Can Turkey Change?

Commentaries and Op-eds July 16, 2018, The Turkey Analyst

Though not impossible, change remains an unlikely prospect in Turkey. Seen in a larger historical perspective, the switch from parliamentarianism to presidential rule represents less of a break with continuity than one would imagine. Similarly, the June 24 elections showed that Turkish electoral dynamics remain largely unchanged, even though the social democrat candidate Muharrem İnce’s campaign as well as his result did go some way in illustrating how these dynamics may ultimately change.



On July 9, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took the oath of office for a new presidential term. The occasion, celebrated with pomp, marked the inauguration of a new era, with the official switch to a presidential system that concentrates executive power to the presidency.  In the words of Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) who is Erdoğan’s ally – and who was the presidential system’s promoter in the first place  – the introduction of the “Presidential government system,” as it is officially named, is “the most important constitutional reform in the history of the republic of Turkey.”

In a sense however, it will be business as usual. President Erdoğan has wielded uncontested power since he survived the failed coup two years ago, and the new cabinet that he announced on July 9 proves that continuity can be expected in terms of government policies in all key areas. That Berat Albayrak, the president’s son-in-law, is entrusted with the finance portfolio is a sure sign that Erdoğan will take an even firmer grip on the conduct of economic policy.

Also in a larger historical perspective, the switch from parliamentarianism to presidential rule represents less of a break with continuity than one would imagine. Some Turkish commentators have claimed that what was inaugurated on July 9 is a “second republic.” The term initially meant something very different: it was first put to use in the early 1990s by liberal intellectuals who entertained the hope that the conservative president at the time, Turgut Özal, was going to break the hold of authoritarianism and launch a second, liberal republic; a few years later, the same liberals pinned their hopes on Erdoğan. What would truly have been a “second republic” never materialized; instead, there will be a revised version of the old republican order, in line with the aspirations of the string of conservative leaders that preceded Erdoğan.

Erdoğan’s political hero is Adnan Menderes, a conservative who was Turkey’s first democratically elected prime minister, but who in power in the 1950s crushed dissent and sought to impose his personalized, authoritarian rule. Menderes said that democracy did not authorize protests against the government. Süleyman Demirel, who succeeded Menderes as the conservative leader, fought against the expansion of democratic freedoms in the 1960s and 1970s and argued that the constitution at the time was too liberal, allowing too much freedom for those who contested the pro-business order. Turgut Özal, the conservative who became a liberal hope in the 1980s and early 1990s tried to use the constitution to bar his opponents from participating in politics; he wielded personal power, and he also called for a presidential system. Looking ahead, the new presidential system may in fact be destined to survive Erdoğan. It was notable that Muharrem İnce, Erdoğan’s main challenger in the June 24 presidential election, never pledged that he would rescind the presidential system if he were elected.


In yet another respect, the June 24 presidential and general election showed that Turkish electoral dynamics remain largely unchanged, even though social democrat İnce’s campaign, as well as his result, did go some way in illustrating how these dynamics may ultimately change. While Erdoğan convincingly carried the election with over 52 percent of the votes, İnce received 30 percent; although far behind Erdoğan, that is still the best social democratic score since 1977, when the social democrat Republican People’s Party (CHP) won the general election with 42 percent of the votes.

The June 24 election was neither free nor fair, but the results nonetheless conform to the historical electoral pattern: since 1950, conservative parties have carried every election except those in 1973 and 1977. The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) backed to 42 percent, losing seven percentage points compared to its result in the last election, in November 2015, but that loss was compensated by the strong showing of its alliance partner MHP, which unexpectedly held its ground with 11 percent.

When the result of the right-wing nationalist Good Party, slightly more than 10 percent, is also taken into account, the majority of the conservative-nationalist bloc becomes even more overwhelming, representing more than 60 percent of the electorate. In fact, the Turkish nationalist bloc is even bigger since most CHP voters are nationalists as well.

The result of the CHP – 22 percent – was below the 30 percent that its candidate, İnce, obtained in the presidential contest and it represented a setback of three percentage points compared to the last election. The CHP lost votes to the left-wing and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and to the right-wing Good Party; many left-oriented CHP voters seem to have cast their votes for HDP in order to secure its entry into parliament; indeed, this tactical support may have saved the HDP’s presence in parliament. Conversely, İnce was relatively more successful than his party because Kurdish HDP voters and nationalist Good Party voters chose him over their own parties’ candidates since he was the candidate that stood the best chance to challenge Erdoğan. Indeed, İnce’s success, however moderate, in reaching out to different constituencies set the June 24 election apart in a broader Turkish historical context.

Muharrem İnce reached out to the Kurds, assuring that he would “honor” them, and, critically, he avoided the identity politics that CHP representatives usually peddle, which has historically alienated the pious, working and lower-middle classes who have not been able to identify with social democrats and instead rallied to the conservative parties. İnce, who has a rural, conservative family background and who is a pious Sunni Muslim – he regularly attends the Friday prayer – made clear that he has no issue with Islamic education or with the headscarf, presenting his sister, who wears the headscarf, on the campaign trail.

In fact, the CHP’s outreach to the pious predates İnce’s campaign; party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has made a point of emphasizing the need to speak to “the opposite neighborhood,” but his Alevi identity has worked against him; Alevis are heterodox Muslims that are not well seen by conservative Sunni Muslims. Moreover, the outreach to the pious has lacked credibility; the CHP has continued to convey the impression that it is a party for the urban, well-to-do middle class that has trouble putting the secularist-religious divide behind it the way İnce did. Indeed, after the June 24 election, pro-CHP commentators criticized the opening to the pious and what they call “concessions to Islamism.”

Neither, and perhaps more importantly, has the CHP formulated a social and economic alternative that would have appealed to the working and lower middle classes. İnce made some inroads among the working class, even though the historical pattern – with the working class voting for the right — remained unaltered; nonetheless, his campaign showed the way for the future: clearly, not appearing as yet another secularist who despises the broad masses and who instead speaks of social justice and income equality holds a promise of electoral success. Indeed, this was already demonstrated in the 1970s, when the CHP had a leader who took issue not with Islam, but with social and economic injustices; back then, it was the social democrats that carried the religiously conservative strongholds of Turkey.

Changing the historical electoral pattern that has kept conservatives in power for seventy years is going to require an alternative that addresses social and identity issues in equal measure. A fairly good indication of what it would take to change decisive voter choices is offered by the vote of the 11 million house wives, who in their majority belong to the working and lower middle classes. Of all groups in Turkish society, Erdoğan enjoyed the strongest support among them; he carried the house wives with 60 percent, while İnce received 28 percent of their votes, with Meral Akşener, the leader of the Good Party, and the only female presidential candidate, received merely 5 percent. The house wives are worried conservatives: they are concerned about the economy, seeing the rising prices on household products, but surveys show that what was decisive for them was their fear that if Erdoğan had lost, their daughters who wear the headscarf would no longer be admitted to universities, be hired in the police force or as teachers.


Muharrem İnce showed that he understands that social democrats need to allay the identity fears of the pious masses and address social and economic concerns if there is going to be change, but his performance after the election has been less than promising. It suggests that if change is to be, it is not going to be led by İnce. A little too quickly, he sought to capitalize on his moderate success by making an unsuccessful bid for the CHP leadership, asking Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu to step aside in his favor, even though he had vowed during the campaign that he would not seek the party leadership. He attacked a critical journalist, saying that he was “dishonorable” and that “people should behave and not cause trouble for myself.” The politician who for a brief moment had come to embody the hope of change was not so different, after all.

Though not impossible, change remains an unlikely prospect in Turkey.

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