We have received emails from friends and family since November 1st, largely describing the election results as “disappointing”. This prompted us to consider what positive outcome could have looked like, the most likely scenario being a weakened AKP forming a coalition with the far-right MHP, subsequently coming to the realisation that there wasn’t one. Regardless, amongst the ‘other’ 50 percent there is an even more palpable sense of hopelessness, disaffection and alienation than before. The results were pre-determined according to many angry twitter users, and even ignoring allegations of electoral fraud, if the best one could have hoped for was a chaotic coalition government between the AKP and the MHP then we’re in for a difficult four years.
After the tumultuous political atmosphere in the lead up to Turkey’s snap elections on November 1st, including a bloody civil-war brewing in the southeast, multiple terror attacks with catastrophic consequences- particularly the twin bombings in Suruç and Ankara which left more than 140 dead, and a general environment of high political tension including fascist/ nationalist as well as Islamist attacks on leftists and Kurds, Turks went to vote again for the second time this year and their decision was seemingly clear; a strong AKP government is the solution. However with half of Turkey’s critical media still struggling through a gas cloud after the ‘civilian coup’ which has caused media outlets controlled by Gülen affiliated group Koza-Ipek to spin 180 degrees (not 360, Professor Davutoğlu) away from their oppositional agenda, miraculously becoming pro-government overnight, the validity of the AKPs electoral success must be questioned.
The media landscape played an important role in the renewed success of the AKP. The media in Turkey unquestionably became progressively more polarized during the last election period, which commenced on the 31st of August. This is quite a claim given that Turkish society, and the media as a reflection of this, was already characterised by a high level of polarization. However more than polarized, this time the media seemingly became monopolized by a pro-government agenda. OSCE/ODIHR LEOM media monitoringfindings showed that three out of the five monitored television stations, including the public TRT1, favored the AKP in their news, current events and discussion programs. The AKP received the highest amount of coverage on all television stations -77 per cent on ATV, 73 per cent on TRT1, 49 per cent on Haber Turk, 47 per cent on Samanyolu TV and 32 per cent on CNN Turk, while the opposition parties necessarily received less than their share in coverage.
Aside from coverage percentages, it is also important to underline censorship issues and attacks on media outlets as well as journalists. In the southeast, Kurdish media workers have been under constant pressure. Many have been taken into custody and one major Kurdish media agency, DİHA, was blocked. Additionally, the digital service providers Tivibu, Turkcell TV+, Digiturk and Turksat have removed critical media outlets Samanyolu TV, SHaber, Kanalttürk, Bugün TV and Mehtap TV from their service. Finally, the aforementioned Koza-İpek Media group was confiscated just four days before the election. Koza-İpek Media group is known for having strong ties with Fetullah Gülen, or perhaps we should say FETÖ, the purported ‘‘terrorist organization’’ which revealed the December corruption scandal in 2013. FETÖ is a sweeping acronym used to incriminate a collection of Gülen affiliated groups and individuals from the civil service to the judiciary who have now been collectively declared as ‘terrorists’, a proclamation which has led to a string of legally dubious detentions and attacks on, in particular, media groups as a purported source of illicit funding to Gülen’s ‘terror network’.
Additionally individual journalists have faced personal attack, both legal and from vigilante AKP supporters such as that against Ahmet Hakan from Hürriyet, who was mobbed in the street supposedly due to his critical stance towards the government. Hürriyet offices have also come under attack, most controversially when an AKP MP, Abrurrahim Boynukalın, who had previously been recorded stating that “Our mistake was that we never beat them in the past,” actively incited violence while preaching to a stone wielding mob of AK youth in front of Hürriyet headquarters, proclaiming that “With God’s permission, not only the Aydın Doğan media, but the HDP, the PKK- all terrorist organizations- and particularly the terrorist organization of [Fetullah Gülen] will get the hell out of here after we make you [Erdoğan] the president”, further asserting that they would “make Erdoğan president whatever the election result is”.
The government’s refusal to take seriously (and complicity in) threats against leftist and Kurdish groups and the HDP culminated on October 10th when two suicide bombs weredetonated in a rally in Ankara organized by different unions and leftist organizations for “Labor, Peace and Democracy”. Not only was this a security failure with catastrophic consequences, but many have argued that the government and their security apparatus were at least complicit in allowing such attacks, as well as exacerbating conflict in the southeast, in order to create an atmosphere of fear and insecurity conducive to their electoral success. The AKPs successful employment of such tactics has not gone unnoticed. Although not going so far as to claim the conflict was entirely engineered by the AKP, Andreas Gross from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s election monitoring delegation argued that the AKP used this atmosphere to their electoral advantage and was largely responsible for its inception.
Clearly then, there are elements of this political environment which have inhibited free and fair elections. The HDP was forced to cancel all election campaigning due to successive attacks on their meetings, over 70 in the past year. Furthermore, people living in the southeast had to go to the ballot under excessive duress as political violence continued to escalate, which certainly inhibited campaigning and may well have affected voter turnout. Margareta Cederfelt, Head of the OSCE PA delegation said as much, claiming “The violence in the largely Kurdish southeast of the country had a significant impact on the elections, and the recent attacks and arrests of members and activists, predominantly from the HDP, are of concern, as they hindered their ability to campaign,” further arguing that “For an election process to be truly democratic, candidates need to feel that they can campaign and voters need to feel that they can cast their ballots in a safe and secure environment.”
Pervasive fear, not only in the southeast but across the county due to the horrific bombing in Ankara damaged the HDPs chances of success and even the CHPs, who too lost many young peace activists during this tragic attack, undermining their election campaigning as a consequence. So, while the HDP and CHP cancelled their rallies and entered into a period of mourning, the AKP took swift advantage of this situation and continued to campaign unopposed.
Combined with attacks on freedom of the media, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, these events at least partially explain why the opposition have suffered voter decline since June and damages the integrity of the elections as neither fully free nor fully fair. The HDPs co-chair, Selahattin Demirtaş, raised this issue in his post-election speech,claiming; “With regret, I have to say there wasn’t a free and fair elections. We received nearly 11 percent of the vote without waging a political campaign in the middle of a bloody doomsday. The HDP didn’t hold a political campaign. It couldn’t. We only tried to protect our people against massacres.”
Both Demirtaş and HDP co-chair, Figen Yüksekdağ looked resigned and weary during their speech, reminding us of how rapidly the political environment has deteriorated since the June elections when they received 13 percent of the vote, a success celebrated world-wide. Their resignation is understandable given the great losses the HDP have suffered over the past 4 month; the massacre of their members, the destruction of the fragile peace-process in which Demirtaş has invested much of his career and life, the erosion of freedom of speech and the arbitrary arrests of HDP members and supporters.
In fact, in contrast to the celebrations following the HDPs June success, the only things to emerge from this last election which could broadly be determined as ‘successful’ is that the HDP once again surpassed Turkey’s punitive electoral threshold (although barely) and that the AKP failed to achieve the so-called super-majority needed for Erdoğan to adopt an executive presidential system, a power-grab which has been widely viewed as indicative of increasing authoritarian tendencies. They omitted system reform from their electoral campaign this time and seemingly reaped the rewards, however not two days after the results, Ibrahim Kalın addressed the press in Ankara stating that “The presidential system will take Turkey to the next level.”
For sceptics however, the “next level” of New Turkey [Yeni Türkiye] is a worrying scenario in which Erdoğan consolidates his one man show via an executive presidential system, and continues on uninhibited by checks and balances. Yet with over half of Turkish voters opposed to system reform according to a poll conducted immediately after the election, Erdoğan will still have his work cut out. Nevertheless, having now defeated the ‘civilian coup’ planned by the opposition parties to defeat the AKP democratically at the ballot box and with strong calls for the resignation of the leaders of both the MHP and the CHP, Erdoğan may yet be able to stack the odds in his favour, needing only 13 more deputies (likely from the MHP) in order to reach the 330 votes need to call a referendum.
The main party to lose out from the AKPs strategic recalculation of the electoral agenda was the MHP. This has left them in disarray and open to external manipulation. The MHP will be forced to adapt to the new power circumstances now, having lost out for two main reasons. Firstly, due to anger at MHP leader Bahçeli’s attitude towards power-sharing after the June elections, a mistake which will likely cost him his career and force the incumbent leader of the MHP to be much more open to cooperation with the AKP. Secondly, due to the AKPs successfully executed strategy to convince extremely nationalistic MHP voters that the threats against national unity (particularly focussing on that of the PKK, Islamists and even Russia) were sufficient to warrant strategic voting; after all, ‘There is no You or Me, there is Turkey’ [Sen Ben Yok, Türkiye Var].
The AKPs electoral polemics were clear; there will be no stability or security against terrorism unless there is single party rule, a message which rang strong across the pro-government media (particularly TRT) and clearly resonated with central Anatolia and previously disenchanted MHP voters. It was due to the securitization of the election environment and the monopolization of the media that the AKP were able to steal back crucial votes from the HDP and the MHP and re-secure their majority, something which pollsters and pundits could not and would not have predicted just a week ago.
Interestingly, the AKP have repeatedly claimed that their win was demonstrative that voters believe them to be best capable of maintaining security. ‘Interestingly’ insofar as the instability and security break-down which has plagued Turkish society since the June elections is a direct result of AKP decision-making, such as the end of the cease-fire, increased engagement in the Syrian crisis (one of the catalysts for ISIL’s growing presence on Turkish soil) and the bombing campaign in northern Iraq. President Erdoğan insightfully stated that “The national will manifested itself on November 1st in favour of stability. After the short term developments, the national will decided that there is no way out other than choosing stability.”
Consequently, the AKP arguably regained their electoral supremacy for a few main reasons; firstly, and predominantly, due to a media environment plagued by censorship, bias and polarizing discourse as discussed above. Secondly, due to a demand for stability and thirdly (and somewhat paradoxically), due to the end of the peace process which many Turkish nationalists were staunchly against. What we can see then is the unification of the right, be that nationalist or conservative religious, against leftist, Kurdish and ‘external’ (read- Western) forces, a schism which has been visible in the media and across Turkish society since Gezi, and has become even more palpable during the latest election period.
As promised by a Mafioso AKP supporter Sedat Peker at a rally in Trabzon attended by thousands, blood will flow through the streets. And it has. Turkey has paid a heavy price for the last elections. Losses have been suffered that will not be forgotten, or forgiven, and the atmosphere of fear and polarization is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. Scenes from military funerals in the southeast became symbiotic with the AKPs anti-terror (and anti-Kurdish) message and have been on repeat on every pro-government news channel for months, a seemingly effective tool to rally nationalist fervour and legitimize Turkey’s renewed war with the PKK. The funerals of those killed in Suruç and Ankara on the other hand have been subject to police surveillance and attack, with sites of mourning being subjected to regular cleansing, flowers and photographs removed lest they seep into historical memory. Those covering such issues have been subject to personal assault and threats and media freedom is being brutally suppressed. Deepening ethnic tension and paranoia is rife, leftist book shops have come under neo-Nazi style attacks and gunshots continue to echo through the streets of the southeast. Perhaps the AKP, empowered by their recent success, will live up to their election promises and combat this atmosphere of polarization, or perhaps this monster is well beyond their control now. Either way, welcome to New Turkey [Yeni Türkiye’ye hoş geldin].