In parliamentary elections earlier this year, Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a plurality of the vote. But it was not the majority that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP had hoped for and enjoyed since 2002. A second round of elections are scheduled for this Sunday, November 1. Turkish polling data indicate that the result will likely be another hung parliament. However, 2015 has seen a series of election-day surprises around the world — from Britain to Greece to Israel — and Turkey may be no exception. Whatever the poll’s outcome, Turkey will likely face a period of increased political turmoil, largely due to Erdogan’s authoritarian rule and the nasty, sectarian nature of his effort to regain an AKP majority.
Erdogan is a problematic figure. Over the past 20 years, Turkey seemed to be on the path toward an increasingly democratic political culture. However, along with his authoritarian inclinations, Erdogan pushes a conservative, Sunni Muslim agenda. This became evident toward the end of Erdogan’s 11-year tenure as prime minister, and even more so in 2014, after he moved — in the fashion of Russia’s Vladimir Putin — directly from the office of prime minister to that of Turkish president.
The five months since the election have been unusually violent. Some of it stems from the civil war in neighboring Syria, where the Turkish government has supported various Sunni Muslim groups in an effort to overthrow the Assad regime. The violence also stems from Erdogan’s heavy-handed rule. His government increasingly oppresses journalists. Turkey’s effort to control the media culminated earlier this week, when authorities shut down two newspapers and two television stations belonging to a company associated with an Erdogan ally-turned-critic, Fethullah Gulen. Turkish police stormed the television stations, cutting off their broadcasts, and used pepper spray and water cannons to subdue protesting journalists.
In September, mobs, egged on by the AKP, twice attacked the country’s third largest newspaper, Hurriyet, known for its liberal and secular editorial policy. Subsequently, four men, three of them AKP members, beat a popular Hurriyet columnist, breaking his nose and ribs. A crowd also torched the Ankara headquarters of the left-leaning, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Selahattin Demirtaş, leader of the HDP, lamented the attacks: “Over the past two days more than 400 party offices, workplaces, and businesses have been attacked. People have been pulled off buses and beaten, people walking in the street have been attacked.” In the June 2015 elections, the HDP succeeded for the first time in crossing the 10 percent threshold necessary to have representation in the Turkish parliament – and its success was critical in denying the AKP a majority.
Turkish polls suggest that the AKP’s intimidation of rivals and critics will not change the result of the June elections: a hung parliament. But because Turkish firms are prohibited from reporting polling data in the ten days prior to an election, the results are dated. The polls do suggest, however, that the AKP will garner a plurality, with 41 percent of the vote (same as June), followed by the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and the HDP. These results are similar to those of RIWI, which collects survey data from web-enabled devices. As of October 21, 2015 – when Turkish firms last published their polls – RIWI’s data also predicted the AKP winning 41 percent of the vote, suggesting another hung parliament.
However, the race seems to be tightening. On October 29, one Turkish firm, neglecting the ban on publishing polling data before elections, released data indicating the AKP would win 47.2 percent of the vote. That the results support the AKP may explain why the firm felt it could ignore the ban. RIWI data also suggest a closer contest, with support for the AKP rising to 45 percent, while support for the pro-Kurdish HDP falling from 16 percent to 13 percent.
One key element in Erdogan’s electoral strategy involves reigniting strife with the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and portraying the HDP as a supporter of terrorism and conflict. Continued fighting in Turkey’s heavily Kurdish southeast raises the possibility that some of the Kurdish population may not be able to vote. If Erdogan can prevent the HDP from reaching the 10 percent electoral threshold, those votes will be distributed among the other three major parties, making it easier for the AKP to secure a majority.
Whatever the election results, RIWI data reveal the increasingly sectarian nature of Turkish politics. Sunni Muslim Turks constitute about 60 percent of the population. Kurds, who are predominantly Sunni, represent another 20 percent. There is also a large religious minority of mostly ethnic Turks: the Alevis. The Alevis, a heterodox Shi’ite sect, revere Ali, the son-in-law of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed, and they comprise 10 to 20 percent of Turkey’s population.
Each party has its sectarian base. The AKP is primarily the party of Sunni Turks. Some 54 percent said they would vote for it. The HDP is the party of Sunni Kurds, with 52 percent supporting it. About 56 percent of Turkish Alevis say they would vote for the Republican People's Party (CHP), headed by an Alevi, with a large number of its Members of Parliament being Alevis as well. Ankara generally tends to alienate the Kurds, and that is widely recognized. However, the Alevis' discontent, exacerbated by a centuries-long legacy of Ottoman persecution, may be somewhat greater. Some 29 percent of Sunni Kurds say they will vote for the AKP, but only 26 percent of Alevis intend to do so. Such is Alevi disenfranchisement that there is not even a consensus on their numbers within the Turkish population.
Given the bitterness and violence surrounding the election, it remains doubtful that any result will calm the country. If the AKP should win a majority, Erdogan will likely further cement his authoritarian rule by relying on his Sunni Islamist base. If the AKP does not win a majority, but does enter into the coalition, the power struggle will go on. Erdogan will respond, in part, by continuing efforts to maximize control, while those he oppresses will fight back. Liberals will appeal to the conscience of the West to oblige Erdogan to respect democratic norms. Others pose a violent threat. The PKK may well take up arms in force. And the radical left may return to violence, perhaps in alliance with the PKK. All of this amounts to continuing political instability and civil strife.