[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers’ comments]
Political parties have just declared their candidates for the upcoming general elections. Thus we had a chance to get a sense of how the new Turkish Parliament will be. Let me look at them one by one.
But first a reminder: In the West, candidates of a political party are often elected by the local branches of that party. In other words, the system works from bottom up. In Turkey, it is almost the reverse: Candidates are elected by the “central committee” of the party, which is often dominated by none other than the leader.
This “patrimonial” tradition (to speak in Weberian terms) has not changed in this campaign: It actually got worse. In other words, it was not the ruling or main opposition party organizations that elected the deputies of these parties: It was their leaders. So we should speak of “Erdoğan’s candidates” and “Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidates.”
This “leader domination” is constantly criticized in the Turkish media, and I often agree with those criticisms. But I also note that what matters most here is political culture, rather than laws and regulations about the political system. In other words, what makes party leaders that strong is the society’s attitude of regarding them so definitive. When you ask, “Who will you vote for?” most will say “I will vote for Erdoğan,” or “I will vote for Kılıçdaroğlu.” When leaders matter so much in people’s minds, they naturally matter so much on the ground as well.
No wonder this election campaign seems to have given those two top leaders a chance to consolidate their power. Erdoğan has already been very strong in the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, but now word has it that some of the 164 current deputies that he excluded from the lists include the ones whose “loyalty” he suspected. What will then emerge, probably, is an AKP whose obedience to Erdoğan is further secured.
Erdoğan, in fact, seems to be planning to leave Parliament at some point, after the end of Abdullah Gül’s presidency, and get elected as the next president of Turkey. Moreover, he apparently wants to change the whole political system into a “presidential system,” and crown himself with more powers. Add to that a “loyal” AKP majority in Parliament, and you will get a sense of Erdoğan’s vision for the future: He doesn’t plan to become a “lame duck” at all.
Meanwhile, Kılıçdaroğlu seems to have accomplished an even greater redesigning in this own party. Many prominent names within the main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, including the all-powerful and all-sinister Secretary-General Önder Sav, have been surprisingly excluded. Personally, I can only be happy with the elimination of those names, most of whom are dogmatic Kemalists. But Kılıçdaroğlu’s “change” seems to be matter of cadre rather than ideology, because some of the new names, including three suspects in the Ergenekon case, are dogmatic Kemalists as well. No wonder people speak of the “purge of the Sav team” or the “purge of the Baykal team,” but less so about a change of vision within the main opposition party.
However, Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership in the CHP will be truly secured only if he shows considerable success on June 12, when the elections will be held. Nobody expects the CHP to defeat the AKP, but if the party can’t make a considerable leap forward by getting something close to 30 percent of the votes, Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership might be challenged.
Turks, Kurds and Islamists
Among the other major parties, the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, seems to be the least inspiring one. They have some new names from the old center right, but they really do not have much of a promise other than keeping “Turkishness” intact. I guess they will pass the 10 percent threshold, but only barely, and form a smaller group in Parliament then what they have now.
The fourth major political force, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy, or BDP, is perhaps the most creative and vibrant. They have shown some “independent” candidates (independent because of the election threshold) that are not coming from their own political line. That is certainly good news, as is the apparent lack of “leader domination” in this party. But the latter comes, in my view, not because of a true democratic mindset, but because that the true (and absolute) leader of the party, Abdullah Öcalan, is in jail for life for the terrorist crimes he orchestrated.
In other words, the true test for “democracy within” for the BDP will be whether they can distance themselves from Öcalan and denounce the violence that the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, still occasionally uses. Only then, their recent calls for “civil disobedience,” which I find reasonable, will be more legitimate.
Here is a final note: One of the less promising parties in this race is the People’s Voice Party, or HAS, led by Numan Kurtulmuş. This new movement is a bit more Islamic-minded than the AKP, and is quite pro-Palestinian. Yet they have shown a member of Turkey’s Jewish community, Lina Gaon, as one of their candidates in İzmir. This is certainly a good and commendable step, which might help overcome the anti-Semitic biases within the Islamic camp. Congratulations.