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Divide and Conquer: Voting Patterns and Erdogan’s Campaign Strategy Ahead of Turkey’s Snap Election

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

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For more than two months after the June 7 election, Turkey remained in a sort of political deadlock. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan might have lost its outright majority in parliament, but it was still the largest party and charged with trying to form a coalition government. Each of the three other parties in parliament, however, campaigned explicitly against the AKP’s central objective: changing the constitution to create a strong presidential, rather than parliamentary, system. Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that the coalition formation process was unusually drawn out and failed to yield any workable government.

Now that the August 23 deadline to form a coalition has passed, Turkey has no choice but to head to the polls again. Will another round of voting lead to a significantly different result? Is there any path back to power for Erdoğan and the AKP? Although exit polls after the June 2015 vote suggest that voters would stick by their original choices in an early election, a closer examination of the vote outcome suggests there is a path back to power for Erdoğan and the AKP—a potentially dangerous path but one that they seem to have discovered and are fully committed to following.

Turkey-Erdogan

Three distinct dynamics in Turkey’s 2015 general election outcome:

  • The AKP’s vote share shrank substantially in heavily Kurdish areas in the southeast and urban provinces with sizable Kurdish populations; these votes were transferred almost unanimously to the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). This trend can be largely attributed to the AKP’s perceived disingenuous commitment to Kurdish reconciliation
  • Nationalist conservative voters also abandoned the AKP, mainly in the Anatolian and Black Sea region, voting for the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) instead. That stemmed, at least partly, from concern that the AKP made too many concessions in the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
  • The major opposition party, the Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP), also lost some votes in the 2015 polls, with voters switching to the HDP in left-leaning coastal provinces. Some CHP “tactical voters” likely supported the HDP in an effort to weaken the AKP’s parliamentary majority, as seats gained by unrepresented parties are subsequently allocated to larger parties.

Constituency breakdown suggests the AKP can win back votes and a path back to power:

  • Former-AKP Kurdish voters will be hard to win back, as the HDP—the first Kurdish party to officially run as a party—now enjoys broad support in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority areas, including major cities. While polls suggest the HDP will lose some support, mostly from CHP tactical voters or liberal Turks who view it as being too close to the PKK, the HDP is unlikely to fall below the 10 percent threshold. Though Turkey’s Kurds are not monolithic—comprised of, among other groups, religious Kurds who previously voted AKP and might not share the PKK’s objectives, and Kurds sympathetic to the PKK who view HDP as being too conciliatory to the Turkish government—left with few other options, all are likely to rally around the HDP. As such, Turkey’s snap election could see even higher Kurdish turnout and the party could lose only a small margin of seats. With the HDP likely to stay above the threshold, this will reduce the amount of seats allocated to the AKP.
  • The CHP and AKP—staunchly opposing parties—had no overlapping constituency and therefore lost very few votes to each other. While an AKP-CHP coalition did not materialize, ostensibly pursuing it was either an AKP delaying tactic or an attempt to bolster the CHP’s relevance in order to dissuade future tactical voting for the HDP and thereby weaken it.
  • The AKP’s most viable and pragmatic option is to pursue, unrepentantly, nationalist voters who switched to the MHP ahead of the snap election.

What has transpired since the election suggests that Erdoğan, determined to maintain power, is adopting precisely this strategy, gambling that a divisive, crisis-driven nationalist strategy will win back enough votes from the MHP in the snap election:

  • Although negotiations have patently failed, the AKP has maintained the façade of coalition-building, particularly with its staunch rival, the CHP. This move could be seen as a delaying tactic in order to maintain its image of being committed to the post-election process and perhaps to burnish the reputation of the CHP in an effort to reduce the number of tactical CHP voters selecting the HDP, and push the party below the 10 percent threshold.
  • Erdoğan and the AKP have begun to pursue nationalist voters who switched to the MHP. In addition to joining the U.S.-led coalition against the extremist group ISIS, Turkey’s AKP has begun airstrikes against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)—with whom it had been conducting peace talks for the last two years—and launched a smear campaign against the HDP linking it to the PKK. As MHP voters are strongly opposed to a Kurdish peace process, the resulting sense of crisis and danger to the Turkish state appeals to nationalist voters, allowing Erdoğan to cast himself as the strong leader the country needs at this critical moment.

Our analysis of voting patterns in Turkey’s 2015 general election, coupled with recent polling, suggests that this strategy could very well prove successful: the AKP appears poised to regain its parliamentary majority, albeit by a very small margin.

Predicted 2015 Snap Election Results

Party2015 Election Vote SharePredicted Snap Election Vote Gain/Loss2015 Election Seat SharePredicted Snap Election Seat Share
AKP40.87%+4-5%258~283-289
CHP24.95%+1-2%132~137-143
MHP16.29%-3-4%80~60-65
HDP13.12%-1%80~70-74
Number of Seats to Secure Parliamentary Majority: 276

KEYWORDS: TURKEY, TAYYIP ERDOGAN, ISIS, AKP, CHP, KURDS, PKK, HDP, MHP

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Middle East