Turks get set for June elections as AK Party faces alliance of opposition

Nation Alliance seeks to tackle Erdogan and end Turkey’s post-coup state of emergency

Muharrem Ince, Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) candidate in the June 24th presidential  election, with a shoeshiner in Istanbul. Photograph: Huseyin Aldemir

Muharrem Ince, Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) candidate in the June 24th presidential election, with a shoeshiner in Istanbul. Photograph: Huseyin Aldemir

 

For a country with declining democratic credentials, Turkey’s politicians have shown remarkable interest in asking the public for its say.

Local and presidential elections in 2014, two general elections in 2015 and a referendum to change the constitution last year speak of politics consistently involving the people. Next month, snap parliamentary and presidential elections originally scheduled for next year will see Turks go to the polls once again – the fifth time in as many years.

For 15 years, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AK Party he unofficially heads have swept all before them. Now, however, opposition parties have opted to unite, and an alliance of four parties will take on the AK Party and its nationalist backers, the MHP, in the parliamentary poll on June 24th.

Titled the Nation Alliance, the opposition bloc includes the CHP, IYI (Good) party, the Felicity party and Democrat party, and has vowed to repeal a state of emergency that followed an abortive coup in July 2016, and return Turkey to a parliamentary system of governance.

Whether the large number of bruising electoral campaigns has contributed to a more polarised country, or is simply a sign of democracy at work has been foremost in voters’ minds.

“I don’t think the people are tired of elections, but they do not trust the security of the elections. So, this feeling of insecurity is pushing the opposition community to show their reaction with their ballots,” says Cenap Kuzuoglu, a restaurateur in Istanbul’s Kadikoy neighbourhood, who says he will “probably” vote for the CHP’s presidential candidate, Muharrem Ince.

“Turkey is definitely bleeding, but is still within the limits of democracy. Whether the country will be able to keep that remains to be seen in the coming decade,” he says.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan greeting the crowd at an election campaign rally of his AK Party in Isparta, Turkey, on May 27th, 2018. Photograph: Presidential Press Office/EPA
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan greeting the crowd at an election campaign rally of his AK Party in Isparta, Turkey, on May 27th, 2018. Photograph: Presidential Press Office/EPA

Absent from the four-party Nation Alliance is the Kurdish-focused HDP, one of only four parties currently represented in parliament and whose co-chairman and presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, has been detained for the past 19 months on charges of supporting terrorism.

Kurdish ‘terrorism’

But some say leaving the HDP out may work in the opposition alliance’s favour as it takes away the government’s ability to cast it as supporting Kurdish “terrorism”, a charge frequently repeated in the media and widely believed by millions of Turks.

Baybars Orsek, founder of the independent fact-checking website Dogruluk Payi, which translates as Piece of Truthand which has been monitoring Turkish politicians’ statements since June 2014, says candidates become less truthful around election time.

“According to the breakdown of more than 1,500 fact-checks from almost 500 different political actors in the country, the truthfulness of Turkish politicians is lower in campaign cycles compared to other times. We find a factual error in every one of five statements, and political parties are very much alike in their accuracy,” he says.

When prime minister and AK Party head Binali Yildirim claimed at a campaign rally this month that his party had put forward the most number of female nominees in the upcoming election, Orsek’s team pointed out that four other parties have more.

Orsek says the economic situation, which has seen inflation eat away at people’s spending power, is a major concern for voters. “The lira’s deprecation has been affecting small and medium business for a long time,” he says.

Erdogan’s AK Party remains a formidable force. It has wheeled out big-name cabinet ministers on its election ticket to present as strong a line-up as possible. It seized on this month’s killings of Palestinians protesters in Gaza by rallying thousands to a square in Istanbul, a move that served as an election event as much as a protest against the killings. In a two-hour speech on May 24th, Erdogan acknowledged the important role first-time voters would play and struck a mostly conciliatory tone.

Sinking lira

Repeated calls and emails sent to representatives of the AK Party went unanswered, but its backers in the media continue to beat the war drum by criticising Europe and the US. “The more we grow, the smaller you [Europe] will get, we know. This is how history has always been,” Ibrahim Karagul, a columnist for the right-wing Yeni Safak newspaper, wrote in a recent article.

A supporter of Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) with a picture of its jailed former leader and presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas, in Istanbul. Photograph: Huseyin Aldemir
A supporter of Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) with a picture of its jailed former leader and presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas, in Istanbul. Photograph: Huseyin Aldemir

Surveys suggest the government has successfully linked the lira’s sinking value and high inflation to an attack by outsiders bent on ousting the president. A number of people approached on Istanbul streets who identified as AK Party supporters refused to offer their thoughts on the election.

The challenges facing the opposition next month are not limited to a lack of airtime (Erdogan refused an invitation from a rival candidate to take part in a TV debate). That the parties making up the opposition alliance range from centre-left to far-right may see it spread too thinly.

Television coverage of the campaigns has focused almost entirely on the president and ruling party, which has continued a crackdown on suspected opponents. More than 100 journalists languish in jail. “While we have not faced any direct pressure from the government,” says Orsek, “the lack of plurality in Turkish traditional media is limiting our work to mostly digital and alternative media”.

With Erdogan last year having won a referendum that granted him more power by just 2 per cent, campaigning over the coming weeks is expected to grow increasingly tense.