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Will Turkey's recent election send the country back to the politically turbulent 1990s?

- June 12, 2015

Can Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan form a government after his party gained only 41 percent of the vote? (Reuters)
For more than a decade, Turkey has experienced a historic period of political stability, with the Islamic-based Justice and Development Party (AKP) governing alone for 13 years. That’s a sharp contrast to the turbulent period between 1991 and 2002, during which Turkey endured four general elections, nine confidence votes and six prime ministers.
But Turkey’s era of single-party governance ended this week, when the AKP took only 41 percent of the vote in June 7 parliamentary elections — 18 seats short of a majority. Three other parties were voted in: the two nationalist parties, Republican People’s Party (CHP), with 132 seats, and National Movement Party (MHP), with 80 seats; and the pro-Kurdish Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP), with 80 seats. If these four parties fail to build a governing coalition within 45 days, a new election must be scheduled. Can they do it, and if so, how?
Coalition negotiations in the next few weeks will give us a good idea about what Turkish politics will look like in the next few years. What will each party demand in order to be included in a governing coalition: some of the material spoils of power, shared policy priorities, or some other goal?
Political science research into how European democracies have formed governments has given us theories that may offer insight into Turkey’s next government. There are two principal groups of coalition formation theories. Policy-blind theories based on game theory assume that parties are interested in getting into power — and therefore focus on the number of seats required to form a minimum winning coalition. Policy-seeking theories assume that actors enter a coalition to achieve their preferred policies, in which members of the winning coalitions have similar policy preferences or ideological positions. The parties in Turkey have two main options in forming a government, since none want a new election:

  • Negotiate based on policy aims and political similarities. This will be difficult, given sharp differences among these parties and years of increasing polarization and enmity.
  • Return to 1990s-style politics, in which coalition negotiations and governance focus on dividing the spoils of political power.

To imagine how they might follow the first course, one first has to make sense of Turkey’s ideological landscape — which is not simple.
One way to try to identify the policy preferences of political parties involves estimating each member of parliament’s ideological position. Toward that end, we, along with Evren Celik Wiltse, are developing a “scaling method” that gives numerical scores to legislators’ ideologies based on their parliamentary votes. That’s complicated by the fact that, according to our calculations, an average Turkish member of parliament (MP) is absent for 56 percent of roll calls, almost double the rate in other Western democracies, with significant variation across political parties. Opposition parties use abstention as a strategic tool. This abstention issue makes commonly used methods such as NOMINATE or IDEAL inapplicable in Turkey. (We will be writing more about our methods in a forthcoming paper.)
We found that MHP parliamentarians are most likely to vote with the AKP, especially on such critical issues regarding secularism, gender roles and other social values. The CHP and HDP have more cohesive voting patterns within their parties, and both are further from the AKP’s party mean than the MHP.
However, there is still considerable distance between the MHP’s and AKP’s ideologies, particularly on issues that rouse the MHP’s fervent nationalism. AKP positions on joining the European Union and on Kurdish reconciliation are two such issues. Though the MHP and AKP may vote together more often than any other party, differences on those two points may create an impasse in coalition negotiation.
To visualize the proximity between the parties on several key policy areas we have placed the parties’ positions using data from the 2010 Chapel Hill Expert Survey. In these graphs, the length of the lines represents the policy distance between parties — which you can see on different issues. On the issues of secularism and the role of authority in society, the MHP and AKP are close.

Turkish political party positions on key issue s. Data comes from the Chapel Hill Expert Survey. (Figure: David L. Wiltse)

Turkish political party positions on key issue s. Data comes from the Chapel Hill Expert Survey. (Figure: David L. Wiltse)

The distances between parties grow as we move into other critical issues. Since the 1990s, Turkey has hotly debated whether or not to join the E.U., which would require profound political, cultural, and economic reforms. Both the HDP and AKP have favored the liberalization that joining the E.U. would require, believing that would help their constituents. From their points of view, the necessary reforms would offer an opportunity to reverse certain constitutional provisions that they feel hinder religious and cultural rights.
But the nationalist parties have been skeptical. The CHP fears challenges to key founding principles of the Turkish Republic. Of central concern are statism, nationalism and secularism. The MHP shares those concerns but is deeply wary of a dilution of the ethnic Turkish identity that it sees as the raison d’etre of the unitary Turkish state.
All the minority parties have generally opposed the economic changes required to join the E.U., defending statist economic principles, while AKP was moving ahead with economic reforms over the past 13 years. Finally, the broad subject of “good governance” shows a cluster of AKP, CHP and HDP support, with the usual MHP opposition to joining the E.U. In sum, the controversial reforms required for E.U. accession and the issues lurking beneath them make forming a coalition even more complicated.
The most divisive issue is Kurdish reconciliation. Using survey data, we estimated each party’s position based on its supporters’ opinions. The graph below shows each parties’ constituencies’ support for the “Kurdish reconciliation process” versus a left-right scale. The AKP has made several controversial concessions to the Kurdish population in recent years by removing language restrictions, opening Kurdish broadcasting and making political inroads into the Kurdish southeast — virtually all of which have been adamantly opposed by the nationalist parties. As the graph shows, the AKP’s supporters stand at equal distance from the HDP and the MHP, with those parties at opposite poles.
The Kurdish issue is perhaps the most important issue that stands in the way of an AKP-MHP coalition. This suggests that the AKP has an opportunity to build a government reaching out to either the MHP or HDP. But the choice is deeply consequential: continue with Kurdish reconciliation moving toward HDP, or reverse course by effectively killing the program to win support of the MHP. However, neither scenario is likely to produce a stable coalition.
Support for the Kurdish reconciliation process, by Turkish political party. Data: Hakan Yılmaz and Emre Erdoğan. (Figure: David L. Wiltse)

Support for the Kurdish reconciliation process, by Turkish political party. Data: Hakan Yılmaz and Emre Erdoğan. (Figure: David L. Wiltse)

Given all this, can a coalition emerge by the deadline — and if so, what would it look like? There’s no possibility that the three minority parties could form a coalition; the ethnic nationalism of the MHP and Kurdish orientation of the HDP are mutually exclusive. And the policy differences between the parties will make negotiation tough should it take place on purely programmatic terms. A return to the 90s and the ideologically odd, patronage-based coalitions that emerged in that era would seem to be a possibility, as would the accompanying instability.
What might be a better option that could save the country from a return to the 90s is for a minority government to take seat. Minority governments occur when a party agrees to vote for a prime minister and cabinet, but doesn’t participate in government. This has been used elsewhere in the world in similar situations. In the Turkish case, this would most likely happen with MHP support.
Minority governments aren’t unprecedented in Turkish political history, but they’ve generally been used after a coalition has fallen apart, acting as a “caretaker.” This would be especially advantageous for the MHP given its history and its 80 parliamentary seats. As second party in the economically disastrous 1999 DSP-MHP-ANAP coalition, the MHP lost all of its seats in the 2002 election.
In today’s questionable economic environment and with corruption controversies surrounding AKP ministers and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, this would allow the MHP to take a strong role in policymaking, yet avoid the responsibility and potential costs that would come with a formal role in the government. The critical question is whether they would forgo the patronage that would flow from control of a few ministries.
Critically, this would be a key test of whether Turkish parties have moved beyond the previously volatile neo-patrimonialism toward a more democratic expression of the people’s mandate.
Emre Erdoğan is an associate professor at Istanbul Bilgi University and founder of Infakto Research Workshop.
David L. Wiltse is an assistant professor at South Dakota State University and formerly a lecturer at Hacettepe University in Ankara.