While Turkey's parliament recently passed a raft of ambitious reforms with disarming determination aimed at European Union membership, the run-up to the November 3rd elections is advancing along some well-tread lines, with the country's secular establishment mindful of divisions among the left and a rising conservative party with suspected Islamist links.
Kemal Dervis, who was brought in last year from the World Bank to oversee the country's economic recovery as economy minister, was heralded by many as a rare newcomer in Turkish politics, a realm dominated by party leaders that are loath to relinquish power. A self-professed social democrat, Dervis was courted by several parties over the last several weeks before throwing his lot in with the Republican People's Party (CHP), the country's oldest party on the left and the only one thought able to pose a challenge to the conservative Development and Justice Party (AKP), led by the charismatic former mayor of Istanbul Tayyip Erdogan.
While it is difficult to gauge with confidence the outcome of the elections, as parties often commission their own polls, a recent poll by Deutsche Bank of 2400 potential voters in July indicates that the AKP is the party to beat, garnering 19% support among participants. With the exception of a nationalist bloc, no other party polled 10% of the vote, the minimum required to enter Parliament. However, the CHP, which failed to enter Parliament in the 1999 elections, is increasingly challenging the AKP.
Confusion and swordplay on the fractious left is likely to split the vote. Dervis had been flirting with the New Turkey Party (YTP), which was formed by Ismail Cem after he helped lead a mass exodus from Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's Democratic Left Party (DSP). Dervis seemed close to joining the party, which is led by a clutch of western oriented elite intent on EU membership, but was turned off when Cem reportedly refused a possible alliance with other parties under a broad social democratic banner.
According to Gurcan Kocan of Bilkent University’s Politics Department, the split on the left will only hurt the CHP if it does particularly badly. Even if the CHP does not come out on top in the polls, if the CHP can garner a good share of the left's traditional 30% draw of votes, its representation in parliament could significantly increase. Parties that secure the top two numbers of votes in a district benefit, according to the vagaries of the country's system of proportional representation for seats, from the votes of parties unable to clear the 10% hurdle, adding to their political girth.
The CHP will also have a broader base of appeal than in past elections, as the addition of Dervis will add the appeal of the urban elite to a party that already has a strong following among traditional leftists and in Turkey’s Anatolian heartland – where populist support is key for victory. The YTP, in contrast, has a strong urban appeal compared to its Anatolian base.
As if to add another knock in the AKP's election gauntlet, Erdogan is being investigated for violating a ban on politics, which, if he is found guilty of having contravened, could leave him out of the election. A great deal of Erdogan's appeal is based on his image as fresh and untainted by the intrigues that surround players in a political scene often beset by scandal and divisiveness. Both Ecevit and Deniz Baykal, the current head of the CHP, were ousted from government in the purge of the 1980 military putsch. The disunity among the left could be explained in part by the contentious past of some of its major players, including Cem and Baykal, who once vied for its leadership.
So what are the prospects of an alliance on the left?
Turkey's embedded culture of hero worship often produces charismatic figures incidental to the party they represent. "They are thirsty for power. It is almost impossible to have an alliance, and if they do build an alliance, they are likely to split after entering Parliament," says Kocan. "Every one wants to be the party leader." This has also led to frustrations, he says, and calls for fresh faces, which is the appeal of candidates like Erdogan and Dervis, who cut stark figures against party leaders who often run their parties with an iron fist.
Another possibility is a coalition between a second-place CHP and AKP, which will be closely watched by an influential military wary of Erdogan's claim that his party has shed the Islamist cloak of its predecessors. Impossible, some might say, but then again the current coalition of the left-leaning DSP and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), once at each other's throats, also seemed an impossibility. The meteoric rise of the MHP, which was barely edged out by the DSP for the most votes, was the other great surprise of the 1999 elections. It remains to be seen whether the left can harry conventional wisdom to form an unlikely alliance come November.