Turkey’s Elections: AK Party Wins Through Broad Appeal
Nilufer Narli

On July 22, the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP), with its pro-Islamic political background, won an overwhelming victory in the Turkish National elections. The main secular party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), which had occasionally played on fears of anti-secularism and territorial disintegration, received just 20.9 percent of the vote, compared with 19 percent in the previous 2002 election. The Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which campaigned on fears of ethnic Kurdish separatism, won 14.3 percent.

These fears, along with issues concerning territorial disintegration, were central to the election campaign of the CHP and MHP. All such fears have risen significantly from 2004 to the present, and have contributed to and, in some cases, have strengthened ultranationalist sentiments.

The Prime Minister of Turkey and former mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had tried to diffuse the fears of all three groups—the secularists, the Kurds and theTurkish nationalists—both during the campaign and while addressing the nation on television by distancing himself from any type of extreme views and by constantly displaying gestures of reconciliation and responsible leadership. He vowed to promote pro-Western, business-friendly ideals and promised to work for peace while remaining ready for any contingency operation to protect the motherland.

Despite these promises, this election leaves two critical questions unresolved.  Firstly, the question of electing a president. It is difficult to predict what would occur if the AKP pushed hard to capture the presidency and faced the same resistance that it experienced in May when Abdullah Gul, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, was selected as its candidate. The AKP does not have the two-thirds majority required to elect a president and to pass a constitutional amendment. Although the AKP won more popular votes—47 percent of total votes—than in 2002, the AKP actually lost seats because the parties in opposition were able to capture the crucial 10 percent needed to be represented in the legislature.

The office of the presidency is largely symbolic, yet it is important. The President has powers of appointment in those areas that are considered the pillars of Turkey's secular democracy: the military general staff, president of the Higher Education Council, chiefs of several oversight institutions, high court judges, and the upper tiers of the state bureaucracy. In addition to this, the President also has veto power, which he can use to check the legislature. The current president, Ahmet Sezer, has vetoed many bills passed by the AKP government on the grounds that they contradicted the constitution and the principles of the republic.

Second is the military intervention that Turkey has considered staging in northern Iraq, to root out members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). This planned operation was postponed until after the elections. Before the election, as quoted in Today’s Zaman of July 11, Prime Minister Erdoğan stated that “…the possibility of getting parliamentary approval for an operation is not on our agenda right now." At the same time, however, he made statements declaring the government’s readiness and promised full support for the military’s demand for authorization of the intervention.

In saying this, Erdogan demonstrated the willingness of the government to crush the PKK. At the same time, he diffused the fears in the Southeast region, something I observed during my trip to Diyarbakir in mid-June, where people had deep anxiety over any warlike situation created by a cross-border operation. They seemed to seek peace and stability rather than fighting. Erdogan gathered wide support from the Southeast and East Anatolian electorate when he showed courage in not responding to pressure by hastily pushing military operations.

Still, the cross-border operation will doubtlessly be on the agenda and the opposition parties, including the MHP and CHP, could create pressure on the government to support military action against PKK bases in Northern Iraq. 

Profile of the Electorate Voting for the AKP

The pro-Islamic AKP obtained the votes of a large, diversified segment of the society: the urban poor, the religiously conservative provincial middle classes, the Kurds (who are divided along Islamic vs. Kurdish nationalist sentiments), the newly urbanized middle classes, the newly urbanized religiously conservative business elite, and a small segment of secular big business.

The religiously conservative business elite and the newly urbanized middle classes are competing with the established elite for credit, position and power. Furthermore, the religiously conservative business elite have profited from AKP rule within the last three years, and they have enlarged their business networks. In the same period, the newly urbanized religious professional class gained more social mobility through promotion and expanded national and international networks. These religiously conservative middle classes and the business class are often allies of the Islamist movement.

In addition there are social classes which have supported the AKP because of its Islamic politics. They include the large university student population, especially the upwardly mobile youths who must compete with the established urban middle and upper-middle classes, members of the unskilled young urban underclass, whose number has increased with migration and a higher level of unemployment, and some of the state-employed lower-middle class, lost income and prestige by falling real wages and high inflation, particularly since the early 1990s. In the 2002 general elections a sizable minority of these social classes voted the Saadet Party (Felicity Party), which had preserved Islamist views after Prime Minister Erdogan and his friends left the hard-liner National View group and formed the AKP in 2001. In the election of July 22 just passed, a relatively significant young Saadet electorate defected to the AKP because of the poor leadership demonstrated by the Saadet Party, which obtained only 2.3 percent of the total votes. The secular business elite partly supported the AKP because of the economic success enjoyed by big business, facilitated by the party’s business-friendly policy.

Among the supporters of the AKP, there are business class factions including some of the relatively privileged new middle and upper classes: merchants, businessmen and industrialists who have sprung from humble origin, and some rural agrarian capitalists. They have expanded upon their monetary power and social prestige within the last three years.
Social class does not solely explain the reasons for the large support for the AKP in this election. Two cleavages, namely the Turkish-Kurdish nationalist conflict and the Sunni vs. Alevi tension, should be taken into consideration to understand the total picture. Independent of the social class factor, the AKP obtained the votes of Turkish nationalists in many Central Anatolian towns, and disappointed those who expected much higher support for the Nationalist Action Party, which had a stronger hold in the Central Anatolian towns. At the same time, the large Kurdish electorate preferred the AKP because of its religion-friendly posture that appealed to religiously conservative Kurds, as well as its strong leadership in managing political crises. The remainder of the Kurdish electorate largely supported the independent Kurdish candidates. Some segments of the Alevi electorate, who displayed fears of Sunnization under AKP rule, voted for the CHP. The AKP, however, captured those Alevi votes since it listed a few liberal Alevi candidates for the parliamentary election. 

 The Election Rhetoric of AKP

The AKP communicated the idea of being a unifying force, business friendly and pro-European Union, and diffused the fears of a divided electorate. In doing this, AKP read the messages coming from the secular middle classes who took to the streets—a million strong—in May and June this year to protest against Islamization. Erdogan vaguely suggested that he would not use religion as a political tool, and he did not reference the headscarf issue or other similarly sensitive religious-political issues in his campaign speeches. He diffused the fears of the Kurds over warfare in the Southeast by postponing a cross-border operation. He also showed the Turkish nationalists that he was a Nationalist in his desire to protect the motherland.

The AKP’s election discourse appealed to many people from various segments of society as it embraced symbols of modernization, piety, and an international orientation. Turks who are becoming more conscious of religion, yet at the same time, who want modern education and being part of the global business community, find AKP policies and principles respond to their search for identity and outlook.
Emergence of a New State Mentality

The majority of the Turkish people seem to have experienced fatigue with the old state mentality, whose pillars are concerns over territorial security, the idea of a holy state, an introverted national outlook, as well as respect for the military-bureaucratic elite rather than the principles of the republic, all understood in the light of contemporary developments. The AKP challenged this mentality by making pragmatism, prosperity, internationalism and piety its core principles. In doing this, the AKP has created fears that undermine the principles of the republic, and this has caused occasional crises. Still, the young people in Turkey tend to support this new state mentality, which has grown since the mid-1990s. Such a mentality draws its fundamental ideas from a new conceptualization of the state, the citizen relationship brought by the universalistic leftist intellectuals, as well as from the internationalist, free market ideas of the liberals. Islamist and pro-Islamic intellectuals have reinterpreted these ideas in their own literature and have created a new outlook that is shared by many liberals.

The idea of civil society acting as a partner of the state and playing a larger role in generating solutions to various social and political problems has gained popular support in Turkey. The old state mentality contradicts this because of the State’s centrality as the sole authority in making decisions at all levels. This does not seem to have widespread, popular appeal any more. The AKP tends to give more room to the NGOs in Turkey.

The idea of the military playing a central role in domestic politics has partly lost traditional support. The emphasis on the military as the guardian protecting citizens against the eradication of the principles of the republic has a constitutional basis, and this understanding is part of the political culture. Yet many people desire to see civilian forces alone guarding democracy. The people seem to want development, unifying rhetoric, stability and genuine commitment to democracy. They are reluctant to endorse the idea of the military assuming an overwhelming  role in shaping domestic politics. It was this outlook that translated into support for the AKP in recent years, because of the perception that the AKP was a democratic force would establish democratic control over the military.
The New Composition of the Parliament: Prospects and Risks

The primary change in the composition of parliament is the presence of the 23 Kurdish MPs and the ultra-nationalist MHP members who obtained 14 percent of the total votes. Will they work together? Will they adopt a give-and-take approach to produce solutions to the political and social problems, including the presidential election, the existence of the PKK in Northern Iraq, the question of a cross border operation, and unemployment among the youth? Can they work largely in harmony, or will they choose antagonism? If they fight each other it will create serious tensions in parliament, which in turn will lead to the provocation of the average citizen.

In understanding the composition of the parliament, it is worth noting the election of the leader of the Great Unity Party, (the Turkish nationalist Islamist party), Muhsin Yazicioglu, from the list of independents, who was also one of the leading ultra-nationalist youth leaders in the 1970s. Today he controls a sizable number of ultra-nationalist pious Turkish youth in Central Anatolian and the Black Sea regions. He could either play provocateur, or perhaps even become a broker in settling Turkish-Kurdish tensions, which have resulted in several lynchings since 2004.

Last but not least, the election of the two leftist and human right activists—namely Ufuk Uras, the leader of the Freedom and Solidarity Party, and Akin Birdal, the former chair of the Human Right Association—is significant. Their role as brokers in conflict resolution and in pushing civil right reforms is very important. 

Given the new parliamentary composition and the legacy of the conflict created by the last presidential election row, the question remains: what should the AKP do for stability? It is my opinion that it should persevere in administering messages of reconciliation and continue to diffuse the fears over the eradication of secularist principles. Moreover, it should endorse a presidential candidate whose selection would be based on a larger consensus and not on partisan politics. If the AKP insists on Mr. Gul’s candidacy, which was boycotted last April, it could galvanize the secular middle classes who demonstrated last May and June and could legitimize the military influence in domestic politics.

The post-election period is full of opportunities and risks. If the major players adopt moderation and reconciliation, Turkey could execute new reforms and its economy will continue to prosper. 

Copyright by Nilufer Narli.

Dr. Narli is  a Full professor of Political Sociology at the Faculty of  Arts and Sciences at Bahcesehir University. Currently, she is chairing the Sociology Department.  She is a visiting scholar at the University of Maryland, Office of International Programs.