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Thus Spoke the Turkish People: 2011 Election and Its Aftermath

The most recent elections in Turkey solidified the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The ruling party mustered one in every two votes cast in the elections (49.8 percent, to be exact). Republican People’s Party (CHP) came in distant second with 26 percent and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) third with 13 percent of the votes. The Pro-Kurdish Bloc managed to get 6 percent. This is the third parliamentary victory of the AKP – the others were in 2002 (with 34 percent) and 2007 (with 46 percent).


[In the above map, provinces are colored according to the party which had most votes in the elections. Yellow represents the AKP, red the CHP, green the MHP, and blue the pro-Kurdish bloc]. The AKP’s triumph is unprecedented in the sense that no party in the democratic history of Turkey since 1950 won three consecutive elections while at the same increasing its votes. Those who know Turkey would submit that this is indeed a very remarkable feat given the ups and downs of the coalition-ridden multi-party politics of Turkey that lasted up until 2002. The elections results surely indicate that the political and economic reforms initiated by Erdogan administration are well-received and the constituents are generally content with the state of the nation.

Fevzi Bilgin is an assistant professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He received his doctorate from University of Pittsburgh in 2004 and has since published a number of essays and articles on political liberalism, constitutional politics, and religion and politics in Turkey and the Middle East. He is the author of Political Liberalism in Muslim Societies.

The AKP’s Big Win

It is not difficult to explain the AKP’s success. Exit polls reported that 72 percent of the AKP supporters in these elections voted as such because they thought the AKP made a great job in the areas of economic progress, healthcare, infrastructure etc. Turkey’s economy, which was in shambles in 2002, now booms with a record growth rate. GDP per capita grew no less than three times in the last nine years. This growth has been reflected in periodical raises of the salaries of workers, public servants, and retirees. This produced an enormous push in the domestic demand which in turn energized the businesses, small and large. It is this positive sentiment as result of the economic advancement, more than anything else, that benefits the AKP in the elections. Moreover, there is a noticeable progress in many areas of daily life. There is a construction boom in addition to the jump of major infrastructure projects handled by municipalities and the central government. New roads, railroads, malls, sport centers, entertainment centers, hospitals, schools, universities, and community centers are mushrooming everywhere. Moreover, the hierarchical and somewhat militaristic bureaucratic culture is pretty much – not altogether, though – gone. It is now much easier to deal with the government and its agencies. Most procedures are very transparent, automated, and straightforward. Gone are the days one needed to produce countless documents and spend days in government offices to start a business, get a license, sell a car, buy a house, register to vote, get a birth certificate. These hurdles are mostly gone; all you need is a reliable internet connection – which is readily available across the nation and cheap – and you do all those things online. and  I met many people who voted for the AKP especially for such seemingly insignificant changes that made life so much easier and made them feel they lived in a developed country.

The lesson of the election results is that the ongoing changes in the nature of the regime are accepted by the constituents so long as it is coupled with a better life prospect. In fact, the most dramatic outcome of the nine-year long Erdogan administration is no less than a shift of the country’s political paradigm from Kemalism to democracy. Kemalism, as construed by its contemporary proponents, is based on the premises of aggressive secularism of the state and public life, supremacy of the military institution over elected government, and a particular vision of nationalism and citizenship excluding every sort of diversity in the society. Kemalism, as such, is no longer the primary ideological reference in Turkey. In fact, there is not a pervasive ideological reference anymore. Consequently, there appears a feeling of ease in the public/political sphere and in the area of speech, religion, expression. Turkey is now a country where all the cards are pretty much open. Previously politically sanctioned expressions are now commonplace. People do not hesitate to proclaim their religious, ethnic, sectarian, and communal identities. There is now a more open Turkey that could not be handled by the old regime.

What Went Wrong with the CHP

Alas, the old regime is not that distant for some. The same exit polls showed that majority of the CHP voters supported their party for ideological reasons. Fewer supported it for its projects. In fact, in the course of the two months prior to the elections, there was no tangible project or idea defended by the CHP leaders. There were some reference to the unequal distribution of growth and family insurance, but that was it. Their campaign was mostly based on the critique of personal attributes of Erdogan and hence the promotion of their new chairman Kilicdaroglu as a viable leader. What the CHP leaders mostly emphasized in their rallies, TV and newspaper ads, and billboards, is that they are Ataturk’s party and they represent his ideals. Despite the rhetoric, however, the CHP could not muster more votes than it can usually receive in any given election.

Despite the  evident progress in almost every area, what has not changed in Turkey is the ideological distribution of the votes. Since the first free elections in 1950, in almost every election, the so-called right parties receive about 65-70 percent of the votes, while the left gets the rest. The right-left distinction would have made sense if Turkey was an ordinary democracy. But that was not the case. The distinction is must be considered in line with the true ideological orientation of the parties. Accordingly, Turkish political parties must be divided into democratic-populist and republican-statist parties. The former group includes most of the parties that have been considered as right or conservative, all the way to the AKP. The latter group includes mostly the CHP and its derivations. In 61 years of multi-party democratic history, elected governments came primarily from the democratic-populist parties.

In the old regime, however, it was not that important what percentage of votes the CHP – or its derivations – would receive in an election. As the political defender of the Kemalist establishment and its official ideology, they would conveniently integrate themselves to the priories of the military institution. The regime established in 1961 by the military junta, did not leave much area of independence for the elected governments. All the major decisions were subject to the approval of the top military brass. Periodical adjustments in the form of coup d’etat or other types of military intervention assured that elected governments would not surrender to the illusion of being the true rulers of the country. This situation did not change much until the summer of 2007 when the AKP government stood firmly against the demands of the military establishment and the judiciary started to prosecute military personnel who were involved in coup plots. As the notion of military supremacy and immunity dissipated, other major constitutional and legal reforms were quickly introduced to further consolidate democracy in Turkey.

2011 Elections gave the AKP the mandate to continue its reform-minded policies for another four years. This term may see the most fundamental changes in Turkey’s constitutional system. In fact, the constitution itself is up for change.  The current constitution that was presented as a ‘gift’ to the nation by the military junta leaders in 1982 is fundamentally an undemocratic document that has been obstructing Turkey’s progress in the last decades on many fronts. For instance, the most recent problem that the country is battling with, which was produced by the CHP, is essentially a constitutional problem.  As of this writing, the country is preoccupied by the CHP’s decision to not to take the parliamentary oath and boycott the parliament functions because two of their newly elected deputies are in custody on allegations for collaborating with coup plotters and cannot be released. The idea of boycotting the parliament is very awkward from a democratic standpoint and unprecedented. The fact that the deputies will continue receiving their salaries and benefits during this boycott does make the whole thing worse. Regardless of the motive, the problem lies in the constitutional provisions that regulate the eligibility of deputies, the charges against them and other legal matters. On the other hand, the fact that the CHP runs away from parliament, the very institution where such matters could be resolved, is merely an old regime reflex.

  • January 31, 2021