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Monday, 26 May 2014

Reflections on Turkey between two elections

Melis Evcimik (St Antony's College, Oxford)

On 21st May, Gamon McLellan (SOAS Near and Middle East Department) presented a talk on Turkey, following the local government elections on 30th March and looking ahead to the first direct election of a president in August and the parliamentary general election due in June 2015. The session was chaired by Dr. Anastasakis. Since 13 May, McLellan said, Turkey had been in mourning for the 301 victims of the mining disaster at Soma, in Manisa province, raising questions about industrial safety and how the government had discharged its responsibilities. European headlines had illustrated how the disaster had given fresh ammunition to European opponents of Turkey’s EU membership. Safety and working conditions at the mine had been atrocious, and an opposition parliamentary motion in October 2013 demanding an investigation into the safety at the mine had been defeated by the ruling AK Party majority. The government’s position had not been helped by the Prime Minister’s press conference in Soma, or by the videos apparently showing assaults on and insults against members of the traumatized community during Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s walk-about there, with security forces using tear gas and water cannon and eventually closing the town to outsiders.

All this had rekindled fury at the government which had started a year earlier with the response to the Gezi protests. McLellan asked, however, whether it had changed anything politically. Looking at the local government election figures, he said, the answer appeared to be “no”. Despite all the unrest of the previous 12 months, corruption allegations and the row with the Pennsylvania-based preacher, Fethullah Gülen, the AK Party had still managed to win a significant vote of confidence. They had won more votes than in the local government elections in 2004 and 2009. Religiously oriented parties had been dominant in local government since 1994, when Erdoğan had been elected Mayor of İstanbul, and the present Ankara Mayor had first won the post he had held ever since. Despite corruption allegations, the party was perceived generally to do local government better than its rivals.

McLellan asked four questions: would Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stand for president? Would he win? Who would then be Prime Minister? And how would President and Prime Minister work together?

McLellan believed Erdoğan would stand for president. The party had no plans to change the rule limiting its MPs to three parliamentary terms. Erdoğan could not continue as Prime Minister beyond June 2015 – and risked losing his parliamentary immunity from prosecution. However, against that, it had been only three days before the scheduled start of the 2007 presidential election that he had declared the party’s candidate then would be Abdullah Gül. As President Erdoğan would have to sever his party links, which could weaken his real political clout. The overwhelming likelihood was that he would nevertheless stand eventually and be elected – although it was not certain that he could win the 50% of valid votes cast needed to win in the first round. There was a remote risk of losing altogether: if no other candidate were nominated, the election would be conducted as a referendum. To win then, he would need 50% of votes: if he won fewer, he would lose. Personality obviously would be critical: Erdoğan had been seen as a major electoral asset. Yet some would have voted AK Party because it had delivered economic success and because they saw no viable alternative. They would not necessarily like Erdoğan. Some would have been alarmed at events since May 2013.

Neither President Abdullah Gül nor Deputy Party Chairman Numan Kurtulmuş could become Prime Minister in August, as neither was in parliament. Other senior AK Party figures could be appointed in August, but would have to be replaced in 2015 as they are in their final parliamentary term. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is one possible candidate for the premiership, as he is parliament and can stand for election again.

On relations between a President Erdoğan and his prime minister, the president had the right to chair cabinet meetings, but the prime minister was responsible for government decisions. That, McLellan believed, could cause difficulties, as a directly elected Erdoğan could claim to represent the popular will as much as parliament and the prime minister. He argued that Erdoğan’s relations with the present Mayor of İstanbul might give an indication of how the relationship might work in practice. He quoted former AK Party Culture Minister Ertuğrul Günay as saying Erdoğan had never in reality relinquished the role of Mayor of İstanbul.

Answering questions, the speaker said that although the Gülen movement had not proved significant in the local government elections, it might yet emerge as a factor in the presidential election. On a comparative level, the AK Party was discussed in the context of other conservative parties across Europe. Speakers raised Erdoğan’s profile and the AK Party’s record and discussed the affinities with and differences from leaders and their parties elsewhere Europe, as well as in India and Mexico.

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