so, which have been somewhat optimistic about the chances of the opposition. Not necessarily because they have any real chance of winning, but because the race will be a tight; the AKP and its leader President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have to fight it out, both at the parliamentary and presidential polls. The optimists think it possible that the AKP may not end up dominating parliament, thus necessitating ’s the President (in all likelihood Erdogan), to be more conciliatory towards the opposition. A small victory for Turkish democracy.
Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but such optimism is nonsense. The upcoming election is a contest for an elected autocracy, plain and simple.
Turkey’s new presidential system, voted in after a tight referendum last year, is not designed to have a robust opposition. It is also not designed to have a dynamic relationship between President and Parliament. In fact, the opposite. One of the reasons why Erdogan and the AKP sought to move away from the parliamentary system was to untie the President’s hands of having a strong parliament which was seen as an impediment to effective government and passing legislation easily.
The new Presidential system is one where parliament’s role is to rubber stamp the policies of the President. Under the amended constitution, the President can basically ignore much of what comes out of parliament and possibly rule by Presidential decrees instead (the scope of this power is under defined). The President may also use, or at least threaten to use, the Samson option - dismiss parliament and call for new simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections.
Let’s quickly remind ourselves of some of the other powers the President now has. He can declare a state of emergency. He can appoint his cabinet at will and without any parliamentary oversight. The President can appoint almost half the high court without any approval needed from parliament. Meanwhile, the impeachment process is so convoluted and arduous that it only really exists on paper. For a full breakdown of the power of the President under the new constitution and a critique of the new system, read the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission’s report and opinion of the constitutional changes. It is a terrifying document which accurately describes the democratic deficiencies of the new system. Basically, it is an elected autocracy. It doesn’t matter how well the opposition performs in parliament. (Also, see my post about some of the opposition’s chances of passing the 10 per cent threshold here).
It also doesn’t matter who wins the presidency. The new constitution has eroded democratic norms.
Just for the sake of argument, let us say that President Erdogan loses the race. The votes have been counted, there are no cases of electoral fraud or violence, and a committed democrat becomes Turkey’s new President. Let us even imagine that he or she decides that these new additional presidential powers will not be used. There still lies the problem that the constitution still grants such power to a future presidential office holder who might not be a committed democrat. In other words, there is currently no constitutional guarantee for present or future democratic practices.
Again, for the sake of argument, let us follow the scenario that Erdogan loses the election to a committed democrat. On entering office, the new president decides to revert back to the status quo ante and overturn the changes that were voted for in last year’s referendum. This is also problematic. Ignoring the results of the referendum may not be considered legal. Some might also argue that it would also be undemocratic to ignore the will of 50 per cent of the population who voted in favour of it. Doing so might even plunge the country into a constitutional crisis with widespread confusion about correct institutional procedures, practices, and protocols. Decreeing constitutional changes void would set a dangerous democratically questionable precedent (no pun intended).
Another alternative might be for this new committed democratic president to decree new democratic safe guards into the constitution. But you can’t instil democracy by decree as it can just as easily be uninstalled by decree. The only real option would be to seek constitutional amendments through parliament. This would mean that Turkey would have significantly altered its constitution three times in 10 years and potentially be a source of internal and external doubt about the country’s stability. But for this happen we are envisioning a scenario where Erdogan loses, a committed democrat enters office with a parliamentary majority strong enough to change the constitution and committed to democratic reform. It’s just not going to happen and that is why last year’s referendum was a catastrophe for Turkish democracy.
Sadly, it doesn’t matter who wins the forthcoming elections. The democratic constitutional safeguards are all but extinct and the power of parliament is a façade for one-man presidential rule. No-one should have such overwhelming power in a democracy. Not Erdogan, not Abdullah Gul (next time), not Aksener, Kilicdaroglu, or Demirtas. Not even the bloody Dalai Lama. Nobody.
Mark 24 June as the date in your diary, not for an important match in the 20018 FIFA World Cup, but for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) consolidation of their already dominant hold over Turkey. The race is on, but owing to the current climate, President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have a significant head start.
As I point out in a recent op-ed in Haaretz, the timing of the twin Presidential and Parliamentary polls all but guarantees the success of incumbent President Erdogan and his AKP government in both elections. The chances of the opposition winning are about as good as Australia winning the World Cup. It is so unlikely, it’s not even worth thinking about. But unlike sports, Turkish politics is a game where it is not the taking part that counts. It is a winner takes all contest where political opponents are enemies who need to be crushed.
Around the same time that the elections were announced, Turkey’s parliament gave a three-month extension to the ongoing state of emergency, in place since the July 2016 coup. This means the elections will be held under emergency conditions as was the case last year when a constitutional amendment referendum took place. This does not bode well for the prospect of free and fair election. The OSCE which monitored the referendum campaign and the election process reported vastly disproportional media coverage in favour of the yes camp (Erdogan and the AKP) and cases of intimidation against the No camp. The OSCE also noted that the Yes campaign had an unfair advantage because it used state resources and state institutions to bolster its campaign. There were also questionable activities pertaining to polling booth security. Confidence in the voting process was also diminished after last minute changes were made to the validity of voting slip. In other words, the elections were hardly free and certainly unfair. It will be similar this time around. Going back to my football analogy, the opposition’s chances are about as good as Australia facing up against Spain but with a Spanish referee and a ball made from Spanish leather in a Spanish factory owned by a mate of the Spanish team’s captain.
The Presidential Run-off
This time, however, President Erdogan and the AKP have additional advantages. They need not worry about the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The liberal and Kurdish oriented party, which managed to win over ten per cent of the popular vote in the November 2015 elections. The HDP has been all but destroyed through numerous trumped up politically motivated charges of terrorism against the party’s leadership. Erdogan doesn’t need to concern himself about standing against the HDP’s former leader and Presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas. Once hailed as the Kurdish Barack Obama, Demirtas managed to win nearly 10 per cent of the vote in the presidential run-off in 2014; however, he is currently languishing in jail on absurd terrorist related charges.
Incumbent President Erdogan also need not worry about facing off against a united opposition candidate. Back in 2014 Ekmeleddin IIhsanoglu was the joint nominee of the CHP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). He only won 38 per cent of the vote, despite him actually being a worthy candidate (he was thoroughly vilified in a very negative pro-Erdogan campaign). The CHP’s best bet is to field its leader Kalicdaroglu as its Presidential candidate. Not exactly an exciting figure, Kalicdaroglu has never won an election as CHP leader, only managing to garner around 25 per cent of the vote. Abdullah Gul as an opposition candidate? He’s been out of the fray for over 10 years. And despite differences with his co-founder of the AKP, he has never done much more than make subliminal criticism of his one-time close associate. A joint CHP, IYI and other opposition candidate? Who has the charisma and ability to unify the opposition and receive over 50 per cent of the vote? Send me an email if you know something I don’t.
Simply put, Erdogan will win. I’ll be shocked if he doesn't win first time around, but a win is a win even if it takes a second round. Back in 2014 he overwhelmingly had the media and state organs at his disposal. This time he has all this and more.
So, with Presidential elections in the bag, the only question left is will the AKP get at least half of the 600 parliamentary seats up for grabs (up from 550 following the 2017 constitutional amendments). The answer again is probably yes. Turkey has retained its unusually high 10 per cent of the popular vote threshold which a party must win in order to be awarded seats in parliament. Battered and bruised, the HDP might not pass the 10 per cent mark. If the HDP decides to field its candidates as independents instead, it will have far fewer parliamentary deputies than the 59 it is supposed to have now. Although it appears that the IYI Party will be able to run (previously there were doubts based on technicalities) it is far from guaranteed that the new party will pass the 10 per cent threshold. Let’s not forget that the IYI Party is a breakaway faction of the MHP which itself only won 12 per cent of the popular vote in November 2015. Upon its establishment, the IYI Party only managed to strip the MHP of 4 of its 40 deputies, despite it being led by the respected nationalist Meral Aksener. Meanwhile, the CHP rarely receives more than 25 per cent of the vote. If one were to be really optimistic, maybe the CHP could achieve 30 per cent.
The MHP is running under a joint ticket with the AKP and therefore has its share of seats guaranteed. Perhaps opposition parties could take a page out of the AKP-MHP playbook and create their own alliances with smaller parties to circumvent the 10 per cent threshold? Perhaps, but I doubt this will change much. The Islamic Felicity (Saadet) Party, for example, won just 2 per cent of the vote in the June 2015 elections and less than 1 per cent in the November 2015 re-run. The nationalist Great Union Party (BBP) only won 0.5 per cent in November 2015, the Leftish Vatan won 0.25 and the others are almost too small to count. In other words, even in the unlikely event that these parties put aside their differences to join, say Aksener’s IYI Party, the coalition still might not pass the 10 per cent threshold. And if they were to join the CHP, it would hardly make much of a difference.
It is increasingly likely that the 2018 parliamentary election might resemble the 2002 general election when the AKP received 34 per cent of the vote, but because so many parties failed to pass the threshold translated, the AKP won 66 per cent of parliamentary seats. And with Erdogan voted in as President, this is the final realisation of Erdogan’s political ambitions.
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