“The house always wins in Vegas” – analysts assess Turkey’s elections

Following the surprisingly strong performance of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in Turkey’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, analysts said President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will need to make further concessions to a growing tide of nationalism in Turkish politics.

Erdoğan called snap elections in April, a year after Turkey narrowly voted in a referendum to empower the presidency and weaken parliament. Erdoğan won re-election with more than half of the vote, and he will now realise his long-sought dream of an executive presidency, a new system of government that opposition candidates had pledged to overturn.

Despite fracturing due to its leader’s alliance with Erdoğan, the MHP defied predictions and captured 11 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results. Meanwhile, the new opposition Good Party, led by MHP breakaways, won just under 10 percent of the vote and entered parliament through an alliance with the leftist main Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Islamist Saadet Party (SP).

Experts at a Washington panel on Tuesday noted that despite parliament’s reduced powers under the new executive system, the combined vote share of the MHP and Good Party indicates a swing toward nationalism, particularly among young voters. The trend comes as public opinion sours against the roughly 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, leading Erdoğan to adopt the opposition consensus that Syrians should eventually return to their country rather than put down roots where they are.

“The MHP has significant leverage over the government,” Gonul Tol, director of Turkish studies at the Middle East Institute, said at a panel discussion jointly hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Project on Middle East Democracy.

But any sway MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli holds over Erdoğan, Tol said, would be used to push for nationalist policies on issues like the Kurdish question.

Will Bahçeli “be checking and balancing Erdoğan’s power on matters of democracy, rule of law, liberties? I don’t think so,” Tol said. “As long as the hawkish policies are in place, he’ll support Erdoğan.”

Yet despite growing nationalist sentiment, Erdoğan still holds all the chips, enough to co-opt the opposition to his advantage, said Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor at St. Lawrence University.

While Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) now holds just less than half of the seats in the enlarged 600-seat parliament, its alliance with the MHP gives it a majority in the legislature.

“The idea that Devlet Bahçeli, of all people, is going to be in the driver’s seat seems to me kind of absurd,” said Eissenstat. “Erdoğan’s the one with the cash, Erdoğan’s the one with the votes. And with the MHP, he’s going to use the cash. He will provide positions, he will provide jobs, he will provide kickbacks.”

“Erdoğan controls every lever of the state,” said Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

The fact that the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) won more than 10 percent of the vote and enters parliament could bolster Erdoğan’s claims to democratic legitimacy, Barkey said.

“Now he can turn around and tell the Europeans and all the other critics, ‘see, HDP made the parliament, so we have a democratic system,’” said Barkey. “And since parliament in any case does not have any influence, whether or not HDP makes it is in some ways immaterial.”

With Muharrem Ince, the CHP’s presidential candidate, winning 30.64 percent of the vote against Erdoğan, analysts pointed to strategic voting among CHP and Kurdish supporters. Ince, a former physics teacher who joined parliament in 2002 with the CHP, attracted large crowds to his rallies during the finals days of campaigning.

A small but significant portion of the CHP electorate voted for HDP for parliament, in order to deny AKP an outright majority, Eissenstat said. In addition, some Kurds may have voted for Ince for president.

Despite criticism, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the head of the CHP, indicated on Tuesday that he does not plan to step aside after leading the main opposition party through four general defeats in eight years and. Ince twice unsuccessfully challenged Kılıçdaroğlu for the CHP leadership.

“Muharrem Ince is just so much more charismatic and pugnacious and inspiring than, frankly, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is, and, frankly, the CHP is in general,” said Lisel Hintz, an international studies professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Ince’s conservative Anatolian roots and spirited rhetoric against Erdoğan make him appealing to Turkish voters, Hintz said. Barkey said the CHP needed to become a mass party, like the AKP, to win over voters beyond its base.

“CHP has always shied away from retail politics,” Barkey said. “It’s not something it is good at; it doesn’t have the organisation. And until it changes that, it will never succeed.”

The panellists did not foresee a softening of relations with the West. Hintz said that an economic downturn could lead Erdoğan to marginally mend ties with the European Union, Turkey’s key economic partner.

On the Kurdish issue, Nicholas Danforth, a policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said Erdoğan’s aim was to force the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to accept favourable terms. Classified as a terrorist organisation by the United States and Turkey, PKK rebels have fought the Turkish state since 1984.

“I think that the long term goal is to win enough military victories against the PKK that it will be willing to make peace on terms that are acceptable to Erdoğan’s nationalist constituency,” Danforth said.

“So far, Turkey has gotten the better of the military campaign against the PKK, more so than some people expected,” he said. “But it’s still not clear that it’s going to achieve the victories on the battlefield that will get Erdoğan the concessions he needs to sell this.”

Eissenstat was hard pressed to produce any silver linings from the election. Later joking that he is “the Debbie Downer” of Turkey analysts, Eissenstat said Erdoğan controls the most important sectors of Turkish politics, even if nationalists dominate the security forces, as some panellists said.

Erdoğan allows vote losses at the margins, Eissenstat said. The AKP won 42 percent of the national vote, down from the 2015 general election. That, he said, allows people in the more secular districts “to feel like they’re competing, when in fact … it’s a rigged game.”

“When you go to Vegas,” he said, “you feel like you have a real chance. But the house always wins.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.