What’s the time in Turkey?


New time © frankieleon l Flickr

By Gözde Böcü

The outcome of the November 1 snap elections in Turkey brought the AKP (the ‘Justice and Development Party’) back to power with 49.5% of the votes. What looked like a decline in power for the AKP in June now seems more like a resurrection of the party, led by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. With the AKP returning to parliament with a majority of seats, Turkey’s unresolved domestic questions are back on the table. What’s the time in Turkey?[1] Is it time for a return to democratic politics or rather more of the same one-man-show?

A bloody summer in Turkey and AKP’s language of fear

After the elected parties AKP, CHP (the ‘Republican People’s Party’), MHP (the ‘Nationalist Movement Party’) and HDP (the ‘Peoples’ Democratic Party’) were unable to form a coalition government in June, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called for snap elections. The subsequent electoral campaign was characterized by attacks against party centers, restrictions on freedom of speech, and terrorist attacks all over the country. One of the bloodiest attacks in Turkish history shook Turkey’s capital Ankara on 10 October 2015, killing over a hundred people, mostly HDP sympathizers who were rallying for peace in the heart of the city.

Many, including the opposition parties, criticized the AKP for its failed security policies, some even believing that the AKP had orchestrated the attacks. Meanwhile the AKP and media outlets aligned with the AKP portrayed the attack as being carried out by a coalition of ISIL (‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’) and the Kurdish PKK (the ‘Kurdistan Workers’ Party’). Following the attacks, Prime Minister Davutoğlu stated: “They are trying to initiate a terrorism-cocktail in Turkey, ISIL, PKK and the parallel forces are involved in this attack”.[2] In the midst of these events and of the ongoing electoral campaign the government party AKP repeatedly insisted on using a language of fear, hoping to mobilize voters. In one of his many speeches, President Erdoğan urged everyone to vote for AKP and to choose “stability over instability“. This language of fear, and a reality in which over a period of five months nearly 500 Turkish citizens lost their lives in violent attacks, left the whole country fear-stricken in the period prior to the November snap elections.

A surprising outcome for the AKP

In the run up to the snap elections, surveys predicted only a slight rise in the AKP vote, thus ruling out the probability of a single-party majority for the AKP.[3] AKP’s victory came as a surprise to everyone and even party founder Bülent Arınç expressed his astonishment. The AKP won the majority of the votes, followed by the CHP with 25.4% the MHP with 11.9% and the HDP with 10.7% of the votes. While MHP (the right-wing party) lost a significant share of the votes it received in the June elections to the AKP, the HDP (a pro-Kurdish party) also lost votes it had gained from non-Kurdish voters back in June.

In the aftermath of the elections many voters blamed opposition parties for the AKP´s victory, which they attributed to the parties’ rigid internal hierarchies. But the opposition parties can’t be the only ones to take the blame for the outcome. Although the number of reported violations during election-day was comparatively low, the election itself was not fair since the whole political atmosphere was disrupted by bombings, attacks against party centers, police violence and repression against protestors. Several days before the election a major media channel, critical of AKP policies, was shut down on TV during a live broadcast which showed police forces storming into the channel’s offices. Another 44 bureaucrats and officials were detained by the police directly after the election, as they were suspected of leaking confidential documents to the so called ‘parallel state’ led by the exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen.[4]

Towards a New Turkey or the Same Old Story?

The developments of the last months have left the whole country shocked and more polarized than ever, while the AKP continues to do politics as usual and has used the extraordinary terror attacks in the cities to their benefit by adopting a language of fear. The majority of the voters bought into the ‘AKP-or-violence’ rhetoric of Prime Minister Davutoğlu and President Erdoğan, yet the same rhetoric has left the other voters shocked and in despair. The developments of the last months reflect the pathology of the 13 year old government’s politics, namely, appealing to one group of voters by alienating the other. Therefore, the upcoming four years will be critical for Turkey and its democracy: will the state of emergency, along with political polarization and hatred between different societal groups, continue or will we witness a return to a state of normality, with reconciliation between Nationalists, Kurds, Conservatives, Liberals and Republicans?

The constitution plays a major role in determining the outcome of this question, as the AKP has a chance to bring about a national reconciliation through constitutional amendment. With its 317 elected deputies, the AKP only needs an additional 13 deputies to initiate constitutional changes that could be adopted in a referendum.[5] The key political partner seems to be the pro-Kurdish HDP, which is still interested in drafting a new constitution and in discussing constitutional questions, but strongly opposes AKP’s wish to transform the political system of Turkey into a presidential system. Although accused of being the political extension of the PKK, the HDP is still willing to negotiate a freedom-based constitution with the government and the other parties. Questions on the rights and freedoms of the Kurds and other minorities in Turkey will surely be discussed as well. While this could be a new chance to restart the peace process with the PKK, issues such as the presidential aspirations of the AKP and the conflict between ISIS and the Kurds in Syria might affect the chance for a new peace process and could also have a negative influence on the future of a real democratic constitution making process.[6]

Whereas the ISIS-PYD conflict is a new question in terms of foreign policy, the presidential issue has been for over years in the focus of Turkish politics. In recent years the AKP has successfully initiated changes within Turkey’s political system and has amended the constitution in 2007 in order to establish the system of direct election of the president by the people. By doing this, it has significantly transformed the parliamentary character of the Turkish system. These transformational efforts were also echoed in the constitution-making process between 2011 and 2013 – a critical process in which Turkey tried to draft a new constitution that would reconcile the nation’s past and present, but ultimately failed. Today, however, following the strong election result and with the backing of Prime Minister Davutoğlu, the probability that President Erdoğan will give up his presidential aspirations is rather low.

It is only if internal disagreements within the party repeat themselves and if the ultimate leader of the party, President Erdoğan, loses his invincibility, that the future of the AKP may take a different direction. Since President Erdoğan has been subject to criticism in recent years, this scenario is not unlikely. The Gülen-AKP break has also shown that the AKP is not as united as it once appeared. But in order to prevent discontent, many old deputies have been replaced and President Erdoğan has reduced his inner circle to trusted intimates, which again might make changes within the party difficult to attain.

Another factor to take under consideration is the political potential that showed itself in summer 2013 at the Gezi Park. For the first time in Turkish history, nearly all opposition groups united around a common cause and demonstrated side by side on the streets for democracy and against political repression. Today, two years after the protest, not much is left of the Gezi movement, but the Gezi spirit reappears after every political incident and encourages people to take to the streets to show their discontent. It has clearly increased the popular mobilization of participants and helped to build up a common spirit of protest, which is why the possibility of mass extra-institutional mobilization should not be underestimated when considering possible scenarios for Turkey’s future.

In conclusion, if the AKP under Prime Minister Davutoğlu does not make a U-Turn as soon as possible, the party will lose its chance to bring about real democratic change for Turkey. It is time for the AKP to understand that democracy is a game with multiple players and that a democratic future is possible only with the achievement of reconciliation among Turkey’s diverse social groups. In its third attempt to make a new constitution the AKP should therefore adopt a different strategy to overcome the impasses of the past.



[1] Prior to the elections Turkey was at the end of summer time (or ‘daylight saving time’) but the AKP-government decided to postpone the changing of the clocks, until after the snap elections. Meanwhile automatic clocks had changed the time regardless, thus causing confusion. The hashtag #saatkac or ‘what’s the time?’ was then trending in Turkey and reflected the confusion of Turkish citizens.

[2] Original quote from a BBC article: “Türkiye’de kokteyl bir terör oluşturmaya çalışıyorlar. ISID, PKK ve Paralel yapının terör eylemlerinde parmağı var.”

[3] KONDA conducted polls that predicted that the AKP win approximately 40% of the votes, while the actual result in favor of the AKP was much higher.

[4] Erdoğan accused Gülen of trying to topple him by persuading allies in Turkey’s police force and judiciary to launch a vast probe into government corruption in December 2013, which led to the resignation of four ministers.

[5] Article 175 of the Turkish Constitution requires a three-fifths majority of the total number of members of the Assembly by secret ballot in order to put it on referendum.

[6] The AKP does not distinguish between PKK and PYD and sees a clear link between their activities in Turkey and in Syria. Moreover the AKP-government sees the HDP as the political extension of PKK, which is why the relationship between the government and the HDP is influenced by the current conflict with the PKK and the activities of PYD in the region. If the conflict between the PKK and Turkey continues, the chance for the HDP to be heard in the new constitution making process will therefore decrease and the AKP might look for other allies.