The 2015 Turkish General Election: Mobilisational symmetry and another major victory for democracy

Toygar Sinan Baykan

On June 7th 2015 over 47 million people, almost 84% of the electorate, went to the polls in Turkey. The pre-election period was extremely tense as a result of the years-long divisive interventions of the founder and leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) – and, since summer 2014, the President of the Turkish Republic – Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Besides Erdogan’s divisive personality and political style, corruption allegations against the JDP-led government – and the government’s claims that these allegations were a plot hatched by a Gulenist “parallel state” in the judiciary and the security services – made this election a particularly critical one for the ruling JDP. Given this background, with allegations of corruption in government circles and claims about the ruling party’s authoritarian tendencies, the JDP’s position in the pre-election period was rather disadvantaged despite the public resources available to it. Corruption probes against the government and the method chosen by the JDP leadership for coping with these allegations also left deep wounds as far as the rule of law in Turkey was concerned. As a result, the pre-election climate was dominated by a very strong suspicion that the poll would be rigged due to the ruling party’s interventions.

One of the indications that revealed the pressure on the JDP in this particular election was the new party leader and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s and Erdogan’s unprecedented appeal to the religious sentiments of the electorate. Despite all the criticism against his active involvement in the JDP election campaign – because, constitutionally, the President is supposed to be neutral as far as support for specific parties is concerned – Erdogan did not even refrain from showing a Kurdish translation of the holy Quran in one of his speeches in a South-Eastern city before the election. During the campaign the JDP – and, most notably, President Erdogan – emphasized the necessity of a transition from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. This was seen by the majority of the electorate as further proof of the ruling JDP and Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies.

Unlike previous elections, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (RPP) chose an economy-based and highly redistributive discourse for its electoral campaign. To a great extent, by avoiding a direct response to the JDP’s highly religious appeal in this particular election, this diminished the effect of the ruling party’s propaganda. As an outcome of the increasing normalization of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) also tried to move decisively beyond its Kurdish ethnic electoral base through a strategy of becoming ‘the party of Turkey’ (Turkiyelilesme). Similarly to the RPP, the PDP also deployed some redistributive promises, such as a significant increase in the minimum wage and social support for young people. Another major player in the election, the Nationalist Action Party (NAP), constructed its campaign mainly on the basis of anti-JDP political propaganda which appealed to the reactions of the rightist-nationalist electorate against rumours of corruption and the reforms initiated by the ruling JDP when addressing the Kurdish issue. Another prominent actor in the election was the non-governmental organization Vote and Beyond (Oy ve Otesi), which was organized in order to provide neutral, civilian and grassroots control of the electoral process and protect it against potential fraud.

The election results were, if not shocking, then certainly extremely unpleasant for the JDP. Although the party received almost 41% of the popular vote and won 258 seats, it did not obtain a parliamentary majority. This is: it was not able to form a single-party majority government and the predominant position that it enjoyed in Turkey’s political system for the last 12 years came to an end. The JDP lost almost 9% of its support and 69 parliamentary seats compared to the previous general election. The most decisive external factor in this major failure was the fact that the PDP passed the unusually high 10% electoral threshold and made it into parliament. If the PDP had not taken the risk of participating in the elections as a party and had chosen their conventional strategy of fielding independent candidates, the JDP would have obtained many more seats, providing it with a parliamentary majority, while the PDP would have only have won half of the seats that it actually obtained.

The PDP’s striking electoral success, the party received the 13% of the votes, can be explained by reactions to the further concentration of power in the hands of Erdogan and his desire to consolidate his position even further by introducing of an a la turca presidentialism in which the limits of President’s power are not clear and checks and balances hardly evident. The clearest reaction to this major project of political change came from Selahattin Demirtas, the young and highly telegenic leader of the PDP. Several days prior to the election, Demirtas clearly stated that his party “won’t allow” Erdogan “to become the President”. This, in turn, led many leftists who were against the concentration of power in the hands of Erdogan – and a considerable number of these were likely to have been from the conventional electorate of the RPP – to vote for the PDP. This, as well as the consolidation of the party’s support among mostly Kurdish voters, helped the PDP to pass the electoral threshold with “borrowed votes” (emanet oylar). The PDP raised its vote share by 7% and obtained 80 seats, adding 45 members to its parliamentary group. Another remarkable electoral success story was the far-right NAP. The NAP could easily channel rightist reaction to corruption allegations against the ruling JDP and the government’s reforms regarding the Kurdish issue, and received 16% of the vote. It thus raised its vote share by 3% and obtained 80 seats, an additional 27 compared to the previous election.

The election result also had rather complicated consequences for the centre-left RPP. On the one hand, despite its attempts to become a modern social democratic force by focusing in its political propaganda on income inequalities and the erosion of rights and liberties under JDP rule, the party could not increase its vote share. However, although winning 25% of the vote and 132 seats was not a spectacular success story, the renewal of party policies and outlook under the leadership of Kemal Kilicdaroglu was definitely a remarkable political achievement. Kilicdaroglu overcame the nationalist-secularist anxieties of the party’s traditional supporters and brought the party closer to a modern social democratic trajectory. Although hard to capture at first glance, another major strategic achievement of the RPP was the fall of the JDP’s single-party majority government. The RPP leadership refrained from antagonizing its electorate against the PDP by avoiding appeals to Turkish nationalist sentiments on the Kurdish issue. Instead, the RPP intensified its electoral propaganda around redistributive promises and major development projects such as a new city in Anatolia, which was envisaged as a major industrial and transit hub for international trade. The RPP leadership, in a sense, allowed some of its supporters to vote strategically for the leftist appeal of the PDP. In other words, the RPP’s attitude towards the PDP made a vital contribution to the latter’s success in overcoming the 10% electoral threshold and breaking the JDP’s political hegemony.

The most visible outcome of the election is the end of debates surrounding whether the Turkish party system has become (in Sartorian terms) a ‘predominant’ one after several electoral JDP victories. The end of JDP single-party majority government revealed the fact that, despite the party’s unprecedented electoral achievements and robust organization, personalistic leadership and divisive strategies do not sustain a sufficiently institutionalized party which can dominate the party system for decades. Another important consequence was the consolidated polarization of the party system caused by the rise of far-right Turkish nationalist NAP, on the one hand, and the far-left PDP, with its origins in the Kurdish political movement, on the other. Further consolidation of these forces in parliament has increased the polarization of the party system on both the left-right and ethnic axes. Yet, despite political polarization, better representation of these forces in parliament is highly likely to decrease the social tensions stemming from poor representation in the legitimate political space.

Thus, despite the political turmoil in the Middle Eastern region – most notably two failed states to the south of Turkey and the chaos after the Arab Spring in Northern Africa – Turkey has remained a remarkably stable polity in the region alongside Iran. How can one explain the exceptional stability of democracy in Turkey? The conduct of the 2015 general election and the prior rumours that there would be massive electoral fraud committed demonstrate the contribution of a crucial variable to explaining this exceptionality. As recently illustrated by Mufti and previously emphasized by Angrist, what distinguishes Turkey from the rest of the Middle East has been its mobilisational symmetry. In other words, from the very beginning of the multi-party competition, the organizational and mobilisational capacity of the country’s major political actors was more or less equal. This equilibrium of power has protected the country from, on the one hand, the perils of the degeneration of modernising regimes into authoritarianism and, on the other, from a conservative majoritarianism which also gradually developed into authoritarianism. The importance of this mobilisational symmetry was all too evident in this election. Despite widespread rumours about potential electoral fraud, most notably those spread by fuat avni (a Twitter account revealing information most likely stemming from Gulenist ‘deep throats’) via social media, and the exception of some sporadic news, healthy elections could indeed be conducted in Turkey.

Major credit for the fairness of the election should be given to the organizational vigilance of the opposition parties, most notably the grassroots organizations of the NAP and PDP which were able to counterbalance the JDP’s robust organization. In addition to the party organizations, NGOs formed around democratic concerns relating to electoral fraud helped the opposition forces to counterbalance the organizational capacity and state resources deployed by the ruling JDP. In this sense, the ‘Vote and Beyond’ movement created an exemplary situation in which tens-of-thousands of volunteers were deployed as ballot box observers across Turkey. Nevertheless, one should also take into account the true democrats in the JDP headquarters and within the membership party on the ground, whose presence probably did not allow the ruling party to commit extensive voter fraud. Mobilisational symmetry over many years has illustrated the vitality of healthy and safe elections and helped party members to internalise the minimum conditions for democracy: reliable and fair elections. 

The June 7th 2015 Turkish general election represented the third major victory of the democratic method in Turkey. After absorbing the reaction of the conservative-religious segments of Turkish society to modernization in the middle of the Twentieth Century, with the transition to multi-party politics and transforming the Islamist challenge into a centrist and post-Islamist political actor at the end of 1990s, democracy effectively absorbed the ethnic challenge and started to transform pro-Kurdish politics in Turkey. Mobilisational symmetry, a kind of equilibrium of power among competing political parties, has been vital to the victories of democracy in Turkey, and this situation has been grounded in decent ties with Western powers as well as the bureaucratic-institutional “democratic infrastructure” inherited from the modernising Ottoman Empire. In this sense, the EU process has proved itself as an extremely useful leverage for democratization compared to the so-called “exportation of democracy and freedom” by aggressive military-economic means of colonialism and imperialism.

Toygar Sinan Baykan is a doctoral researcher in the University of Sussex, Department of Politics working on a thesis on the role of party organisation and strategy in the electoral success of the Turkish Justice and Development Party.